After 5 weeks of hearing about how Jesus Christ is bread to the world, the disciples finally voice the thing that we have all been thinking: this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?! To be fair, we get to read these Gospel lessons with the knowledge of what comes after – many modern theologians and preachers will draw upon our practices of communion to relate to what Jesus is saying about his flesh being bread and his blood being wine. As Lutherans we know that the bread and wine that we eat and drink is Jesus: in, around, through, and under. We take in that bit of Jesus, so that like other food and drink we consume, it will be used by our bodies to benefit our actions in the world. Jesus in us, acting through us, in a world that cries out for more of God in it.
To the listeners who were gathered around Jesus as he spoke about his flesh being eaten and blood being drunk, Jesus is speaking bold claims of cannibalism and blaspheming God. Blood was life. Blood is life. The blood of sacrifices to God were poured out for God. To conceive of drinking blood is perhaps to conceive of being like God. There are a number of people who would have big time issues with that.
The people in today’s Gospel reading aren’t just throngs of people. They aren’t the crowds of multitudes and the numerous ignored and needy reaching out for miracles and healing and some kind of recognition. The people in today’s reading are the disciples of Jesus. More than the 12 apostles, these are all the people who were following to learn and grow in relationship with their rabbi. These are the ones who collected up the excessive leftovers of fish and bread. These are the ones whom Jesus rescued from the storm on the sea. These are the ones who are committing themselves in discipline to follow Jesus where he goes, and to learn from him how to be in the world.
And they have reached a point where the teaching is difficult to hear, and difficult to accept. And we are no different. To consume Jesus and abide with Jesus involves incredible reliance on God.
“But ‘abiding’ with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses-like figure — one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship.
John’s Gospel is written in a way that mirrors this need to ‘abide’ with Jesus. As readers, we can’t possibly absorb all of the Gospel’s meaning the first time. The bread stories are filled with nuances that take time to understand. The language is multifaceted, so there is not a single meaning that one can digest and then walk away.”[i]
Which is why we read it multiple times over many weeks: to promote the digestion of such a tough teaching.
But there were some among him who did not believe.
These disciples, believers in Christ, followers of Jesus, upon hearing this terribly difficult thing to understand, turned back. It’s an incredibly human thing to do. We have many stories that talk about this point where someone’s belief is shaken and they face the difficult decision of going on or going back. We are an odd creature who spends a fair amount of time deliberating the finer points of the ‘what ifs’ of our lives. We wonder about the way our lives have turned out and wonder how things may have been different. We ponder the ways in which things could have been better all the time.
Rev. Dr. David Lose asserts that these are times that “we are looking for God, for some sense that God is there, and because we can’t immediately see God, and we may be tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty and the faith we once held was misplaced. Oh, perhaps we don’t renounce or desert the Lord openly, but we just don’t make the extra effort to get to church regularly, or we reduce what we’ve been giving, are more reluctant to help others, or simply stop praying until, in the end, we end up just like the disciples in today’s reading.
Today’s reading may not a pretty one, but it is a rather realistic one. It is, in other words, a fairly accurate portrait of disbelief, with Jesus surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up.”[ii] I think it’s an accurate portrayal of those who feel that there are no other options. So, there were some who turned back and no longer went about with him. (John 6:66)
This Gospel lesson is far from being a downer. In a three short verses in this reading, we learn about perspective, relationship, and perhaps a little bit more about the Holy Spirit.
Jesus turns to the Twelve, and asks of them their intention in light of this difficult teaching. Now, according to the Gospel of John, the twelve are shown in this passage as the ones who “abide” with Jesus. They stick with Jesus even though his teaching is difficult; even though they will scatter instead of remain during Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Here, however, they seem to recognize not just the need for Jesus to abide in each of them, but also that Jesus’ words are spirit and life giving, and they do not turn away. In doing so, they represent what it means to trust that God will provide for their needs. They stick closely to Jesus, who is the means of God’s provision, and they listen to his words.[iii]
The twelve, like all of us, are looking for God. And in this story, through Simon Peter’s words, we discover that somehow they knew where to look. They remain. They abide. Not because there is no other option, but because to abide with Jesus and to remain through the long road of discipleship is based in the relationship that they have been building. A deep and meaningful relationship that creates bonds that go beyond the surface and become so deeply intimate that they believe innately what it is that Jesus says to them. They have been witness to the Word, the Spirit, and to God through their journeys with Christ. Because God is abiding with and in each of them, and they are able to say:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
These words ought to be so familiar to us that we cannot see them without singing them, if we would simply look at them. Whether we are feeling rather comfortable in our lives or in those many what-if stages of our lives, our gospel acclamation echoes Peter and helps to point us to God. When the world is full of pain, anger, hurt, and hatred, though we may not see it, God is there. In the simplest of every day objects, we find the way to see God’s presence amongst us. Through water, bread, wine, and the word we discover the Word that has existed since the beginning. God in the Word; the Word of life: Christ.
Those simple everyday objects point us to a deeply intimate relationship with a God who is present with us all. A God who abides, even as we deliberate our intentions. A God who asks us: “Do you also wish to go away?” when we are faced with difficult truths and teachings. A God who is there when we are hungry, thirsty, and yearning to see God in the midst of our own pain and suffering. God has done more than we could ever know and understand, and yet abides with you and me, and shares intimately in all that we are and do.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther explains that our trust and belief is helped along by God abiding in us when he says: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has balled me through the gospel, enlightened me with gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ…”[iv] The spirit and life that Jesus speaks points us to the relational workings of the Trinity. And the Trinity abides with us through eternity.
So, like the Israelites who learn in wilderness time all that God is to them, and like the disciples who learn to trust and remain with Christ, we are empowered and bold to proclaim:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
[i] Susan Hylen. “Commentary on John 6:56-69”, WorkingPreacher.org
[ii] David Lose. “Pentecost 13B: Looking for God”, Dear Partner.
[iii] Susan Hylen. “Commentary on John 6:56-69”, WorkingPreacher.org
[iv] Martin Luther. “The Creed”, Small Catechism. Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book, pg.1162.
This week’s image is credited to Zec, over at re-Ver(sing) Verses.
You can read her blog here.