A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 26, 2012
56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Allow me to remind you of the context for the lesson from John’s Gospel that is the backdrop for this sermon. Jesus fed thousands of hungry people one day using a boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish. The crowd was so taken by that miracle that people wanted to make him their ruler. Jesus refused, retreated overnight to a secluded place, and returned to Capernaum, the village near the Sea of Galilee that Jesus called home, where some of the multitude found him the following day. But what Jesus said about being “the bread of life” and his figurative talk about people needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life offended many of the people who only a day earlier wanted him to be their ruler.
Today’s lesson doesn’t focus on the multitude or even part of it. It focuses, instead, on the fact that “many of his disciples” found something about Jesus so offensive they “turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:60-66). In less than twenty-four hours, many disciples who had been following him awhile decided to reject Jesus and his notions about life.
What turned them off so much?
Jesus taught about and lived out a mystical relationship with God that defines everything else in life and said that this relationship with God is life! Jesus challenged people to believe that life means becoming one with God’s grace and truth to the point that God’s grace and truth affects everything we experience.
At John 6:63 Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” When Jesus said “life” he was talking about what you and I think of as “vitality” or “vigor.” The key to vitality, according to Jesus, is our connection to the Divine. Material things (flesh) become useful (alive, vibrant, potent) only when they are connected to God. Apart from that spiritual connection, material things are lifeless, lack vitality, useless.
Many people who say they are following Jesus reject the idea that “life” is defined by what is “spiritual,” rather than what is material (“flesh”). What is it about the gospel of Jesus that makes it so unpopular and distasteful to people who claim to follow Jesus that they might stop following Jesus?
It seems that the turning point for the disciples who left Jesus was his emphasis that life is defined by what is spiritual as shown by his statement, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Let’s consider that claim in the light of who Jesus claimed to be.
The whole idea of who Jesus claimed to be involves what we Christians now call “the incarnation.” Central to that idea is that God somehow and for God’s own reasons created all that is, and everything in our world, including humanity. Then God somehow and for God’s own reasons chose to become one of us. God, the Source of Life and all that we call Reality, deliberately and voluntarily took on our lot, entered into our human plight, shared our struggles, and even risked our rejection.
God became one of us in Christ to bring us back into oneness with God. This oneness with God is what John’s Gospel presents as “eternal life.” Restoration to oneness with God is what Christianity means by salvation. This is the mystery of our faith, that God in Jesus Christ became one with humanity to reunite humanity to God.
When Jesus spoke of himself as “the bread of life” from God, he was talking figuratively about being the incarnation of divine grace and truth. He was claiming to be the Source of Life and all that we call Reality walking around. John’s Gospel is entirely built around this idea that Jesus was the “walking around” Source of Life and Reality “in the flesh”—as that is literally what incarnation means.
Jesus insisted to his grumbling disciples—those who eventually left him—that life depends on this spiritual infusion from God. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is the same truth he affirmed to Nicodemus when he talked about being “born from above.” It’s the same truth he declared to the woman he met at Jacob’s Well in Samaria when he spoke of being “living water.”
Perhaps the problem for the grumbling and eventually deserting disciples was that they were essentially materialists. They followed that Jewish rabbi from Galilee named Jesus, but they may have been fundamentally materialistic rather than spiritual.
Even among the twelve apostles who remained with Jesus the notion of “what’s in it for me” kept showing up. James and John expected prominent positions in what they thought would eventually be a Jesus government. Judas eventually decided to trade his allegiance to Jesus for cash. Peter and the other disciples deserted Jesus after he was arrested, and hid following his crucifixion. They stopped following Jesus when they no longer thought it was to their advantage.
They weren’t the last of their kind. In every era there are people who associate religion with material well-being.
But the Gospel of Jesus challenges this materialistic worldview. In fact, the Gospel of Jesus constantly leads us higher up and farther into living defined by our connection to divine love and truth so much that we, like God has done in Christ, willingly sacrifice ourselves in order to restore others to what they deserve as fellow children of God.
We don’t become connected with God based on our wealth, fame, or private influence. Union with God isn’t a function of ethnicity, nationality, or association with religious institutions and bodies. We become connected with God by our faith in God’s love and truth. The more we trust God’s love and truth, the more we really live! Conversely, our existence is less invigorating, less potent, and less real to the extent that we embrace the materialistic worldview.
“Do you also wish to go away?”Are we like the disciples who “turned back and no longer went about with him”? Jesus did not send them away. He did not reject them. They left Jesus.
Their conduct shows that we can hang around religion and still reject the power of God’s grace and truth. It is painful to say so, but this has been a recurring problem for Christianity and every other religion.
Most of the people in Germany during the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) regime were religious people. Let me be more blunt! Most of them would have self-identified as Christians! Yet, they somehow embraced hate rather than love, fear rather than fellowship, and false claims rather than truth. Can we say they left Jesus?
Most of citizens of the United States during the period before the Civil War would have self-identified as Christians. Yet, they set up a government that institutionalized enslaving black people, rejected the idea that women were entitled to political equality, and even refused to extend the right to vote to free men who did not own land. Can we say they left Jesus?
Most people in the United States today who claim to be religious also profess to be followers of Jesus who insisted that “It is the spirit that gives life.” Yet, many religious people, including Christians, remain addicted to materialism to the point that they refuse to shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed a year before he was murdered. Can we say they left Jesus?
Jesus embodied divine love, peace, and truth. Yet, many people who claim to be followers of Jesus are strangely in love with militarism judging from their preference for war-making over peace, retaliation and revenge over reconciliation, and imperialism over genuine community with people who are different.
So the question Jesus posed to the twelve applies to you and me also. “Do you also wish to go away?”
I hope we will answer by our living as Peter answered Jesus. “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.”
Let it be said of us that we want to be Christians more than we want to be rich. Let it be said that we want to be followers of Jesus so much that we want to become like Jesus. Let it be said of us that we aren’t going away because we prefer living in God’s love and truth.
- Loving and welcoming everyone regardless of condition, background, station in life, or anything else.
- Being faithful to God’s truth and purpose even if it means giving up comfort, privilege, and even life itself.
- Being determined to be one with God in bringing humanity and the entire creation into unity with God.
Jesus shows that this union with God will put us into direct conflict with the self-serving, self-righteous, and self-glorifying mindset of our materialistic world. And the life of Jesus shows that even some religious people will forsake living defined by oneness with God’s love and truth in favor of something much less.
But let that not be said of us! Let it be said that we stayed with Jesus!
- Stayed with Jesus and lived as agents of God’s all-inclusive love in a world where people put up walls around themselves.
- Stayed with Jesus and lived as agents of God’s truth in a world where people have become addicted to false claims about what living means.
- Stayed with Jesus to be peacemakers, healers, and people of unconquerable joy in a world of pain, oppression, and despair.
Let it be said that we stayed with Jesus to grow into oneness with God. That is what eternal life means. That is what it means to be Christians. Let this be our passion, our purpose, and the product of our living in the world! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.