A dealbreaker?

Proper 16, Year B: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Today’s gospel features one of my favorite Bible verses! Yes, yes — it does! We are at the end of John’s Bread of Life discourse, which kicks off with the Feeding of the Multitude (6:1-15) and ends here (five Sundays later in the lectionary, if you’re counting. And trust me, preachers are counting!) with the disciples’ response. 

So, what is my favorite verse?

Verse 60: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’” 

I mean, what an understatement! It sounds so polite after Jesus said eat my flesh, drink my blood! Honestly, it strikes me as funny because it is so true: many of Jesus’ teachings are difficult for us, not just this one! Who can accept them? For example: love your neighbor, pray for your enemy, be a peacemaker, share what you have… All of us struggle with these from time to time and it’s by the grace of God that we are empowered to do them.

But let’s stay within the Bread of Life discourse, shall we?

Last week I addressed eat my flesh, drink my blood. If you missed it, it’s on the St. Timothy’s YouTube channel. Today I’ll just say: it created a hurtle for listeners — then and now.

Yet there’s another reason to say, “this teaching is difficult, who can accept it.” And that is because what Jesus describes does not fit their understanding of God. 

As one scholar notes, “The spiritual revelation is expressed and communicated in the physical and social images of flesh, blood, eating, bread, and heaven. This pairing of the spiritual with the physical and social sets the stage for the difficulty the disciples will experience. It is a difficulty associated with the synagogue teaching that stresses the complete transcendence of God and the complete finitude of people. What Jesus has to say does not fit easily into that theological mindset.”[1]

Shifting from thinking of God as utterly transcendent to immanent — that is, “residing within something or being within the limits of possible experience or knowledge”[2] — was a real mind-bender!

A theological deal-breaker for some. Clearly it was. 

And this is a good place to pause and remember the context in which the Fourth Gospel was written. It was written in the late 1st century within a specific Christian community which was “undergoing a painful separation from the Jewish society to which its members had belonged.”[3]

Further, they weren’t like us with family spread out across the country or the globe. Extended families lived together or in proximity. Family and community relationships were central to who they were and understood themselves to be. 

Our notion of individualism that is so much a part of contemporary American identity was foreign to our ancient faith ancestors. So, just imagine the religious and familial social pressures these Jewish Christians were under: This teaching is difficult — it puts me at odds with my traditional theology and those closest to me — who can accept it? These are plausible reasons why one might turn their back and no longer go about with Jesus. 

But for those who stay, do not let the familial language in John pass by without notice, for a new family is being formed: “To those who accept him, he gives the power to become children of God (1:12).”[4]

So, returning to today’s gospel passage, “Jesus asked the twelve ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered 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.’”

So, who can accept this difficult teaching? 

Those who have come to believe. 

To believe — this is the purpose for which John wrote the Fourth Gospel. “’To believe’ occurs 98 times” in the Gospel of John “in contrast to 34 times in the three synoptics combined.”[5] (I know you all at St. Timothy’s like exegetical tidbits like this, so I included it.)

And recall, John’s gospel ends with this statement: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[6]

The good news is that our God is not far away, removed from our everyday lives and concerns, but God is immanent in Jesus, the bread of life. The life that he gives is abundant and lasting — with lots of left-overs (as we saw in the Feeding of the Multitude).

 And in today’s passage, we are invited to chose him. Commit to him. And this commitment is marked by an “unreserved openness to God.”[7] That is, to believe.

Sandra Schneiders, in her powerfully insightful book, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, writes:

“To believe in Jesus is to accept him, to identify with him, to follow him, to grow in discipleship. It is, in brief, to commit oneself to Jesus with that totality of self-giving that is suitable only in relationship to God and the one whom God has sent.”[8]

So, who can accept the difficult teaching?

Those who have come to believe. Whose thoughts, words, and lives are marked by an unreserved openness to God in Jesus.

Ah — and this is a difficult teaching because it will ask of us, require of us, to give up some things. Namely, our selfishness and self-centeredness — the negative aspects of individualism. We let go of these so that we may commit ourselves to something greater: the Body of Christ for the world.

And, one more reason that verse 60 is one of my favorites: it evokes for me the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31) where he says: I will not let you go until you bless me! For my experience is that when I stay with scripture that challenges me, it is like wrestling. And if I stay with it long enough, there’s always a blessing in it for me. And here, in today’s gospel passage, the blessing is a deeper encounter with Jesus — leading to belief and deeper belief.

For, to believe is to say yes to a life-stance open to God. This is a difficult but life-giving teaching because it challenges us to live life beyond ourselves … and into the family of God … where we abide in Jesus.

Hear Christ’s question to his present-day disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?”

How will you respond?

May God continue to draw us ever closer in Christ — the bread of life — that we may believe, and respond with the words of Peter: 

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

[1] Shae, John. Mark Year B: Eating with the Bridegroom, Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, p. 209, emphasis added.

[2] Miriam-Webster online dictionary.

[3] Harper-Collins Study Bible, NRSV, 1993, p. 2011

[4] Schneiders, Sandra M. Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Revised and Expanded Edition), The Crossroads Publishing Company: New York, 1993, 2003, p. 90.

[5] Ibid, p. 87.

[6] John 20:30-31.

[7] Schneiders, Sandra M. Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Revised and Expanded Edition), The Crossroads Publishing Company: New York, 1993, 2003, p. 87.

[8] Ibid, p. 88.

Harrington, Daniel J., and Moloney, Francis, J. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John.

Image above: Bread of Life Mission, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56581 [retrieved September 7, 2021]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2695836016 – Thomas Hawk.

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