August 22, 2021 Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is John 6: 56-69.
[Jesus said,] 56 “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning is the fifth Sunday that we have been examining Jesus’ “Bread of Heaven” discourse as recounted in John’s gospel. And, as most preachers will agree, that’s a good thing. I for one, am just about out of “bread” metaphors. The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak specifically about Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, Holy Communion; John omits the account of the Last Supper.
Instead, he highlights the “Bread of Heaven” explanation that Jesus gives the crowd and his disciples; in order that we might understand the saving work of Christ, through the taking in of his body and blood. And this lesson, whether it is John’s version, or the Last Supper description by the other gospel writers is the proclamation of the sacrament that is central to our faith. Let’s recap this discourse of Jesus in John; he feeds the 5,000, walks on water, and tells the crowds that they must “eat his flesh and drink his blood”. And this last statement is the one that causes the crowds to begin to drift away from Jesus, in spite of the previous miracles. “This teaching is difficult” they say; all this talk about the eating of body and blood is absolutely contrary to Jewish Law. While it’s easy for us today to point out that they missed the point of Jesus’ “difficult teaching”, we really ought to cut these pious first-century Jews some slack. After all, Jesus’ “difficult teaching” about blood and body consumption; if they were to understand it in a literal sense, was something they were in no way prepared to accept.
Yet, here we are, five weeks after first encountering Jesus as he explains the reason for his mission, his confirmation of his identity as God incarnate, and the need for all of us to participate in his Eucharist. And it seems that the twelve, at least at this point in the story, with Peter as their spokesman do actually get it; thus, his exclamation, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Even though we know that Peter will stumble and fall later, we must at this point count him among one of the three categories of the people who have thus far followed Jesus. There are the “unbelievers”, those who are unable to reconcile Jesus’ “difficult teaching”; the betrayer Jesus alludes to, Judas; and the ones who, along with Peter are the “believers and knowers”.
And while I’m sure we all strive to count ourselves among the third group, perhaps it might be prudent for us to take a closer look at the comment Jesus makes to the ones who have difficulty with his teaching. After all, we too will stumble, fall, and have our crises of faith; like it or not, the otherwise pious Peter has set the example for us.
“Does this offend you?”, Jesus asks the crowds, presumably just before those who are outraged by this “difficult teaching” begin to renounce him and skulk away. It’s rather strange that nearly all bible translations utilize “offend” as the descriptive verb Jesus uses in his query to the ones who recoil from his command to partake of the “Bread of Heaven”. Yet, the original Greek word is “scandalize”; thus, “are you scandalized by this teaching that I give to you concerning the need to take in my body and blood in order to gain everlasting life?” I rather prefer “offend”, or rather “is my teaching offensive to you? If we were to analyze his words and actions in total, “offensive” rather quickly comes to mind as one of the most accurate descriptions of Jesus’ ministry.
My thesaurus lists dozens of synonyms for offensive, here are just a few: embarrassing, impolite, rude, crass, obnoxious, harsh, slanderous, disruptive, aggressive…and the list goes on. Undoubtedly, we could find examples of Jesus behaving in every one of these ways just by opening the bible to a random page. Jesus’ teachings are offensive! And, in many cases quite scandalous. He had the temerity to offend the legal scholars by defiling the Sabbath by healing people on that day. He ate with tax collectors, which were universally despised by his fellow Jews. He forgave the sins of prostitutes. He called as his disciples everyday working men, not the respected religious leaders of the time. Let’s be upfront about this; Jesus’ actions were offensive to just about everyone he encountered. Imagine if today someone described a man they knew to you in this way; “this person I know breaks the law constantly, spends time in restaurants with everyone that you hate, tells really sinful people that they are forgiven, and surrounds himself with the kind of people that are really quite sketchy”.
Would you rush to make friends with this type of person; would you really be interested in whatever offensive things he tried to teach you; would you willingly follow him, knowing he was eventually going to be executed for his actions? Or, would you respond the same way the crowd did to Jesus; “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it”? Would you be too offended by what he had to say, or would you realize, like Peter that you had no other choice? Would you recognize Christ for who he is? Would we echo Peter’s exclamation?
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” It’s a moot point, for we have already answered Jesus in the very same way that Peter did, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning. We have come to be among those who chose to stay and follow, the “believers and knowers”. Yet, it’s a pretty safe assumption that we choose to follow Christ because we acknowledge that he is the Son of God, the sacrificial lamb willingly led to the slaughter for the sake of humanity, the Holy One who secures God’s grace on our behalf. And this is fair, for these are descriptions of Jesus Christ, the holy, divine Savior who gave himself for our sakes.
But we shouldn’t let ourselves stray too far from recognizing the human part of Jesus’ identity, the “offensive” part. The one willing to scandalize the governing and religious powers around him, the one quick to accompany smelly fisherman in their boats. The one who was ostracized by polite society for hanging around the diner with people that everyone else hated. The one who told hookers that God forgave them their sinful behavior. The truly “offensive” Jesus; this is the same timid lamb who offers himself as the “Bread of Heaven” we’ve been hearing from for the last few weeks. We can’t separate the two very different parts of Jesus’ identity, nor should we. What we can, and should do is emulate both of the very different parts of his nature. It’s imperative that we live according to those teachings that encourage us to act with love and mercy toward everyone we encounter; for this is Christ’s great commandment for those who follow his Way.
But we should also be a bit more like the “offensive” Jesus when we’re confronted with issues, situations, or events that we know Jesus would never be passive in the face of. If we’re going to identify ourselves as followers of the loving, merciful Jesus, we also have to loudly proclaim that we are willing to be just as “offensive” as he was in the face of anything that’s contrary to God’s will for God’s people. And we know that this list is longer than even the definitions for “offensive” in the thesaurus. Hunger, fear, worry, illness, addiction, conflict, homelessness, abuse.
And, while we’re not able to fix all the ills of the world, we can each do our small part to try to make even a tiny dent in the problem. Give some thought to what you think you might be able to accomplish if you chose to be offended by what you see as going against God’s will. Imagine how much of a difference you could make if you were willing to be a bit scandalous; if you weren’t afraid of being “offensive”. It certainly didn’t hold back Jesus Christ.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, help us to remember that your Son was willing to act in whatever way was necessary to accomplish your will for your people. Replace our timidness with his aggressive, disruptive nature. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who never hesitates to scandalize the world with his “difficult teaching”. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.