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Is Jesus too hard to accept, or is Jesus offering abundant life like nothing you’ve ever known?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21 B
Text: John 6:56-69
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Two questions rise above the Gospel today as turning points for all who hear.
Each is paired with a statement. The first begins with a statement of fact: “This teaching is difficult.” Then the question: “Who can accept it?”
The second begins with the question: “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then the statement of fact: “You have the words of eternal life.”
From these two points Jesus’ disciples divide. Those who ask the first question leave. Those who ask the second stay. And they’re all disciples, John says. We’re not hearing the hungry crowds anymore.
We face both these signposts. It’s important we realize this, since when we answer as the first group we don’t do their honest thing and leave. We stick around, acting as if we’re on board with Christ’s path. While inwardly, there are places we won’t let the Spirit lead.
And it isn’t just Jesus’ teachings on flesh and blood that are difficult.
In our path of discipleship, we resist or reject Jesus more than we realize.
Maybe it is this incarnational teaching we’ve focused on for over a month. It isn’t easy to accept that you take in your body the body and blood of God’s Son, and are changed. You can spiritualize Holy Communion all you want, but Jesus will insist on saying it will completely transform you from within.
Maybe Jesus’ insistence on losing your attachment to your possessions is your sticking point. St. Francis may have given away everything and followed, but you’re not so sure. Financial security, protecting your house, voting for things that keep your stock accounts growing, not thinking of those who suffer as a result, maybe this is Jesus’ hard teaching.
It could be sacrificial love. The cross-shaped path Jesus invites you to follow is a challenging path. To let go of your pride in service to another, to genuinely forgive for no reason other than love, to offer yourself, no matter how inconvenient, to help someone, these are hard to accept. We’re conditioned to look out for ourselves.
And what of Jesus’ teaching that all are loved and welcomed in God, all are valuable and precious? Can you look at your innate racism and prejudice (because most of us have it), and let the Spirit really clear that out? Are you ready for Jesus to challenge your inmost assumptions?
This teaching is hard; who can accept it?
Pay attention to this crisis point for so many of Jesus’ disciples, and ask if you feel the same. It doesn’t mean that you don’t find hope and joy somewhere in all of Jesus’ teaching. Those who left had loved Jesus’ teaching enough to become disciples. But when Jesus insists on following completely, as he always does, do you hesitate?
Yes, I’ll give some of my wealth to charity, to my church. But Jesus says, can you lose all your attachment to material things? Yes, I’ll try to be kinder to those who aren’t like me. But Jesus says, can you be honest about your participation in unjust systems that perpetuate racism or sexism, your complicity that makes kindness not seem nearly enough?
Jesus is a hard teacher, no question. It’s all or nothing: all your heart, soul, strength, and mind in love of God. All your life in love to neighbor. All of yourself on Christ’s path. Don’t start to plow, Jesus says, and quit part way.
But wait before despairing. Before you walk, hear Peter today.
He asks the question you need to ask: “Master, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
This is the other corner in this Gospel. You follow Jesus, you come here to worship the Triune God whose face Jesus reveals in person. You seek life in Christ because something in you knows you’ve never heard anything like what Christ offers anywhere else.
“Eternal life” is in your words, Jesus, Peter says. Remember, this is before Jesus’ death and resurrection. They aren’t following Jesus so they’ll live in heaven after they die. They have no idea what’s coming. Easter is a surprise and a joyful one.
But eternal life – this they sense in Jesus right now. “Life of the ages” it could translate. Abundant life, Jesus calls it. A life of meaning and purpose. Filled with hope and trust. Where peace fills one’s heart in the midst of the worst chaos. A life shaped by knowing you are forgiven and loved forever. A life, as Jesus keeps saying, lived in the heart of God’s life.
That’s what Peter is starting to sense. Hard as Jesus is to understand and harder yet as he is to follow, something Peter can witness to firsthand, Jesus is life. To hear him, to be with him, is to hear God, to be with God. To follow him is to learn a way of living that is unlike anything you’ve ever known.
These are the points of turning.
Many of Jesus’ disciples leave. They haven’t even seen the cross, faced the worst of doubt and fear. But they know they can’t do this teaching, or be shaped by it.
The others, more than just twelve, stay. They will be traumatized by what is to come, and astounded by what comes after that trauma. They will experience being filled by the very Spirit of God and changed dramatically. They will witness with their lives, some with their deaths, to the eternal love of God that is life right now. And because of Easter, they will also proclaim that bonus joy, that there is life after we die, too.
But right now, all they can say is, “We have nowhere else we’ve ever found such life.” They stay, because in Jesus’ difficult words they hear truth and forgiveness and hope and love and life.
So how will you answer?
Before you do, though, remember one more question and answer from God’s Word. The flawed King David, whose family story we’ve followed all summer, once sang a question and answer you need to sing now: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139)
And his answer was, I can’t. If I turn away because your teaching is too hard, and lie down in death’s darkness, you’re still there. If I turn to you in hope because I find life in your words, ascend to heaven, you are also there.
Whichever disciple in this Gospel reading you imitate, there is One who will never turn away from you. Those who walked away from Jesus, well, Jesus never walked away from them. If you turn away, God will still be there, will still surround you, watch over you, and never take away the love that is yours.
Jesus’ teachings are hard. So hard that Jesus let himself be executed to live them out. But that unimaginable love, God poured out in death to draw all people, all people, even those who turn away, back into God’s life, that’s the answer to the only question that matters.
And if you realize you’ve never found any life like the life you’ve found in God through Christ, then rejoice. Because that life of the ages, the abundant life God dreams for all God’s children, will fill you until you, too, understand and follow even the most difficult of God’s teachings. Until you are in God and God in you, and all together with the whole creation in eternal love and life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen