20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
They say, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” That phrase bothers me a little. It’s more than a little insulting. I mean, “That which does not kill you”? I have a name.
I’m kind-of kidding. I don’t think I am a terribly challenging person to live with; at least not on purpose. My goal is actually to make the lives of those around me easier, not more-difficult; but I know I don’t always meet that goal. I hope that my family can verify that, when I am a challenge to live with, it’s almost-never on purpose and I almost-always feel bad about it.
In fact, if my presence in your life is a challenge to you and it seems I am doing it on purpose, it is probably because we have some sort of agreement. It’s probably because I am working with you to grow deeper, at least spiritually. I would never work at helping you become a better person without your consent. I wouldn’t because I know what it takes to grow deeper: it takes challenge. Either by circumstance or conscious and deliberate work, we don’t grow unless we are challenged. And it is never pleasant. It takes effort. Not everyone wants to go through it, and that’s okay. Not everyone is ready to take on the challenge of growth, and I would never intentionally inflict that on a person unless they wanted it.
But then again, I’m not Jesus. Jesus will push you to grow, whether you like it or not. We’ve been reading through John chapter six for a few weeks, and I can say with confidence: this is the very worst and the very best of it. (Ken, I am genuinely sorry you had to read that, but someone had to.) Today, Jesus is pushing us to grow deeper. May we rise to the challenge. In this time in God’s Word, may we let him push us to be the people we are called in him to be.
Here’s a Bible-trivia fun-fact for you: you know how, in the Old Testament, Moses gave the people rules about what they could or couldn’t eat? Like pork: Moses was very specific about how the people weren’t supposed to eat bacon. Now, we look back on rules like that and think, “What kind of God would create a thing like bacon, and then forbid people from having it?” But when you think about it, the rule does make sense. Maybe not always on a spiritual level, but you can see the practicality of it in those days. I mean, a lot of bacon isn’t good for you, but in those days, improperly handled pork could be deadly.
So the Old Testament had rules about what you couldn’t eat to, among other things, keep people safe. Back to the fun-fact: did you know that the Bible doesn’t say anything about not eating people? To be fair, the Bible never encourages it, but there is no specific rule (as with pork) that you shouldn’t. I think there’s a very good reason for that: you don’t need one. In the course of human history, it’s a rather rare practice. Most cultures and most people in generally are horrified even by the thought of it. I’m uneasy even by talking about it right now. I only bring it up (and I will stop talking about it now) to point out the attitude with which we ought to hear Jesus today. The emotional response that Jesus is looking for from us today is that we be horrified by what he says.
A couple of things about what Jesus says today: first, simply, he is, of course, not being literal. But he’s also not talking about Communion. When we hear Jesus say these horrible things, we mentally jump right over to the Lord’s Supper, right? “No, no, it’s okay; it’s just an analogy; it’s a spiritual thing.” Except that, even though we’re not supposed to we’re not supposed to take Jesus literally here, we aren’t supposed to hear this as simply allegorically either.
Here’s another Bible trivia fun-fact for you: in the Gospel of John, did you know there is no institution of the Lord’s Supper? Seems like a pretty-big oversight, doesn’t it? The Lord’s Supper is certainly alluded to, but John never expressly tells that part of the story. To me, it seems like John anticipated the mental jump we’d make with John 6, if this was told it in the context of Communion. It is as if he wants us to find a way to set aside that symbolism, and just be shocked and mystified by what Jesus is actually saying.
To hear John 6 as only being about the bread and cup of Communion, is to miss the point Jesus is making. Yes of course, what he’s talking about is a spiritual thing, but before that, it’s supposed to be disturbing. This is gross because it’s meant to be gross. All throughout John six, Jesus has been trying to offend us, and it comes to a pinnacle here.
If you’ve been following along, John 6 begins with a story that is told in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five-Thousand. There’s a reason it’s told by all the Gospel-writers: it shows the power that Jesus has to provide for the people of God by taking a little and making a lot with it.
But then, John tells us something the other gospel-writers don’t: John tells us that Jesus then used this miracle to question everyone’s motives. He does it on purpose and it comes to a head this morning. John 6 began with a multitude, and ends with nearly everyone getting scared off. He basically asks everyone, “Are you following me–are you with me, right here right now–because you know that I am the way to Salvation, or are you just here for the food?”
By the way, do stick around for the potluck after. There’s nothing wrong with sticking around for food that someone else made. Even if you didn’t bring anything, do stick around; there’s usually plenty and we’re pretty good about sharing. I assure you, Jesus isn’t questioning your motives for being at a potluck. John chapter six is a test; a test that concludes with Jesus asking us all: are you following me or are you just following me around?
Jesus is being offensive, but he isn’t just being offensive. It’s a test that is hard for us to hear, but it’s vital that we do. The religious-people rightly notice a Moses-like connection in Jesus: he is providing bread for the people of God like Moses provided bread for the people of God. So the religious people are rightly interested in whether or not Jesus is Moses-like or if he’s just doing Moses-like things. Is he sent from God to provide bread from heaven or is he just handing out bread? And Jesus reminds us that he is neither. He doesn’t just bring bread from heaven; he is the Bread of Heaven. And he brings this lesson to us with this offensive-level intensity because it is the most important thing for us to hear. He shocks and offends us because this is life-and-death. Sure, he’s not talking about cannibalism, but neither is he inviting us to Sunday brunch.
Jesus calls us to consume him and him alone; that he be our one true nourishment; that he be what’s flowing in our veins and giving strength to our muscles; that he be the source of our very lives, and him alone.
Here at the end of chapter six, we finally hear the point that Jesus has been building towards the whole time. After all this confrontational and insulting talk that drives nearly everyone else away, Jesus turns to us and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” and it’s a good question. If even Jesus himself hasn’t scared you off yet, then why are you here? Are you ready to let Jesus be your one source of nourishment and stand with him no matter what?
It’s funny: Peter is not always the guy with the “right” answer; he’s usually just the impulsive disciple who answers first. His usual “speak first, think later” attitude often gets him into trouble, but this time, this time he is absolutely right. Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” and Peter’s answer is the right answer: “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.” Peter remains and does so for absolutely the right reason: that there are no other reasons than Jesus.
May we learn to be as faithful. May we learn to consume him: to have his love, his compassion, his wisdom, and his mercy. May we trust him enough even to welcome his challenges to us. And may we, in all we do and say, be more and more like him as we seek to be his Body in this world.