a Homily for Proper 16B
Text: John 6:56-69
What is this?
Jesus has brought the people here through a swirling storm of teachings about faith, understanding, and love. As they arrive to the safety of the synagogue, he takes all of that teaching and he mixes in their likely confusion about literal and metaphorical hearing into one big stew and He says “eat!” For the last month we’ve wrestled with this. And going into this morning, we’ve been sitting with that call to eat what Jesus is offering, even if we aren’t sure we understand how. How we are to eat that offering when it is the body and blood of Jesus.
This is where the gospel pericope’s listeners are, too. They ask how they are to do this when they still aren’t sure what “this” is. They’ve heard a bunch of different things and it sounds like a lot.
So Jesus explains again that their heads are wrong. If you’re having trouble with this eating and this eternal life, then what of focusing on where you are from? What if I were to go back to where I’m from? What about my return to my father who sent me? This isn’t the origin. We don’t start on earth and are then taken to Heaven. We start there and return there. What does that do to your pathetic questions about the now? Because a bunch of you are going to take off; you’re not up to that challenge.
Stuck in the middle with you
It feels as if we’ve once again drawn Jesus the Jerk. In this story, Jesus doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to bring everyone to Himself. He’s pushing most of them away. Including people that are called Jesus’s disciples.
So what about us? Those of us that are His disciples. Are we suffering with this literalist affliction of seeing our physical existence up there and in the future? Are we so afflicted that we see this as finite and that as beyond us? Of course we do. We’ve inherited the Greek’s dualistic philosophy. We understand our origin through the physical world: our earthbound parents produce real-life offspring. Our mothers give birth to us and we inhabit these physical bodies. And it is our hope that some spirit within us is released from an earthly prison when we die. That seems to be what we’re taught. This teaching’s gnostic problems aside, it is one that seems to be a natural response to Jesus as He calls flesh “useless”.
However, Jesus’s challenge to us, then, is that our origin is not here but beyond. When our time here is up, we return home. The power of GOD is then shown through incarnation: in the heavenly being made earthly. As the old song goes “This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through.”
In other words, this is the middle.
“Hey, um…Jesus, look at the time…”
When Jesus says this, a bunch of followers indeed take off. He’s left with the inner circle. He asks them Do you want to go, too?
Peter’s response sounds like a let down:
Where else are we going to go.
We expect the next line to be
I guess we’re stuck with you.
How surprising then that Peter seems to finally be getting it. He responds by affirming that in following Jesus they become something else. Whether Peter understands it or not is less important than His coming to internalize the relationship.
They follow Jesus then they understand.
This is what that whole swirling storm of ideas was about: follow Jesus and then come to understand. Faith before understanding. And faith is in following.
- The Feeding of the Five Thousand—faith in following.
- Walking on the Water—lack of faith in leaving Jesus behind, then faith in following Jesus again.
- The Bread of Life, Jesus—faith in following.
The question Jesus is asking them isn’t metaphysical. He isn’t asking them to explain where Heaven is, how the world was created, or what GOD looks like. He isn’t looking for them to solve the physical riddle of the cosmos. He’s asking them Are you with me?
Jesus asks a simple question
That’s our question: Are we with Him? Do you believe? Yes! Then let’s go. Notice He isn’t saying Tell me what you believe in 10,000 words or less. He isn’t saying What do you think of my Mom’s virginity? or Do I get to send the Holy Spirit, too, or is it just Dad? He’s simply asking Are you coming with me?
Such a simple question. That is the question He’s asking. And we respond as if He’s asked us to respond to a doctoral thesis. Are you coming, or what? We’ve been fools. We’ve wedded Greek philosophy to Hebrew and fought one another about right belief. We’ve made our children memorize and regurgitate and called it “teaching”. We’ve demanded newcomers swear oaths to rigid sets of beliefs we’ve written about the Trinity. But Jesus knows we can’t hope to understand until after believing. We follow Jesus in faith, come to believe, begin to understand.
I can’t give you a pithy truth and expect to pass it off as a substitute for all of that first work that each of us does by faith and learning to believe. But as a follower, I can help other followers move toward belief. As a believer, I can help other believers toward understanding. And as followers and believers, all of us here are called to learn, to teach, and to proclaim the Good News. Because understanding isn’t the beginning, it’s the ending.