Sermon, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 26, 2018)

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”(John 6:60-61)
 
Outside of my hometown in the Netherlands, you will find farm fields, stretching out for miles, to the horizon and beyond. These fertile lands are flat -- flat as a pancake, we used to say, and hard to imagine to folks who are used to the hills and mountains of Eastern Tennessee and the beginnings of the Appalachian range. These flat coastal farm fields today are interrupted by a natural mound, twenty, thirty feet high and topped with trees. But, before dikes retained the local waters, these fields actually formed a shallow lake, and the mound was an island.
 
The story goes that one day, a sailor got caught out on this lake in the midst of a sudden and violent storm. As we all are prone to do when caught in similar circumstances, the unfortunate sailor began to pray most enthusiastically. “Dear God,” he prayed, “if you keep me safe in this storm, I will build you a chapel.” Apparently, God liked this particular bargain, because next the sailor ran his boat ashore on this little island. True to his promise, the sailor indeed commissioned a small chapel, which, to this day, still sits on top of the mound. In May and October, people of my home town and surrounding communities, will walk up to this chapel and pray to God with petitions for desperate causes.
 
After the feeding of the five thousand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples own night out on stormy waters, during which they, in their own desperation, see Jesus walk on the sea, Jesus has been teaching his disciples in what is called the “bread of life discourse” (John 6:22-71), which we have been reading these past few weeks. In it, Jesus teaches that he is the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.(John 6:35) Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, Jesus says, and they died. (John 6:49)I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51) A lovely teaching full of Eucharistic anticipation. But the disciples murmur, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
 
Scripture does not give us the details of the disciples’ objection, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that Jesus does not present himself as a new Moses, an idea they might have embraced more enthusiastically, but rather as himself actually being the new and renewed heavenly food. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, they will have eternal life.(John 6:54) At best, the suggestion was offensive to them since the dietary restrictions of faithful Jews forbade them to consume blood. At worst, it may have reminded the disciples of pagan practices, for instance the mystery cults of Demeter and Dionysus, in which the consumption of flesh and blood was part of the initiation into unknown sacred mysteries. 
 
One commentator on this Scripture suggests that the disciples may even have thought that Jesus here was speaking about actual cannibalism. It sounds ludicrous to us, but perhaps the thought is not so far-fetched. As early Christians spoke in their communion meals about eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood – as we still do today – their persecutors accused them, among many other things, of exactly that: cannibalism. It is one of the saddest ironies of our tradition that, as soon as Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman authorities, they started to accuse their Jewish neighbors of exactly the same thing: of killing babies in order to observe a Sabbath meal, thus setting into motion a dark legacy of persecution, culminating in the holocaust.
 
Whatever the fears, worries, or misunderstandings of the disciples may have been, their reaction is clear and unambiguous: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60) And “many of the disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. (John 6:66)
 
I wonder if their reaction and rejection has to do with what Jesus here offers them, and, more significantly, what he does not offer them. Jesus offers his followers a relationship with God; a holy communion of bread and wine, of flesh and blood, linking a broken and hurting creation back to the love and care of God. Jesus does not offer quick fixes or easy answers, which the disciples may have been looking, and, which we may be looking for. 
 
Jesus does not save us in times of peril or distress like a divine superhero swooping in for the rescue; Jesus does not offer wealth and riches to his most loyal followers, as prosperity gospel preachers would lead us to believe; Jesus does not proclaim an activist agenda, as we are sometimes too quick to assume. Now, that Jesus’ teaching may have social and even activist implications for us, which it surely does in my opinion, that is a different story. 
 
In many ways, to follow in Jesus’ steps, to love God and to love neighbor, might be the easiest thing we could ever do. And yet, it is also the hardest thing we may ever do. When our weekly blessing calls us to make haste to love and to be swift to be kind, we are not simply talking about the people we like, or even the stranger we encounter on the street, but also about the people we dislike. Sometimes Christian love and humility has been confused with weakness and resignation. Again, this is not what I believe Christ calls us into. The great saints of the church, those who have come before us, and those who are with us now, show us that we are called to live by greater virtues and higher goals.
 
To follow Christ is to live boldly, with love and care, generosity and mindfulness, knowing that no one and no thing is dispensable. In his ‘Bread of Life discourse,’ Jesus invites us into a deeper relationship with God, and thus also with each other. To be in communion with God has deep and fundamental implications for how we see and treat the people and the world around us. This is what the new covenant is about; that through grace and love, we all are acceptable to God.
 
It may be a challenge, a journey, for us to love those who have hurt us, who have wronged us. And indeed, we may never get there, but to give up really is to “turn back, and no longer go about with him.” So, journey along with Jesus, in communion with God, and hope, and pray, and trust, that when our capacity to love our family and friends, strangers and neighbors, is pushed to its maximum and beyond, we rely on the grace of God to bring all things to perfection.
 
Lord, to whom else can we go? Only you have words of eternal life. (John 6:68)
 
Amen