August 22, 2021 / 13th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18/ Second Reading Ephesians 6:10-20 / Gospel John 6:56-69
To Whom Shall We Go?
Have you ever been troubled or offended by something that Jesus said? In today’s gospel reading, many of the disciples of Jesus are bewildered by his teaching. Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Christians today have become familiar with the sacramental language which speaks of receiving Christ’s body and blood at Holy Communion. However, for first century Jews, what Jesus says could sound to them like cannibalism. Furthermore, Jewish law prohibited consuming any kind of blood – whether from humans or animals. So it’s really not surprising that those disciples were upset and unwilling to accept this teaching.
This teaching, which we understand as referring to Holy Communion, is hardly the only controversial and difficult teaching shared by Jesus. Consider a few examples which you and I and others may find hard to accept:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27)
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:14)
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)
How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. (Luke 18:24-25)
You must be perfect – just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
So – do you find any of these confusing or hard to accept? Jesus said other things that we may find troubling. The truth about Jesus is that Jesus is loving and gracious and merciful – and Jesus also has high expectations for those who follow him. His teaching has power to offend as well as inspire.
The crowd of thousands was happy to eat the loaves and fishes that Jesus miraculously provided. However, many of them could not stomach the notion of eating the body and blood of Jesus. And so they turned back and no longer followed Jesus.
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Where did they go? Back to their former way of life? Back to living without the exhilaration and inspiration they had found in Jesus? Back to a familiar, well worn rut?
And if you or I reached a point where we took offense at Jesus, could not accept his teaching, could no longer believe or follow – where would we go? A lot of stores are open on Sunday – we could have more time for shopping. In football season, you would be free to head to Soldier Field (or to Lambeau) and enjoy hours of tailgating before a noon kickoff. You could play 18 holes of golf before lunch. And of course there are many great options for Sunday brunch. Beyond the extra free time on Sunday morning you would have at your disposal all the money you used to give as offering. Someone giving 10% would have a significant fund for new vacations. Once you give up Jesus, there are any number of self-help programs, groups and gurus ready to provide direction for your life.
It’s a bit surprising that Jesus made no attempt to convince those who were offended by his teaching to stick around. He didn’t take back anything that he had said or attempt to make it more palatable to them.
Instead, Jesus turned to his closest disciples, the twelve he first called to follow him, and he asked them: “Do you also wish to go away?” For many of us, there probably have been some moments when we were inclined to say, “Yes.” Yes, right now I’m having trouble believing it’s all true. Yes, this teaching, these expectations, are too much for me. Yes, I can’t understand or accept the suffering and death of people I love.
We know very well that those 12 disciples all turned away from Jesus when he was arrested, tried and crucified. If your faith has never wavered, don’t assume it never will. Like Jesus said, “The road is hard that leads to life.”
So when Peter gives his answer to the question Jesus poses about going away, I don’t picture Peter with a broad smile, exuding confidence and enthusiasm. Instead, I see Peter with a quizzical look on his face, shrugging his shoulders and answering the question with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? In other words, Peter was asking, “What other options do we really have?” Peter and the others realized that while following Jesus could be challenging and even confusing – nothing else came close to what Jesus meant to them. Even when they struggled to understand Jesus, they believed he was the Holy One of God.
The same is true for us. If we were to stop following and serving Jesus, whom would we choose to follow instead? Author David Foster Wallace made this observation: “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Or, as Bob Dylan sings in a memorable song: “You gotta serve somebody.”
So despite any confusion or offense we may feel about something Jesus said, what could we gain by turning away? And more important, what do we gain by staying faithful? We stay in touch with the Word of Life. Jesus is the source for true and abundant life, here and now – and the one who promises eternal life. Jesus does not offer us an easy life. In fact he assures us that the way will be hard at times. Yet Jesus promises to walk with us all the way, even through the valley of the shadow of death.