Difficult Teachings

+ A sermon for the Fourteenth* Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 16B / Ordinary 21B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on September 2, 2018 +

Texts: John 6:56-71

*Holy Cross participated in an ecumenical community worship on August 26 so we moved the liturgical date by one week to finish the John Bread of Life discourse.

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

And then there were twelve.

How quickly the crowd vanished!
Well, for us it may not seem like it was all that quick – we’ve been slogging through these verses from the 6th chapter of John for five Sundays now – but in the story, this all happens in less than 24 hours.

Eularia Clarke (1914-1970), The Five Thousand. From the Methodist Modern Art Collection, © TMCP, The Methodist Church of Great Britain. Used with permission.

To recap: we started off with a crowd of 5,000 people – 5,000 hungry people – as well as a number of disciples.
And Jesus fed all these people them with five loaves and two fish and showed them a sign of the boundless love of God and the abundance in God’s coming commonwealth.
Then, the next day, the people were hungry again and sought out Jesus who started teaching them about the great sign they just witnessed.
He taught them how Jesus has come among them to feed their bodies as well as their souls.
He taught them how ordinary bread and wine are used to proclaim God’s extraordinary love and how God uses ordinary you and ordinary me to do extraordinary things.
He taught them that through this meal, the God who created the universe has entered into our flesh to unite us with God and each other.

Now, this chapter is admittedly difficult to understand.
Jesus is using some tough language that is hard to wrap our minds around.
And if you’re like me, we may be really ready to get back to Mark next week with his more straightforward narrative style.

And for those who were there, the crowd of more than 5,000 people, I imagine this was a lot to take in.
I can almost see them looking at each other in confusion as Jesus finished, wondering, what is he saying?
His disciples, who had left everything behind to follow this Jesus guy asking themselves, was it worth it? Is this really what I signed up for?
Wondering how they could trust in something so difficult to comprehend, to difficult to live into.
And so they leave.
They go home.

It can be easy for us to write these people off, to scoff at their lack of faith.
It seems like that’s the right answer for this story, the right position to take.
But are we always so different?
It can be hard to trust in Jesus’ words here, hard to understand them.
It can be hard to see how these confusing verses, these challenging teachings, will help us put food on the table or heal the earth or live under oppressive structures.
It can be hard to see how all this talk of bread and flesh could possibly be relevant in our daily lives.
I can see why the crowd dismissed this as a difficult teaching that is hard to accept.
But I think it’s even harder to live into their promise and challenges.
I wonder if the difficult teaching that the disciples grumbled about was not understanding Jesus’ words so much as knowing how hard it would be to live into them. Because make no mistake – this teaching is difficult.
Throughout this chapter, Jesus is calling us into a new way of life where we become Christ’s flesh and spread God’s abundance in the world.
This is a challenge to live as Jesus lived. To feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to challenge those in power, to love every single person we meet as a fellow child of God.

It’s actually no surprise to me that the crowd vanished – this is a difficult teaching.
And if I’m honest, there are days where I find myself among the crowd.
Wondering if is was all worth it, asking myself whether this all matters or means anything, doubting if I’m up to the challenge.

I imagine we have all experienced these times.
Maybe sitting at a loved one’s hospital bed, or dealing with broken relationships, or recognizing our own faults, or even simply reading the news.
Times that it would be easier to have a passive faith, a simple faith, something we can really hold onto.
Times we wished Jesus wouldn’t ask so much of us.
Times when we would prefer to let others do the work or to have certainty in what we believe.
Times we don’t want to come to church and wonder for another week how bread can be flesh and wine can be blood.
Times we wish this would all just make sense.

“Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks the crowd, asks us.


And then we hear Simon Peter answer for us, even when we cannot form the words,“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

This becomes for us the classic profession of faith – not because following Jesus will instantly fix everything that is wrong in our lives, because these disciples would continue to live with challenges and failings – not because these men were perfect paragons of faith, because they would constantly struggle with doubt and fear – not because they were perfect, because they would all eventually abandon and even betray Jesus, but because they looked to Jesus as the source of life.
Eternal life.
Everlasting life.

Life for the here and now.
Life not just for us, but for the whole world.
Because this life that Jesus brings is not just something we receive, not just something we get after we die, but something we get to live into here and more.
Something to strive for.
It’s living as Jesus lived.
It’s loving the people Jesus would love.
It’s caring for the people Jesus would care for.
It’s experiencing God in the people around us.
It’s experiencing God’s love for the world.
And it’s looking for Christ in bread and wine, even when our minds can’t comprehend it, and allowing this meal to change us.

Because, as we have been hearing for the past few weeks, this meal is at the crux of understanding this life.
Each time we come to this table, Jesus tells us that we are eating his flesh and drinking his blood, that we are taking his entire self, God’s entire self, into our bodies and into our lives.
And we know that is a difficult thing to understand. And it’s an even harder thing to live into.
This is the week where it all becomes real, where all the existential pondering of the last few weeks meets the reality of what this meal actually is.
This is the meal where God comes to us, into our lives.
This is the meal that is such a profound gift of life and love and grace that we wonder how we can ever possibly repay it.
This is the meal that challenges, even compels us to shift the focus from us and to give ourselves for the life of the world – to see things the way Christ sees them.
Like putting on rose-colored glasses where everything is seen through a lens of promise and possibility, everything is colored by God’s love.
And this is the meal where we commit ourselves to being Christ’s body in the world.
freely-55106.jpgIt’s at this table where we glimpse God’s abundance, where our spirits are fed, were these ordinary elements of bread and wine transform us into the Body of Christ, the presence of God sent in the world, where we experience the love and possibility of God’s perfect reign. It’s here that we see that this is more than just an idle Sunday morning faith but one that seeks to fundamentally transform our lives, our very selves.

And we know that we cannot always live into this promise and challenge.
That there are days we will want to walk away with the crowd, that there are times we will deny Jesus like Peter or even betray him like Judas.
That the faith we confess on Sunday may seem stale or irrelevant on Monday.
That while we may tell ourselves we understand how this bread and cup is truly Christ for us and with us, we are plagued by doubt.
That while we tell ourselves that God loves us, we may wonder how or even why.
That while we may commit ourselves to living into our Christian discipleship we so easily fall back into compliancy.

And yet Jesus still chooses us.
Chooses you and me.
Knowing our faults.
Knowing our failings.
Knowing our doubts.
Jesus chooses you and Jesus chooses me.
And he calls us together to this table – seeking to change our lives.

“Loaves and Fishes” by John August Swanson

Beloved, if we have learned anything in these past few weeks, it’s that this meal is not just some trite ritual, some remembrance of what happened two millennia ago halfway across the world, but a bold proclamation of how God is active here and now – in this place, in this time.
How the God who created the cosmos, who liberated the slaves, whose glory is beyond our comprehension comes into our lives to share God’s love and promise for us.
How Jesus who “reached out to heal the sick and suffering, who preached good news to the poor,”¹ who opened his arms to all people on the cross enters into our bellies, into our bodies and unites us with him in mission and life.
That at this table we are centered in Christ and Christ is centered in us.
That this meal is a gift beyond our comprehension – how will we use it?
That this meal is Christ’s body and blood given for you – how will we allow it to transform us?

This meal not something that we choose, we may not even always want it, and we likely don’t even deserve it.
But Jesus calls us to join him and to follow.
Like the Twelve, we are not going to be perfect in this discipleship.
But as Peter confesses, and we strive to confess with him, “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
We confess that trusting in Jesus allows us to experience the divine life Jesus has brought into the world for the life of the world.

My friends, these teachings are difficult.
Taking part in this meal is difficult.
It requires a fundamental shift in our worldview, a change in our priorities, a transformation of our lives to the life Christ has modeled for us.

Bose-ultimacenaetiopicaAnd Jesus knows that we will not always follow him perfectly, that we cannot always dwell in his teachings like he and we may like, but he still calls each of us to the table, he still invites us to experience him in this place, and he chooses to live through us the eternal life that he brings.

So come again, come and taste and see the love God has for you and for me.
Come and glimpse what God has in store for us and for the world.
Come and experience how Christ seeks to transform us into his body given for the life of the world.

¹Language used in Eucharistic Prayer E in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which was then used at the celebration of Holy Communion

The previous sermons in this 5-part series can be found here:

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