A Difficult Teaching

A Sermon for The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), Louise Browner Blanchard, Associate Rector – John 6:56-69

“This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” That’s the question that a lot of Jesus’ disciples ask in today’s gospel. And the answer is…“not many.” By the end of today’s lesson, only 12 of them – out of hundreds, maybe thousands – are left, including Judas Iscariot, who would, of course, betray him. We get the sense that not just Judas is a bit wobbly in his convictions. “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks the 12 remaining. The only one who even speaks up is Peter, who says rather plaintively “Lord, to whom can we go?”

So what, exactly, is this difficult teaching? We need to back up a little bit to get some perspective, because today’s gospel is the fourth and final installment of the “difficult teaching, ” and it begins with the feeding of the 5,000.

You may recall that, after a series of healings, Jesus and his disciples intended to get away for a rest. No such luck. Crowds of people who have heard of the healings follow Jesus and the disciples right up a mountain, and, at Jesus’ insistence, he and the disciples wind up feeding 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowds are so impressed that they want to make Jesus king. Whatever Jesus hopes they’ll realize from being fed, it isn’t that he is meant to be a king, and he flees farther up the mountain by himself.

The crowds eventually track him down in Capernaum, where they find him in the synagogue. “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask him. Jesus ignores their question. Instead, he points out that they’re looking for him because they got plenty to eat on the other side of the Sea of Galilee; in other words, that they’re looking more for the food than the person. What they’ve missed is that the miracle wasn’t the food, but the presence of God in Jesus that the provision of all that food revealed. When Jesus suggests that they should work not for food that perishes, but for food that lasts for eternal life, the crowd gets hung up on the meaning of “work.” Essentially, they want a checklist: what do we have to do, and what will you do? What Jesus tells them is that their work is to believe in him whom God has sent. It hardly registers.

The conversation culminates with Jesus’ statement that he is the bread of life, that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty. He tells the crowd that he has come down from heaven to do God’s will, which is that all who see him and believe in him – who was sent from God – will have eternal life.

This does not go over well. The folks in the synagogue start complaining among themselves. What is this “sent from God” business, anyway? They know that Jesus is Joseph’s son, they know his parents. How could he have come down from heaven?

Jesus tries to keep them engaged in the conversation. In very rabbinical fashion, he reminds them that the prophets said that all shall be taught by God, so if he is teaching them, it is from God, and what he is offering from God is eternal life. Jesus tells them again that he is the living bread come down from heaven, that whoever eats of the bread will live forever, and then he adds … “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

This really does not go over well. Any suggestion of eating flesh is abhorrent to Jews, and those who are in the synagogue cannot imagine that what Jesus just said could mean anything more than or other than what so immediately disgusted them. They cannot grasp that he is revealing something that they’ve never really heard before—a new teaching, a new understanding, a different way of living in this world.

Jesus doubles down. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” You could say that he hasn’t made it any less difficult. No matter how Jesus explains it, almost everyone in the synagogue is confounded. Even many of the disciples turn back, and what remains of a crowd of 5,000+ is ultimately down to the 12, trying to make sense of and live into what Jesus promises.

And what he promises is life, eternal life – not so much in the sense of immortality that takes place after we die, but more—much more—in the sense of living in the unending presence of God now. In John’s gospel, bread and wine are not features of a last supper; today’s gospel takes place in the midst of Jesus’ ministry.  In John’s gospel, bread and wine are not memorials of a life, but life itself: who Jesus is, where he came from, and where he is going; the Word of God made flesh, available to anyone who will trust that such life is not intended to be merely sampled or compartmentalized, but encompassing, enfolding, enveloping – abiding. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

How do we do that? And after all these words, what does it mean? It is a difficult teaching. But John’s gospel practically begs us to have that conversation. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself is often in conversation, not just preaching and teaching, but engaged in the give and take. Here, with those who have followed him to the synagogue at Capernaum. Earlier, with the woman at the well and the royal official whose son is near death. And throughout the gospel with disciples, Pharisees, friends, and strangers. There are no easy answers, but the conversation itself leads toward a deeper understanding of who Jesus was and is.

It invites us into the conversation, too, not only with scripture, but with one another. That conversation itself enriches and enlivens the community of faith. We are not just people who show up on Sunday for a helping of prayer, scripture, and sacrament, but fellow travelers who seek to understand how prayer, scripture, and sacrament—and the person of Jesus—can mold and transform our lives, fellow travelers who help each other see what most of us cannot see on our own, not just on Sunday mornings, but every day and every hour. In startling ways, Jesus reminds us that we are engaged with a living God who is always present. And that that’s a good thing.

This is a difficult teaching. Are we like Solomon, who built a magnificent temple and worshiped a loving, forgiving, all-embracing God whom we recognize even today? But Solomon, who was known for his wisdom, succumbed to voracious lust and other appetites, the consequences of which played out for centuries, and not well. Or do we follow the advice of Paul, to put on the whole armor of God, from belt to shoes, breastplate to shield, helmet, and sword?

We are invited to wrestle with these questions every day–to partake of “this bread and wine” in the many ways that it is offered up to us, by ourselves and with each other, and in the light of every day’s new challenges, whether as parents, spouses, employees, bosses, and citizens; as part of families, schools, businesses, and churches. God is there whether we acknowledge it or not. As the psalmist says, “Where can I flee from your presence?” and Peter echoes, “Lord, to whom can we go?” God waits patiently and does not give up. Look how often Jesus explains the bread of life! The question is how often we will turn away before we let ourselves be truly and thoroughly fed.