For all the struggle and confusion and offense we take, with one another, we aren’t called to perfection or to be a church that makes everybody feel good all the time. We’re called to be at least a little uncomfortable because we need it to build the Kingdom of GOD, bring it closer, make it manifest here.
how an act of division brings restoration
Proper 16B | John 6:56-69
Here at the end of John 6, we see an essential turning point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. This is a huge moment in the story and one we ought to wrap our heads around.
And from the beginning, Jesus is drawing people in with profound acts of transformation. We can call them miracles, our tradition does, but I think that undersells them. Miracles are so detached from us. They’re out there. GOD did it. We had nothing to do with any of it. Miracles aren’t about us at all.
I don’t think that accurately describes what Jesus is doing in John. Jesus’s acts of transforming water into wine in chapter 2, then the healings in chapters 3-5 are not distant and otherworldly, they are transformations which facilitate restoration. They are changes that bring us back together. Acts of unity and building community. They very much have to do with interaction and participation.
Then we come to chapter 6, which begins with the ultimate transformation to facilitate restoration: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus takes the lunch that Andrew took from a boy and transforms it into a feast. Everyone ate: men, women, children. All the people who followed. This is worth noting because in the other gospels, it was 5,000 men; here it is everybody.
Then the story turns darker, more troubling. The people try to kidnap Jesus, contain him, force him to be king, but he escapes. Then the disciples go over the sea, and a storm rages. They are scared, confused, seeing their lives flash before their eyes, wondering what happened to Jesus. Surely he could do something!
And there he is. And suddenly they are on the other side. No storm, and no more sea to cover.
The story then turns to the Sabbath, to a synagogue full of Judeans and Jesus starts to teach them, using this great metaphor about bread; a metaphor they could understand. Who doesn’t eat bread? And a religious reference they all knew. Who doesn’t know about the manna which sustained our people in the wilderness for 40 years? And Jesus says Well, that bread is me! I’m the bread! And the people start to go,Ummmm…huh?
So then Jesus says he came from heaven and the people are starting to get really antsy. And then Jesus pushes them further, much further than they want to go. I’m not just bread, manna, I’m for feasting, feed on me. Tear me apart and devour me. And the people, who I anachronistically imagine in three-piece suits and dresses with fancy hats, are now getting pretty upset. Outraged, really. This isn’t polite conversation talk, this is obscene, how Jesus is speaking, the words he is using. Our translation doesn’t make this plain, but it is in Jesus’s language: he’s being obscene. And it is so telling that Jesus is saying these things in a synagogue. Imagine a visiting preacher coming here on a Sunday morning and swearing and using disgusting imagery. That’s what we’re talking about here.
So they go outside and all of these disciples, these close followers of Jesus confront him about what has happened, about this whole experience and they point this out to him and ask this rhetorical question: “who can accept it?” You can imagine the judgment in their voices. They’d be skeptical if they had stayed home that day. Not our Jesus, they’d say. But with their own eyes and ears, they witnessed the unthinkable.
And Jesus responds to their rhetorical question with a direct one: “Does this offend you?” And then goes into what is really going on. This is nothing. This is not the ballgame. This is silly, petty, ridiculous stuff. What I am talking about is this amazing, transforming thing that GOD is doing in this world, and many of you are worried because you don’t really believe.
And nearly all of these followers, these disciples, walk out on Jesus, leaving the 12. All that transforming and reconciling: gone. And in a moment of profound pain and disorienting faith, Jesus asks the remainder if they’re sticking with him and Peter says
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The lectionary cuts off the best part, the essential cap to this part of the story, these two verses, 70 and 71:
Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
This is the scope of our story. Truth, Belief, Betrayal; Follow, Confusion, Departure; Love, anger, give.
The story will turn in chapter 7 to their return home, where Jesus’s brothers, who don’t believe Jesus will try to send him back down here, to where his message of the kingdom is dangerous and will ultimately lead to his death.
And perhaps it is our problem that we see these Bread of Life passages as being about a theoretical idea about Jesus: that we focus not on the actions of the story and their consequence, and instead focus on the words about bread and Jesus and eternal life. That we ignore the power of the story and embrace the power we perceive in the theology.
I think that makes us fools, like the Judeans and the disciples: the ones so easily offended. That we, like them, can be so deeply offended by Jesus that we don’t want to hear it, we don’t want to be the witnesses to a gospel that challenges us and scandalizes us. A gospel that invites us to examine our own lives. We’d rather pretend Jesus never offends, never challenges, never provokes a response. We need to check ourselves. We need more opportunities to be like Peter and have Jesus erupt at our ignorance of the gospel, of what GOD is calling Jesus to do that we put a stumbling block before him rather than follow him to the cross; that Jesus would push us back and say Get behind me, Satan!
Arthur Chu wrote recently about our confusion over honesty and what can be said in our culture. Specifically challenging the notion that political correctness only comes from Twitter and not from the board room. When the powerful silence people, we don’t call it PC.
That’s it, isn’t it? It’s only “p.c. gone mad” if it’s the wrong people whose feelings are being policed, the people who are “normally” in the check-signing position.
None of us enjoys being made uncomfortable. And we all try to avoid it.
The message that Jesus brought to Capernaem was politically incorrect, not because he’s a “straight-shooter” and there are purity police trying to check him. But because what he said threatened the Temple system, threatened their comfort, threatened what they knew and believed about GOD: his message made the comfortable, powerful elites uncomfortable and they didn’t want to hear it, they didn’t want to hear it from him, and they refused to believe him. And we know what they will eventually do to him.
It is worth noting, too that Jesus’s arms are wide open here. The essential question the gospel raises in John 6 is not “why is Jesus busy offending the people he brought to himself?” but “why are the people so offended by the truth Jesus reveals about GOD?” The open door, a true inclusive example of love, is the exit they use to run away from him. How fragile the powerful are!
Jesus never said this pursuit of GOD was easy. He said the opposite: take up your cross. To the pious young man, he said:sell your possessions. And then he said follow me. That young man’s retreat is legendary.
Uncomfortable. Our faith brings comfort. It isn’t our faith that makes us comfortable. It is our faith that brings healing in the midst of pain. It doesn’t prevent us from ever feeling pain. Our faith gives us hope when all feels lost. It doesn’t prevent us from losing things. Our keys, our families, our power / comfort / status, our very lives.
Jesus isn’t talking about deep philosophical truths in John 6 that require a seminary degree to comprehend. But he’s revealing how hard it is for us to be honest with each other and with ourselves about faith, about GOD, and about what GOD is calling us to understand and do in this world.
For all the struggle and confusion and offense we take, with one another, we aren’t called to perfection or to be a church that makes everybody feel good all the time. We’re called to be at least a little uncomfortable because we need it to build the Kingdom of GOD, bring it closer, make it manifest here. It matters less how we do it, what specific words we choose to use, the form of our liturgy. It isn’t about whether or not any of us feels fed or if this helps us feel strong in our daily lives. That is all a small part of it.
It is getting together and eating and sharing and loving one another; to bring comfort to one another. It is being the kingdom come: together. It is sharing in this profound faith in a physical way, with one another. Literally breaking bread together and sharing it and eating it. It is being Christ for one another. Not in some perfect system or some profound ministry with charismatic leadership and the essential number of people (no more, no less!). But imperfectly and with our own hopes and love and compassion, that we might eat and become like Jesus. That we might receive so that we might share like Jesus. That we might get up from the table and wash the feet of the tired and the frightened like Jesus. Serving like Jesus. Loving like Jesus.
Not like a Christian, like a Christ.