If I had a notebook full of ‘things I hear on a regular basis’, one of the sayings at the top of the list would be this one: ‘Jesus preached a simple message about love and brotherhood, and then the Church came along and made it complicated’. And I can understand why people would like to think this is true. After all, a simple Galilean carpenter who went around preaching peace and joy and flower power would be so much less demanding than the Son of God who says things we puzzle over and makes demands we have to come to terms with.
The problem is that the Jesus we read about in the gospels is not as simple as we might think. He says things that cause people to scratch their heads in confusion; he rarely gives a straight answer to a straight question, and when he does speak directly, his words are so challenging that people have been trying for two thousand years to find sophisticated ways of avoiding their obvious meaning. The fact is that Jesus is a challenge – he’s a challenge to understand, and he’s a challenge to follow – and people who are looking for a simple faith that makes few demands on them probably aren’t going to find Jesus very satisfying.
We can see this in our gospel for today, which comes right at the end of John chapter 6. In verse 60, some of Jesus’ disciples comment on what they’ve heard earlier in the chapter: ‘This teaching is difficult’, they say; ‘who can accept it?’ And a few verses later we read that ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. The reason is clear: they found his teaching hard to understand, and when they did understand it, they found it so offensive that they didn’t want anything more to do with him.
Let’s take a quick look back at John chapter six, which we’ve been slowly making our way through these past few weeks. The chapter begins with two miracle stories: Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, and his walking on the water. John tells both of these stories in such a way as to give us a clue about Jesus’ identity. In the Old Testament God fed his people in the wilderness by giving them manna from heaven every day; now Jesus was out in the wilderness with his people, and he fed them in a supernatural way, multiplying the loaves and fishes so that everyone had enough. Later on that night, when he was walking on the water to met his disciples, he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’. ‘It is I’ is literally in Greek ‘I am’, which is the name of God in Hebrew – ‘Yahweh’. So by these two miraculous signs John is pointing to Jesus’ identity: he isn’t just a rabbi or a carpenter, but in him the God of Israel has come to visit his people. The two miracles are meant to be signs pointing to this truth.
But the crowd don’t get it; they follow Jesus around the lake because they want a repeat performance of the feeding of the five thousand. They want to take Jesus and make him their king so that he can give them free bread every day. In other words, instead of coming to Jesus and asking him to show them God’s will, they want Jesus to do their will. But Jesus refuses, and he spends the next forty verses or so trying to explain to them the real meaning of the miracle of the loaves: that he himself is the bread of life, and that everyone who comes to him and believes in him will have their spiritual hunger and thirst satisfied.
Jesus then goes on to make it even more complicated and offensive: he says that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and that the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. When the crowd demands to know how he can possibly give them his flesh to eat, Jesus responds that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life, but if they do eat and drink as he suggests, they will live forever, and he will make his home in them, and they in him.
It’s not hard for us to see all the ways in which the words of Jesus in this chapter would have been offensive to a first century Jewish crowd. First, we have the audacity of his using the name of God for himself, which would have been blasphemous and idolatrous to them. Second, we have the fact that he would not fit in with their agenda and do something really useful, like giving them bread every day. Third, we have his claim that the bread he would give them was better than the bread that Moses, the great father of the Jewish people, had given to their ancestors; they might well ask of Jesus, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re greater than Moses?’ Fourth, we have his claim that if people believe in him they will receive eternal life – which sounds fairly innocuous until you think how it would sound if I said it – ‘Hey, all you people of St. Margaret’s, if you believe in me I will give you eternal life’! Fifth and finally, we have the revolting sayings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which sound far more like cannibalism than the sort of sober godliness of the Torah and the Ten Commandments.
So this is the real Jesus of the Gospels; his teaching is not simple, but complicated and challenging. It’s not just about how God is our Father and so we’re all brothers and sisters and let’s love one another right now! It’s true that he does say these things, but they are consequences of the central truths he’s trying to get across. In the first three gospels those truths are about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the truth is that he believed the Kingdom had arrived because he had arrived; in other words, he was God’s anointed king who was bringing in the Kingdom. In John’s Gospel this central place of Jesus in his own message is even clearer, as John has structured his whole gospel around the so called ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus – I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and the life, and so on.
So becoming a Christian isn’t just about ‘loving thy neighbour as thyself’, as people so often say. That’s a vital part of our response to the Christian message, but it doesn’t come first. Becoming a Christian is first and foremost about how we see Jesus: is he just a human being, a wise religious teacher, or is he something more than that? Is he, in fact, the one in whom God has come to live with us? In the first chapter of his gospel John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God, and that in the beginning ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. He goes on to tell us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us’. Now in this chapter the Word speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. If we don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood we won’t have eternal life – we won’t be able to do the things God wants us to do because we’ll be spiritually dead – but if we come to him and believe in him, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he will make his home in us and we will have eternal life.
To me it’s totally understandable that this is more than some people can stomach. Some pretty well known names throughout human history have indicated that they couldn’t accept it. Gandhi, for instance, said that he could accept Jesus as a wise religious leader but not as the Son of God. A friend of mine here in Edmonton says that Jesus makes much more sense to him as a man than as the Son of God.
I have to say that if Jesus is just a man, he makes no sense to me at all – or, at least, it makes no sense to me that we’re following him today. A man who was just a man, and who said the things Jesus said, would not be looked on as a wise religious teacher and followed by millions of people. He’d be shut up in a mental hospital and given treatment to try to cure him of his delusions of grandeur. C.S. Lewis said this in a radio talk he gave on the BBC during the Second World War:
I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. This is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come away with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
How do we respond to this? Some perhaps are confused and want to hear more by way of explanation. Some grumble that God had to make it so complicated. Some stand up in church on Sunday and say the Apostles’ Creed with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Some just can’t believe it and so turn away from following Jesus – an honest response, in my view. Some say, “Well, it doesn’t make sense to me yet but I’m going to keep on following Jesus anyway and pray that God will help me to understand it as I follow”. Some say, “It’s confusing, but the alternative is no better!” And some, like Jesus’ disciple Thomas, fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “My Lord and my God”.
We see the same range of reactions in today’s gospel. Verse 61 says in the NRSV, ‘Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”’. In Greek the word translated as ‘complaining’ is one of my favourite Greek words, ‘gonguzo’, which means ‘to grumble’. So we have grumbling, and a few verses later, in verse 64, we have disbelief: Jesus says, “But among you there are some who do not believe”. Then in verse 66 we have rejection: ‘Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. At the end of the chapter, we even have betrayal, as John mentions Judas Iscariot, who ‘though one of the twelve, was going to betray him’.
But I want to end by directing your attention to the words of Peter. Look at verse 67:
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.
This is a remarkable response. We know from the gospels that Peter had as much difficulty understanding what Jesus was going on about as any of the disciples. And he’s not saying here, “No, Lord, of course we’re not going to leave you, because we understand exactly what you’re talking about!” What he actually seems to be saying is something like this: “Lord, it’s true that what you’re saying is very hard for us to understand and accept. But what’s the alternative? There’s nowhere else we can go to get the sort of thing you give us. Your words may be hard to understand, but we know that they are words of life, and we know that you’ve come from God. So the only thing we can do is stick with you and hope that things become clearer as we go along”.
I find this to be an amazing statement of faith. I think about people I know who have a lot of difficulty getting their head around what Jesus is talking about, but who still show up week by week in church and are the first to volunteer when work needs to be done. I think about Christian gay and lesbian people who have been told for years – rightly or wrongly, I make no comment on that – that their sexuality is offensive to God, but who still pray and read the scriptures and come to church because they’ve discovered something in Jesus that they can’t find anywhere else. I think about people who are very wealthy and who come to church week by week and hear the gospels read, with Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God – and yet they keep coming, because they know that even though Jesus’ words are challenging, they are true and life-giving words as well.
Can you make this statement of faith with Peter? Can you say with him, “Lord, I haven’t got it all figured out yet; I sometimes find your words hard to understand, and when I do understand them, I often find them deeply challenging. But I don’t want to leave, because I know I’ve grasped something wonderful here – something that is giving me life. In your words I think I’ve glimpsed a vision of the glory of God and the beauty of life the way God planned it. So I think I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind, and keep listening and trying to understand, because there is one thing I’m absolutely sure about: there’s nowhere else I’m going to find what I’ve found in you and your message”.
I think Jesus will honour a prayer like that. The only thing I would add to it is this: when you do come to understand the meaning of some aspect of the teaching of Jesus, pray for God’s help and then begin to put it into practice right away. My observation over the years as a pastor is that those who put Jesus’ words into practice usually grow in their understanding of what he is all about, but those who don’t practice what they hear tend to understand less and less as the years go by. After all, as Jesus said in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, it isn’t the ones who just hear his words whose houses will stand in the flood – but those who hear his words and put them into practice. May God help us to do just that. Amen.