Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 26, 2012

2012.08.26Will You Go or Will You Stay? John 6: 56 – 69

Central United Methodist Church

Will You Go or Will You Stay?

Pastor David L. Haley

John 6: 56 – 69

August 26, 2012

 

“By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always.”

He said these things while teaching in the meeting place in Capernaum.

          Many among his disciples heard this and said, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”

Jesus sensed that his disciples were having a hard time with this and said, “Does this throw you completely? What would happen if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where he came from? The Spirit can make life. Sheer muscle and willpower don’t make anything happen. Every word I’ve spoken to you is a Spirit-word, and so it is life-making. But some of you are resisting, refusing to have any part in this.” (Jesus knew from the start that some weren’t going to risk themselves with him. He knew also who would betray him.) He went on to say, “This is why I told you earlier that no one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”

After this a lot of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him. Then Jesus gave the Twelve their chance: “Do you also want to leave?”

Peter replied, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

– John 6: 56 – 69, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

        These are confusing times to be a Christian. Despite our good intentions, all of us who own the name Christian, whether we like it or not, get grouped together with Christians who talk and act extreme.

This week’s example of extremity was made by Rep. Todd Akin, U.S. congressman from Missouri, now running for the Senate.  In an interview broadcast last Sunday, in which he was explaining his no-exception policy on abortion, Akin was asked why he opposed abortion even when the pregnancy is the result of rape:

“First of all,” he said, “from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV. “If it’s a legitimate rate, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

After the firestorm his comments ignited, and after being criticized by almost (but not) everybody, male and female, Democrats and Republicans, Akin apologized, but refused to leave the race. As the Facebook website Men for Women’s Equality posted, in such cases the female body does have a way to shut that whole thing down, it is this: Vote picture

What was not so prominent in the news reports is that Todd Akin is a conservative Christian, a 1984 graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, a conservative Presbyterian Seminary in St. Louis. Too bad he didn’t study Basic Health in addition to Greek and Hebrew and theology.

Whenever people of unquestionable faith make statements like that which get echoed in the media, it only adds to the belief already rooted in the minds of many, especially the young – that Christians are hateful, ignorant bigots, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-science. Unfortunately, we can’t blame the media as the messenger, because too often it is true.

What’s bad for all of us who call ourselves Christian is that polls show a rapidly increasing number of people who want nothing to do with it. The category of those who claim “No Faith” is the fastest growing segment of the religious census, rising to 20% of the population in polls.

Occasionally, even some people of faith reach a point where, in all honesty, they can’t take it any more. The New York Times ran a story this week about former Louisiana preacher Jerry DeWitt. One night in 2011, in response to a phone call asking for prayer for someone in a bad motorcycle crash, he realized that he could do this no longer, which left him in tears. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure web site. DeWitt begin emailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Who knew? (“From Bible Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader,” by Robert F. Worth, The New York Times, August 22, 2012)

Apart from the extremists, the cynical, and the apostate, where does that leave us, pastors in pulpits and people sitting in pews in churches across the country, good Christians all? Do we want to leave too? Lord knows, we all have our days. As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “Any day now, I expect to get my letter kicking me out of Christianity.”

It is such questions and issues raised in this morning’s Gospel, the fifth and final Sunday in Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John, chapter 6. In this passage, extreme statements are made, disciples decide they can’t follow anymore, and Jesus turns to the faithful few left: “What about you: will you stay or will you go?” From time to time, it is a question we all must ask.

In today’s reading are allusions to many of the themes that have recurred through the chapter: Jesus as the Bread of Heaven who offers eternal life; his body and blood as the Eucharistic meal; and how we abide in him by eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What a little girl once said after hearing such words is what his followers said then and what we might still say today: “Yuck!” I refer you those of you who were not here last week to my sermon last Sunday (available online), which pointed out some of the reasons we hear these words with such difficulty, even as they heard them when Jesus first spoke them. Which is what happens when we take them literally, rather than metaphorically, even mystically, as I believe John intended.

Then, as now, it was a hard saying, too hard for some, and the text says many of Jesus’ disciples turned away after that. How many? Well, it seems almost all, because when Jesus turns to those who are left: it’s only the twelve. Let’s say Jesus had 120 disciples, with 12 left, that would be a 90% dropout rate. What District Superintendent would stand for that? For sure, Jesus would get sent off for mandatory Continuing Education before his next appointment, if there was another appointment.

This was not the first “hard saying of Jesus,” nor would it be the last. Such hard sayings and words remind us how strange – even counter-cultural – the message of Jesus really is. The more we understand the faith to which Jesus calls us – not only to consume his body and drink his blood – but to embrace his manner of living and dying for others, even his death and resurrection, the harder and more difficult our journey of faith becomes.

For this reason, we should not assume the worst about those who gave up on Jesus, that they were too stupid or lazy or unfaithful to follow over the long haul. Those who deserted him were the same ones who had followed him, giving up much to do so. But they grew tired, and could no longer remember what it was about Jesus that attracted them in the first place. And so they left.

Are we really that different? Who of us has not at some time or another wondered whether we have believed in vain? During the sleepless hours of the night; at the hospital, praying for someone we love; on a dark day like 911, as we watched bodies fall from the sky?

At such times we may wonder whether the promises we have trusted were empty and our faith misplaced. We may not renounce or desert the Lord openly or call up the Clergy Project, we just don’t make that extra effort anymore to get to church regularly, we reduce what we’ve been giving, we become more reluctant to help others, or maybe worst of all, we stop praying. Until, in the end, without actually leaving, we become like those disciples who left.

At other times, we may be tempted to leave by the extreme beliefs and actions of others who also call themselves Christians, whom we may consider eccentrics, crackpots, and extremists.  While there are many sympathetic, compassionate, intelligent companions with us on our journey, are you troubled – as I am -by the ignorance and hate rampant among many who call themselves Christian? Whether it is the belief that the world was created 7,000 years ago and that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs, resistance to the fact of global warming, or their attitudes towards women and gay people? I mean, seriously, are these people we want to be linked with in the name of Christ?

Given these things, shall we stay or shall we go? What Jesus asked of those few disciples who remained, is what he also asks of us. Given his hard sayings, given the difficulty of what we’re asked to believe, given the ideas and actions of some of our Christian brothers and sisters, why do we stay?

Because, while today’s gospel portrays disbelief, disillusionment, and despair, it also portrays faith, confidence, and hope. These are reflected in the answer Peter gave to Jesus: “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68) Although it’s not clear whether Peter said this with an expression of despair or affirmation, we understand what he means. Despite its difficulties and hardness, we choose faith, because in it we find life and hope. It may even be, as the riddle found on a medieval manuscript asks: “How is the Church like Noah’s Ark?” Answer: “If it weren’t for the storm on the outside, we couldn’t stand the stink on the inside.”  And so here we are.

For whatever reason we are Christian, because we were born where we were or because our parents were or because everybody we know is Christian, at some time in our lives every one of us who confesses the name Christian needs to choose and own it. Even if that means going on a search and learning about other religions, even “trying them on,” to see if they fit us better, makes more sense, or give us our weekends free. At the very least, you’ll learn more about religion and your faith; at best, you’ll learn why you choose to follow Jesus. Then, whatever happens, you will not go, but you will stay.

Ultimately, this is what binds us together, nothing other than our common choice to follow Christ. It is not that we look alike, think alike, or act alike, indeed we prize our diversity and particularity, as the way God made us. Despite our differences, what binds us into a community of faith is our common desire to follow Jesus.

According to Christians through the centuries, this is also what makes being here at church so vital and important, perhaps being the difference between those who go and those who stay. Because here, every week, through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Table, we are offered the Word of eternal life, the Bread of Heaven, manna for us who wander in the wilderness. After we have tasted the Bread of Life, can we settle for anything else?

Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Bethany Theological Seminary, in Richmond, Indiana. Dawn says that when her grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, she had high hopes for her children’s prosperity in the land of plenty. Yet when she would go to the supermarket, she would point to the loaves of bread on the shelves and ask, “Why do people eat-a these things? They have-a no taste?” She used to say that life was too short to eat anything but good bread, to drink anything but good wine. “Little wonder,” says Dawn, “that we spent nearly every Saturday afternoon of my childhood making our own bread, pizza, and pasta for our family.” Because why settle for bread that is not bread, for life that is not life? (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 385)

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of real life,  eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”  Amen.

 

 

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