Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached at Washington National Cathedral on Aug. 23, 2015.
This morning’s Gospel gives us one of the strangest and saddest incidents in the New Testament. At the close of Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse -- a talk that takes up the whole of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel and which we’ve been hearing together in church for several weeks now -- we hear that “when many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60 NRSV). A little bit later, John tells us, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). What on earth did Jesus say that his followers couldn’t accept? Why did so many of them turn away and stop following him?
As a preacher, I know something about saying things that people cannot accept. One Monday morning several years ago -- the day after giving what I thought a rather mild sermon on a social issue in a suburban parish where I was rector -- I heard a voice mail message from a drunken parishioner who asked, “Who do you think you are to come in here and tell us what you think?” And just this summer, after I had called for our Lee-Jackson windows to be removed, I read an online story about my statement entitled “Another Fatwa from the Imam.” (Wrong on both counts.) The National Rifle Association is not likely to name me their person of the year, and I carry the distinction of having been called out by both Franklin Graham and Antonin Scalia. So I know about teachings that people won’t accept. Whenever a preacher ascends the steps of a pulpit and tries to do public theology, someone who disagrees is bound to be offended.
But something else is going on here. Jesus has not been talking about public, social issues. He has been talking about himself as the “bread of life”: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:56-57).
Because you and I are accustomed to talking about Jesus as the Word made flesh, these “bread of life” words do not sound like “another fatwa from the imam.” But something in them sounded dangerous enough to offend his followers to the point that they would stop going around with him. What on earth could that be?
I think there are a couple of things going on here. For one, Jesus seems to be talking about himself in rather exalted language. Imagine yourself to be one of those disaffected followers. You came to Jesus because something about his life and ministry attracted you. He was a prophetic teacher, a healer. But then he started talking about himself as the “Son of Man” and the “Holy One of God.” John’s Gospel begins with the claim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Jesus movement is not just a personal healing movement. It’s not just about my personal wellness. The Jesus movement is one with social and cosmic implications. What Jesus is up to tells us something about the beating heart of the universe. The kind of love and justice and compassion we see both in and around Jesus show us the final truths about God and us. Signing on to follow Jesus means committing oneself to heal and bless and change not only myself but the world.
So if you were someone who started following Jesus simply because you were attracted to what he could do for you, the idea that his movement might be about more than making you feel better might shock and offend you. And that leads to the second thing going on here: all this talk of flesh and blood must mean something to Jesus’ original hearers that it doesn’t quite mean to us. For us to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood is not only about taking communion. For us to partake in the bread of life is not just about sharing the benefits of his company. For us to drink his blood must have something to do with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.”
There have been two times this year when I have been brought close to tears by something I saw on the news. The first, last June, was when the families of the nine women and men killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston went to court and told the shooter they forgave him. The second, last week, was when former President Jimmy Carter rather matter-of-factly discussed his cancer and its treatment. “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” Mr. Carter said. “I do have a deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for.”
I suppose the common thread in these two stories lies in how powerful it is to see people who not only actually believe what they profess to believe but who actually act out in their lives the words they profess in their faith. The families in Charleston and President Carter have many things in common, I’m sure, but for me, the chief among them is this: they understand that following Jesus has implications. Following Jesus means that you extend to others the forgiveness you ask for yourself. Following Jesus means that you stake your life on the bet that the promises of God and Jesus are real. There’s no magic to living a transformative life dedicated to the healing and liberation of the world. All you have to do is act on what you say you believe. Easier, of course, to say than to do, but revolutionary when somebody actually tries it.
I have been ordained now for almost 40 years, and over the course of my working life, I’ve been saddened to observe that some people will only go so far before they fall off and go away. It’s one of the mysteries of church life, really. Those of us who work in the church today have become obsessed with the statistics and demographics of declining church membership and attendance. We are doing a lot of soul-searching about why people have stopped coming. We are thinking and brainstorming about how we might better attract younger people to our services. I am sure that there are many things we could do better to make ourselves more relevant to modern life. But there are times when I wonder if the countercultural claims of the Gospel are simply too much for most people. Putting gyms and coffee bars in the parish hall will no doubt attract some customers, but let’s be honest about it: following Jesus will always be a minority enterprise. Jesus promises eternal life. He also asks that we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
In today’s Gospel, after the others have departed, Jesus poses this question to the 12 who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” -- not, under the circumstances, a surprising question. And then Peter answers him: “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” (John 6:67-69).
Following Jesus entails some risk. It means signing on to some values that push deeply against the culture. It involves a willingness to stand with people who can do nothing for you. It asks that you find your fulfillment not on your own but in mutuality and communion with others. There is, in fact, a cost of discipleship. In a self-serving culture, many around you will be confused and offended by what you stand for. They won’t get a life centered around love and justice and not around self-aggrandizement.
But that life has so much more to it than risk. As Peter says, “You have the words of eternal life.” Life lived in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the oppressed is neither unrelievedly grim nor entirely self-denying. There is suffering and pain, to be sure, but there is also joy and freedom in standing with those whom in the Beatitudes Jesus calls “blessed.” The folks who gave up following Jesus did so because they thought they didn’t need him. The ones who stayed knew themselves to have more in common with the strugglers and sufferers than they did with those who appeared to have made it. They knew their need of God. They could say, with President Carter, “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”
Jesus is the bread of life. Some people think they don’t need him. Others know they can’t live without him. Our need for God and Jesus is for some a hard teaching and difficult to accept. But for others it’s the words of eternal life. I will go to my grave mystified that some people don’t seem to need Jesus while others can’t seem to live without him. But I know which group I belong to, and invite you now to join me in the grateful banquet of life and hope and justice that gathers at his table. Amen.