Monday, August 24, 2015

When Jesus Offends (A sermon from John 6:56-69)

Many folks, I think, regard Jesus as a huge success. Certainly Jesus attracted crowds. He healed people and there were those who were drawn to his teaching as well. But here in our Gospel story today Jesus says some things that result in many of his followers turning away.

Jesus does not appear at all surprised by the loss. This is hard for those of us who buy into the notion that success must inevitably move us toward the bigger and better. As Americans we are so oriented toward material and numerical expansion that it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus teaching in such a way where his intent is to sift and filter out people.

From the opening episode where Jesus feeds the multitude and then refuses to be king on their terms, there is a developing blindness and antagonism toward Jesus. Now this closed heartedness and antagonism spreads to and infects the group of disciples that have been following him.

Jesus invites them to eat his flesh and drink his blood so they might enter into life. He is speaking symbolically and metaphorically of course. He is inviting them to appropriate the grace and truth he himself embodied so that they too will experience the kind of life Jesus experienced.  

Next we read, “When many of his disciples heard it [it’s not just the crowd now; John is talking about people who had been following him on some level – there are degrees and levels of discipleship], they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” This was offensive to them and they began “complaining” or “grumbling,” which recalls the complaining and grumbling of Israel in the desert when they became weary of the manna day after day.  

In response Jesus says, “Then what if you were to see [ to see has rich spiritual meaning in this Gospel] the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” The reference here is to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Death and resurrection is the pattern for all spiritual growth and development. In John 12 John’s Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” This does not apply only to Jesus, but to all his disciples. Jesus goes on to say, “Those who love their life [in this world], lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Dying to ego, dying to the little self, dying to our personal and group idolatries is absolutely necessary in order to experience spiritual life and learn how to love the way Jesus loved.   

Next John’s Jesus says: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe [that is, you do not trust me].”

Here there is a play on the word “flesh.” In John’s Gospel words often have multiple meanings. This word “flesh” has three different meanings in John 6. Earlier Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” In that context “flesh” represents the total life of Jesus given for the world, a self-giving that would end in death. Next, Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and he says that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. In that context Jesus is speaking figuratively about sharing in the foundational stuff that sustains a spiritual life. But in the text today  Jesus says,  “the flesh counts for nothing.” In this context he is not talking about his life that is given up in death.  He is not talking about abiding in his grace and truth. Rather, in this context he is using the word in a negative sense, much the way Paul uses this word when he writes about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit promotes life and love. The flesh, when juxtaposed to Spirit, is the anti-life force that resists and opposes God’s life and love.   

Jesus seems to be saying in this text that those who are taking offense at his words of life are operating in the power of the flesh. That is, they are operating under the influence of this anti-life force, and thus they are not prepared to continue with him and be faithful to him.

It really comes down to the assumptions these disciples have about Jesus and what they are expecting from Jesus. And it’s the same for us today. So much of what we do or do not do can be traced to the assumptions and expectations we have.

Dr. Fred Craddock was for a brief time dean at Phillips Seminary. While acting as dean a woman from the community came to see him. She asked him to come out to the parking lot. This made him a little nervous, but he went. She opened the back door of her automobile, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma, but had been in a bad car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources were exhausted. She opened the door and said, “I would like for you to heal him.” Can you imagine?

Dr. Craddock said, “Well, I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing.” She got behind the wheel and said to him, “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. It made for a difficult afternoon. When Dr. Craddock went back into his office he couldn’t get that question out of his mind, “Then what in the world do you do?”

I suspect that there are those who come to Jesus on the basis of assumptions and reasons that simply are not sufficient to keep one going when, in due course, the shallowness and superficiality of these assumptions are exposed.

Some come to Jesus out of fear. Fear that God is going to push the smite button and smite them if they don’t believe or confess certain things or join the church or promise to be more religious (whatever that may mean). But then at some point they may begin to realize that Jesus does not want us to be afraid of God but to love God with the totality of our being and that is much more difficult. It’s much easier to be afraid of God than to really love God.

Others come to Jesus wanting to be healed, just the way so many were drawn to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. They come out of their emptiness and pain and brokenness expecting Jesus to fill a void and heal their wounded souls. Nothing wrong with that at all. But then at some point along the way they realize that they cannot really know and be sustained by the healing power of Christ unless they are willing to become channels for Christ’s healing power to flow to others. At some point they realize that the spiritual life is not just about receiving; it’s about giving and receiving. It’s mutual and reciprocal.

In other words, at some point in our lives as disciples we come to realize that Jesus is not here to just cater to our needs, but to enlist us in a cause that is greater than our little selves. Then we have to decide if we are willing to invest in that larger cause. Discipleship to Jesus involves a life of participation in a greater story that calls us to struggle with principalities and powers, which is more than just dealing with our own sins and addictions. Certainly, discipleship means we have to deal with our personal stuff, but it also means confronting systems and structures of injustice that dominate our culture. It means facing principalities and powers that pervade our economic, political, social, and even religious landscape. This is the kind of thing Paul is talking about in the passage we read earlier from Ephesians 6.

One morning last week I went into the kitchen to fix myself a piece of toast for breakfast – some mornings I have a piece of toast with my boiled egg – though I admit it is tost layered in apple butter. I opened the pantry door and looked in the basket where we keep the bread and it wasn’t there. No bread. So I looked around in the pantry. Couldn’t find it. I opened the cabinet where we keep the cereal. It wasn’t there. So I did what many people do. I blamed someone. I’m thinking, “Ok, where did Melissa stick the bread.”

Well, I cracked my egg and peeled off the shell and then glanced back into the pantry. Guess what? There was the bread. Guess where it was? In the basket where it was supposed to be.

Now, you know the question I am going to ask don’t you? How did I miss it? How was it possible that I was looking right at it and did not see it? Honestly, I don’t know.

The same can be said of spiritual awareness. Why is it we can’t see what is right in front of us? The Spirit of God, of Christ is always with us – among us and in us, and the Spirit expresses the Divine Self and will in any number of diverse ways – not just in our own faith tradition by the way. We have no corner on truth. The living Word is constantly seeking to make itself/himself/herself known (the Divine has no gender). Why are we so unaware? Why can’t we see?

Some Christians never even come to the point where they are faced with a decision of staying or leaving because they have never questioned their assumptions or struggled with their faith beyond a superficial level. There is a lot of Christianity in our world that is about a mile long and about an inch deep. There’s not much to it really. It’s doctrine based or feeling based or ritual based. It’s focus is on private salvation – either in the afterlife or personal success in this life. It’s been Americanized and domesticated. There is no descending and ascending to it, there is no death to ego or the little self, there is no engagement in the larger story which is about the justice and peace issues of our time.  It generally remains on the level of one’s personal happiness. These Christians never see what the real issues really are. They can be right in front of them, but they do not see.

When spiritual masters like Thomas Keating teach centering prayer, or Thomas Merton writes about the true self, or when Christian mystics (and mystics of other faith traditions as well) teach meditation and other spiritual disciplines and practices they are not teaching us these things so that we can feel worthy or earn favor with God or be more righteous than others. They are simply showing us how to open ourselves up to the Divine. They are showing us how to be humble, honest, receptive, and aware. They are trying to help us see what really is. They are giving us the tools to help us see.

And frankly, many Christians have no interest in seeing what really is. To see what really is requires a kind of openness, humility, and honesty that many avoid. To see what really is demands a readiness to relearn things we have been taught and a willingness to explore new horizons of truth. And many people, like those in our Gospel text are not willing to make that journey.

For spiritual growth to occur there is always a descending and ascending, there is always death and resurrection, there is always a letting go. In order to journey to a new place we always have to leave something behind.

Some of us are simply not willing to leave behind our Sunday School version of God. It’s interesting really. Some of us are quite ready to accept evolution and development in other areas of life – in science, sociology, psychology, anthropology and other branches of learning. We adjust and even welcome new advances in technology and medicine, but we still want our old time religion. We get stuck and we can’t see what is right in front of us.

I heard about a little girl who was present one day when all the Christian ministers of their denomination had gathered at their church for a special meeting. She noticed that there were no women in the group of ministers. She asked her mother about it and her mother simply said without any explanation, “We don’t have women ministers in our church.” The little girl asked, “Then why do we go here?” Great question.

When the invitation is given to eat new bread from heaven there are many who simply  close their minds and hearts and cling to the manna of yesteryear.

After most everyone else had left and turned away, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Do you wish to go away? Do you want to leave too?” They say, “Lord, to whom can we go? We trust you. We are committed to you. You have the words that sustain and nurture divine life. God speaks to us through you. Where else would we go?” 

What will we do? Do we dare open our eyes to see what the real issues of life and death are? Or are we content to stumble along with the same old assumptions unwilling to risk anything? Are we willing to follow Jesus into uncharted waters? Do we want to become more than what we are now?


Our good God, I pray that we will face our fears and grow increasingly discontent with any version of faith that keeps us focused on our own personal agenda and interests and that prevents us from seeing the larger issues of justice and peace in our world. I pray that we would be willing to let some things go, that we would be willing to die to our ego, so that we will be able to see what is real and true and good and be part of what you want to do to redeem and heal and bring peace to our world. Amen.

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