Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on August 23 2009.
Joshua 24:14-18; John 6:56-69
One of our church members was asked recently to offer a prayer at the beginning of a committee meeting. I was deeply touched by his words, if for no other reason than they were so genuinely positive. His prayer expressed a spirit of gratitude for the beauty of the day and the opportunity to be at church. He thanked God for a grace we do not deserve, and marveled at God’s goodness made so available to us. When he said the amen to his prayer, I had been filled with an uplifted attitude and a renewed feeling of gratitude and optimism. With his gentle words he made me feel very glad to be where I was.
Such a spirit is contagious.
Unfortunately, so is the other side of the coin. If you’re around people who are negative or angry, after awhile that kind of attitude can rub off on you as well.
When I was in high school, I worked one summer in the wholesale grocer warehouse where my dad was a salesman. One of my uncles worked there too. He was a deacon in his church, even led singing on occasion. Every time I was around him at family gatherings of any kind I enjoyed his sense of humor and his general love of life. But I noticed that in that warehouse he tended to use some of the words that crossed the lips of the others with whom he worked… words that he would not have repeated in church, let me tell you, nor around his wife or other family members.
There definitely is a tendency on our part to reflect the atmosphere in which we find ourselves. If it is positive, that is the way we feel and behave. If it is negative… well, we tend to be negative too.
I think you’ll find that to be true in the conversation Jesus is having with his disciples, and is seen in what others had to say to him when he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. At first, the Galileans followed Jesus to see what they could get from him. Then, they challenged him at points because of their familiarity with him. How could he claim to have a special relationship with God when they had grown up with him and knew his family? When he claimed to be the Bread of Life, they disputed among themselves and took issue with what he had to say.
The followers of Jesus have seen and heard all this, and the negative responses Jesus is starting to receive – the complaints and the grousing – are beginning to rub off on them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they want to know. This may be the very first time, at least in John’s gospel, that the disciples are beginning to realize something: following Jesus isn’t getting any easier.
Of all the various encounters recorded in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel (and to get a sense of it I would encourage you to sit down and read the entire chapter at one time), this one is the most problematic. In fact, I daresay that if any of us had been there we would have had pretty much the same response as the others. Earlier, when we read it together, did you really hear it?
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me”(vs. 56).
“…eat my flesh and drink my blood… whoever eats me will live because of me.”
You see what I mean?
For the first three hundred years or so of the Christian faith, these followers of Jesus lived with persecution. They were misunderstood, and this is one reason why. All this talk of eating Jesus – the bread and the wine as flesh and blood – well, it made skeptics think the Christians were cannibals. They met behind closed doors rather than in temples. They included children in their worship, something few, if any, of the other religions did. So they were obviously up to something secretive and… and dirty, right? The followers of the Jewish carpenter didn’t make very many friends during those dark, dark days.
When Jesus’ disciples express their difficulty with what he is saying, Jesus asks them, “Does this offend you?” Well, yeah, it does. And why not? Is Jesus offering them a meal or a human sacrifice? This talk of eating him… what’s that all about?
Some of Jesus’ followers decide this is just too much for them, and they take a hike, decide to go back home. “The group gets smaller as the stakes get higher.”He’s still got the Twelve by this side, however, so he turns to them and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” I wonder what Jesus would have said or done if they had gone away? But they didn’t, if for no other reason than it is then that Simon Peter – who else? – responds with the familiar words, “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.”
Okay, so Simon Peter – and we assume the other eleven disciples – aren’t intimidated by the defection of the others. But let me ask you… do you think they understood what Jesus was talking about?
I doubt it. I mean we’ve had two millennia of hindsight to figure all this out, and we haven’t been able to do it – at least not fully, not clearly. I’m not sure I understand what Jesus meant by this, and my guess is that you don’t either. But I do have it on good authority that “one of the most popular visual representations of Jesus in the early years of the Christian movement was the feeding of the multitude. Long before Christians portrayed Christ crucified they showed him breaking bread.” Perhaps that is because most of the early followers of Jesus were urban poor people for whom bread was a daily concern, a matter of survival.
And it may explain why we, you and I, have so much trouble understanding Jesus. We don’t get it because his bread imagery doesn’t match our own daily need. And it may be because following Jesus isn’t a matter of life or death for us.
But it was for them.
You do know, I assume, that Nero used Christians as human torches for his games in the Roman Coliseum. It was the beginning of the end for Rome as a pagan society, and do you know why? Because the Roman citizens saw how, with courage and faith, the Christians died. All the Christians had to do to survive was to recant their faith in Jesus. Deny him and they could be set free. But instead, they offered their lives as a human sacrifice for the One who fed them with living, eternal bread. It was at that point that the Roman populace began to turn on Nero and many, because of what they witnessed, began following Jesus too. It was the beginning of the Christian faith becoming the most popular religious expression in all the world.
Still, it doesn’t get any easier for us when we fully and completely give ourselves to Jesus. But that wasn’t a part of the promise anyway, was it? Following Jesus is not meant to be easy. Living bread, however, is offered to us every moment of every day. “Does this offend you?” Jesus wants to know. Perhaps the better question is asked by Simon Peter. “To whom can we go?” When it comes to eternal life, do we have any other options?
I think we know the answer to that question.
One commentator tells of her grandmother who immigrated to this country from Italy. When she shopped at the local supermarket she would often point to the loaves of bread and ask, “Why do people eat-a these things? They have-a no taste.” Then she would tell her granddaughter that life was too short to eat anything but good bread. So, they spent every Saturday making their own bread, pizza, and pasta for the family. Then the granddaughterasks, “Why settle for bread that is not bread, for life that is not life?”
It may not be getting any easier to follow Jesus, but “to whom can we go?” Answer that question, and I think you will find yourself at the Lord’s Table, eating this bread, drinking from this cup. If you will, then you can go out from this place ready to face anything.
Lord, send us on the journey filled by your bread and wine. And while life may not get easier for us, we will know that you are our Companion of grace. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.