I cannot begin to tell you how much I love today's scripture passage.
Chris Haslam, who writes excellent online commentaries on lectionary texts, lines the situation out pretty well, I think. Jesus has done three offensive things before breakfast, as it were. When Jesus calls himself the "bread of life," he identifies himself with God. He says, after all, that "the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." So if he is the bread of life, he must have come down from heaven and be also therefore the bread of God. That's sacrilege.
To suggest feeding on human flesh and blood was as disgusting in Jesus' day as it is in our own.
And to say that Jesus can give life assigns to him a job that belongs to God and God alone.
The wonder in this story isn't that the crowds deserted him; it's that anyone stayed at all. If I tried to tell you that I was God's only Son, or that you could find eternal life by eating my body and drinking my blood, you'd laugh me out of the pulpit. Either that, or you'd take me up on the offer, and nobody wants that. Nobody!
So, not surprisingly, many of Jesus' followers walk. They can't hang with this. He turns to his inner circle and wants to know if they'll do the same. Again, Chris Haslam says it well: "If what I just said gives you trouble," Jesus tells the twelve disciples, "The Ascension is really going to blow your mind."
So how about it: are you going to cool it, or are you going to blow?
Peter's response is the part I just love about this text:
"Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
This is so honest, so direct. You can almost smell the desperation coming up off the page. Lord, we are up the crick without a paddle without you. What else are we going to do? It reminds me of a story just a few chapters down the line in John. Jesus announces that he's going back to Judea, where people tried to stone him the last time he showed up. Thomas says to the other disciples, "Let's go with him, so we can die with him." You can almost see Thomas and Peter's heads hanging down when they speak. They are resigned to their fate.
I like Peter's response for three reasons.
First, it reflects the human situation perfectly. We come to Jesus so often because we have nowhere else to go, nobody else to turn to. I may or may not have shared with you how I came to faith. I was a mess, to put it bluntly. I smoked too much, I drank too much, I broke up with my girlfriend, I lost my job, I had no idea where I was going in life or what I wanted to do when I got there. And in the midst of that mess, on a whim, I went to a church that firmly welcomed and validated me, even as imperfect as I was. That was enough.
Perhaps you have stories like mine. We all know what it's like to fail and need some help to get ourselves out of a jam. More generally, most people begin to develop faith when they are weak, not when they're strong. We start to ask why questions when we are presented with some grief or illness or death. Those same events cause us to consider our priorities, what's important in our lives, what's not. I read once that people who have not been religiously active and then go on to join a church often do so within six months of a major life change: moving, retiring, a job change, a divorce, a death, having kids or seeing the kids move out of the house. Some of those changes are mostly pleasant developments, of course, but they also often come mixed with some loss, some grief. And even when they are only happy occasions, they sometimes prompt people to wonder what it's all about.
Many people these days are happy to rummage about in two or three different faiths, even more, before they finally settle on one they can abide by. Christians will cycle through different congregations or different denominations. The point is, the Christian faith is always in the last place you look for it, as they say. The gospel is so demanding that even those of us who remain in the community we grew up in only really embrace the faith when we've scratched off the other options available to us.
Faith for most of us develops haltingly, a little at a time, which is my second point. Peter doesn't tell Jesus that he and his friends are down on the bread of life message already. He says, "We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." That is, we know enough about you to trust you…but we're not there yet.
They won't be, of course, until after Easter, which is to say after Jesus' death on the cross and his being raised on the third day. It's not until he breathes the Holy Spirit on them and shows himself to Thomas that they can fully understand and trust him. John consistently understands Jesus, the word of God, to confront the world, to be misunderstood and unappreciated. It takes disciples a long time to fully appreciate the love of God in Christ Jesus. The outsiders, the non-believers, the people who walk away from Jesus when he refuses to show them a cheap sign to prove his authenticity—they never do get it.
But for us? For us, it can take a lifetime of study, prayer, and self-reflection. We come to believe and know that Jesus is the Holy One of God…and then what? It takes a long time for the reality of that belief to sink in, for us to understand what it means and what it demands of us. This deepening of our faith doesn't happen unless we work on it intentionally. So: keep pushing, all of you. There is yet more to learn and to grow into. Or as they say on the Congregationalist side of the UCC, "God has yet more truth and light to show."
I of course am on the same journey as you. Please don't think I'm speaking down to you from the mountaintop. I too am learning what it means to be a Christian, inch by inch, day by day. I too only come to believe when I have no other choice sometimes.
And that brings us to point number three.
It is exactly in the character of Jesus to accept disciples with conflicted feelings and half-formed faith and belief. Jesus hears from every Christian every day "I believe; help thou my unbelief!" He is perfectly content with Peter's decision to stay with him, even if that decision limps across the finish line with three horseshoes, no rider and a bobbed tail. He more than accepts the half-hearted; he welcomes them. Half a heart can be nursed to health; half a heart can grow again; half a heart can sing and look to the future; half a heart can give—and more importantly, receive—love.
Most important of all, half a heart is weak, and therefore open. Jesus doesn't want your whole heart, doesn't care about getting the whole thing. People are conflicted creatures, which makes capturing the entirety difficult, for one thing. For another, whenever our hearts get full, we have a tendency to get a little proud, a little self-assured. We tend to forget that we need God, and God needs us.
So when we are weak, when we are vulnerable, that's when we are most open to hearing God's call. Opponents of Christianity may say that we take advantage of people at their lowest moment to sell them our faith-based snake oil, but really to have an open heart simply means that when we are weak, we often want a friend, and Jesus is always there to take the call.
Jesus always picks up the phone. He never lets it ring to voicemail, like people do. He is always there to be your BFF, even as he knows you're going to say TTYN.
That's Talk To You Never, and…that's enough of that. You get the point I'm driving at. Jesus is faithful to us, even when we're not faithful to him, and he welcomes us and all our ambivalence into his life. But why? Why stay faithful? Why welcome us when we don't even know if we want to be welcomed?
Because Jesus' heart is open to us, always. Jesus' heart is weak, vulnerable to us, always. Peter could have said, "Yes, Lord, we're out of here," and it would have broken Jesus' heart. But he would have accepted it and found another way to demonstrate God's love.
What I am trying to say, badly, is that Peter's question, "To whom can we go?" is in its own way a far better statement of faith than his declaration "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." It exposes Peter's real vulnerability and so mirrors Jesus' vulnerability to us, the weakness he is forever inviting us into. He is the living bread, the bread of life. He is the one who has the words of eternal life. The primary word of eternal life is love, love without hesitation, love without reservation, love without protection, love without power, love simply because he can, and because we are the weak-kneed, stumble-prone, two-minded halfwits that we are, who want to love others but only if we can be in charge and unhurt while we do it.
In the moment Peter has to admit his weakness, his heart is open to Jesus, and that's what Jesus wants. Go and have all the doubts you want. It is pretty strange to follow a man who calls himself God, who wants you to feed on his flesh and blood. Go and think it's strange and offensive all you want! Jesus doesn't mind. Just: when you've scratched all the other options off your list, and you've got nowhere else to go, be big enough to admit it to him. He'll welcome you anyway, and he will give you eternal life. Amen.
Just a litany today:
In peace and for the peace of the world, let us pray to the Lord.
For those whose memories falter, those whose minds are afflicted, and those whose brains suffer, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For the people of New Orleans and their region, as they continue to recover from Hurricane Katrina and rebuild their lives after many years, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For the brokenhearted, the lonely, and those crushed in spirit, that God hear their cries and offer them peace and comfort, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For those who struggle to commit themselves to the ways of God, for those who try to serve two masters, and for ourselves as we seek to grow in faith and discipleship, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For those who seek freedom from oppression and abuse, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For rains to water crops, extinguish fires, and relieve drought, and for the nations of the world that they exercise all wisdom and insight in addressing global climate change, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For those whose bones are broken, those who are ill, whose health falters, for those whose bellies are empty, that they know God's overflowing grace and generosity, and that they be fed with the bread of life, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For the dead and the dying, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
For our church, as it walks through its time of transition, and for the pastor who is even now being prepared to be called to this community, Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, hear our prayer.
Lord hear our prayer, for we pray to you as Christ has taught us, saying:
The Lord's Prayer
Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.
I covered for a vacationing colleague this past week, going to see a family whose father was reaching the end of his life. I knew he didn't have very long, but I figured he'd linger for another day or two, and by the time the funeral was scheduled, my colleague would be back. Wrong. He died the day after his 90th birhday, an hour and a half after I visited and offered prayer for him. When I say "go in peace," it's not an order!
Anyway, the family was kind enough to ask me to preside at the funeral. They're great folks, so it was an honor. Below is the "faith" part of the sermon.
I mentioned a minute or two ago that D-- was tolerant in his faith. But you should never make the mistake of thinking that his tolerance meant he himself had no strong faith. He did, even if he wasn't necessarily showy about it. He attended church regularly. Meticulous as ever, he would dress himself up in a suit and tie whenever he went, sometimes taking one of the kids with him. He lived a good life, he was good to the people around him, and he followed God's rules. At the end, he would sometimes exclaim, "O God, take this out of my body."
That is a prayer that many of us could pray at the end of our lives. We could say "O God, take this out of my life" whenever we suffered. It would be a perfectly adequate prayer. Suffer we must sometimes, and eventually die. It was not easy for D-- to lose control of his body, not easy for such a strong man to become weak, not easy for a do-it-yourself man to ask for help. He missed his wife, missed being self-sufficient and in control. Thankfully, the end of his life was quick: he lingered only a few days, and then was gone.
When we mourn the loss of a beloved father, grandfather, and friend like D-- K--, part of what we mourn is the way in which his death punctures the illusion of our own mortality. Don suffered and died, and so will we, sooner or later.
There is no one on earth or in heaven who take that reality away from us. Not God the Father, not his son, Jesus Christ. In place of release from the reality of death, we receive a promise: that
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Death may take us from one another, temporarily, but it can never separate us from God. "In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places," Jesus tells his disciples, "so that where I am, there you may be also." We are invited to live with God, promised that there will always be room for us in God's house and in God's heart.
And for those of us who believe, we are promised that in and through Christ, we will find life. It is no longer we who live, but Christ, and our lives are hidden in his. Death only reveals this to us. It forces us to trust and hope and pray that God does love us, that Christ does care for us, that he will provide and continue our lives even though our eyes tell us that death has taken over.
"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus says. He is the way forward after death, the truth of God's love for Bapa Don all the days of his life on earth and beyond, and the life that will not quit us, even after our deaths. That promise need not be exclusive to show us a reality that is stronger than death: God loves us and wants to be with us, now and always. We must say goodbye to D-- K-- today, wishing him peace and rest and light eternal. We are strong enough to do so only knowing that God keeps his word, for Don and for all of us. Amen.