My pastor required a substitute this weekend, and I was honored to be asked to preach on John 6:51-69:
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” That is how many of Jesus’ disciples reacted to his words in this morning’s Gospel lesson. They were offended by it. They grumbled about it and disputed among themselves. And his message has grown no less offensive in the past 2000 years.
For the past few Sundays, our Gospel readings have been going over the circumstances of this discourse of Jesus. It began when large crowds started following Jesus to hear him teach. And when that crowd of over 5000 found themselves too far out of town to feed themselves, Jesus had compassion on them and miraculously fed them all from a handful of loaves and fish. Naturally, they were very impressed, but they chose to take away the wrong lesson. So impressed were they with what he did, that they sought to make him a king—turn him into a leader like Moses. What they did not do was give any thought to who he is.
They had their priorities all wrong, but Jesus had compassion on them again and gave them the truth—hard though that truth may been to hear. He told them, “you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And then Jesus turns their attention to what is truly important—to Jesus Himself. “This is the work of God,” he says, “to believe in him whom he has sent.” “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” And from our lesson today: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Greek word for flesh that’s used here, by the way, is not a pleasant word. As the crowd becomes more obstinate, Jesus does not become more mollifying to appease them—he intentionally becomes more brazen in his instruction. Jesus tells them and us point-blank that like the multiplied loaves, we are perishing, and that what we truly need is Jesus Himself.
“This is a hard saying,” his own followers responded. “Who can listen to it?”
They were offended because this man—whose parents they knew—claimed to be from Heaven. They were offended because he claimed that he himself would raise the dead to life on the Last Day. They were offended because he told them that believing in him—this one man over and against anyone or anything else—was more important than both their bellies and their dreams of another leader like Moses. Indeed, in the verses that precede today’s reading, he blatantly told them that he was superior to Moses: Jesus said, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die.” Ironically, when they sought to make Jesus a king, they sought to make him less than he is.
Little has changed since these words were first spoken. The same words offend our own ears today. Our own crowds are also fine with Jesus being a great teacher. Everyone wants him on their side when it comes to their causes, their politics, their opinions… Everyone likes to pick out a few favorite sayings of his here and there and go merrily on their way refusing to listen to what he said about himself.
But what kind of great teacher says that he came down from Heaven, and that he’ll resurrect the dead at the end of the world? What kind of great teacher doesn’t claim to merely know the way to eternal life but to actually be the way to eternal life? What kind of great teacher teaches that the most essential thing is believing in that teacher? What kind of teacher repeatedly claims God’s prerogatives for himself and indeed claims to actually be God?
The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis put it well. He wrote, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a mad man or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Jesus’ crowds knew this, and so many of them left because they would not fall at his feet.
But it’s not just “those people” who are offended by Christ. We Christians often are as well, and you can see it in the way we try to clean him up or make him presentable before sharing him with others—or even before we’ll deign to believe in him ourselves. So we try in various ways to cover up the offense in attempts to make him more palatable to ourselves and others.
Some try cover it up with spectacle. A few months ago, I read about a pastor in Ohio who decided to start riding bulls in the middle of his Sunday services to entertain visitors. He thought that if he milked this idea enough, he could steer the crowds into his building where they would be moo-ved by the Spirit. And the crowds really love it, from what I read—at least until the novelty starts wearing off. This is an extreme case, to be sure, but that same impulse is always there—to think that everyone will more readily accept Jesus if only we can surround him with the right entertainment, the right music, the right coffee, the right community…
…or the right teachings. Sometimes we try to reduce the offense by actively shaving off Jesus’ rough edges. We try to forget that Jesus taught that the Bible is true down to the smallest detail—especially that he affirmed what modernists consider the really embarrassing parts like Noah’s flood and Jonah’s fish. We pretend that he had nothing to say about the really popular or fashionable sins today—try to make Him unoffensive by teaching the affirmation of whichever sins we can pass off as lifestyles. We think we can make him more compassionate or inclusive by teaching that he wasn’t really claiming to be the only way to salvation all those times he claimed to be the only way to salvation.
Still other times, we try to pad those rough edges with warm and fuzzy sentiments by teaching things that Jesus never taught. Sometimes we say that Christianity is a relationship rather than a religion—as though we’re supposed to be ashamed of being openly religious. We talk a great deal about having intimate personal encounters with God in our own feelings rather than talking about those things that God actually said to us 2000 years ago in Palestine when he became one of us. And instead of listening to those words, we frequently take the inclinations of our own sinful hearts and pretend they come from him.
There’s really no end to our ability to try and make a better Jesus—one who is more evolved, or relevant, or exciting, or whatever happens to be appealing to the crowds this week. Whereas Jesus was content to offend the crowd and let them walk away rather than giving them any less than what they need, we often prefer pandering.
But whether we pander or are pandered to, it will never be enough. Miraculously feeding thousands of people was impressive enough that they wanted to make Jesus their king by force, but many of Jesus’ disciples still turned back when faced with the scandal of the Cross. As Jesus said, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” referring to his death, Resurrection, and Ascension. And if we do not proclaim those things—proclaim that Cross—then the Church wastes her time, no matter how big our crowds become. We think we can save their souls, but they don’t need us; they need Jesus! The same Jesus that we need.
And we do not need a Jesus that meets our specifications—one who has been adjusted according to our own exacting standards. We need the real Jesus—the one who drove the crowds away because he would not give them anything less than Himself. We need the Jesus who is God Himself in the flesh. We need the Jesus who said he was the only way to salvation because he is the only way to salvation. We need the Jesus who, rather than becoming a great social reformer, died as an eternal ransom for our sins. We need the Jesus who doesn’t tiptoe around our own helplessness—believing in Him is the only work we do for God, and as He says in today’s reading, even that is out of our league unless granted by the Father. Our faith doesn’t come from ourselves, it is a gift of God.
And so when the world tempts us to ponder whether we want to go away from the one with such a hard teaching, we respond as Peter did: “To whom shall we go?” We don’t go wherever the crowds happen to be or to whatever’s fashionable at the moment—both crowds & their demagogues need saving themselves, and passing fads can never offer anything eternal. We don’t go to great moral teachers, for they can never make us moral enough for God. We certainly don’t go to ourselves, as though our own shallow understandings can somehow improve upon the words of the Bread of Life.
No, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life, and so we go to where he himself promised to be: We go to where we can hear those words proclaimed and to where the actual flesh and blood given for the life of the world are offered to us to eat and drink.
We have nowhere else to go. In this morning’s epistle, Paul writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things” (referring the sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, and idolatry he just finished writing about before today’s reading began) “because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Apart from Christ, darkness is where all of us are, and those who love their sin too much to be forgiven of it—those who find forgiveness too confining, restrictive, or offensive—that’s where they remain. And so, Paul also says, “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil.” There is only one thing that is needful, so let us be sure we aren’t walking away from Him.
We have nowhere else to go, but we need nowhere else to go because Jesus doesn’t need to be cleaned up. God is already more loving and compassionate than we could ever make him; he took on the wrath we deserve in our stead, giving his only Son to die for us. Christ is already closer to us that we can ever make him—he took on humanity and became one of us, and in Baptism, we became one with him. His death became our death and his Resurrection becomes our resurrection so that the eternal life of God becomes our own eternal life. And this Gospel message of Christ’s is already more inclusive than we can ever make it. For inasmuch as the Law is universal—for we have all sinned and fallen short—the Gospel is just as universal. That means every last sin is paid for by the blood of Christ. And that means every last one of our sins is paid for by the blood of Christ.
May this peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.