Text: John 6:68: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’”
The relationship between the disciples and Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is by no means an easy one, and certainly nothing like those Sunday school images many of us grew up with of a bunch of bearded men sitting around on the ground listening intently to what Jesus is saying. That picture usually has Jesus sitting slightly higher, maybe on a rock or a tree stump, or maybe standing, with his armed raised in a gesture pointing heavenward.
The reality of that relationship is very different. It isn’t speaking poorly of Jesus or the disciples to say this; it’s simply a close reading of the text the gospels give us. Jesus and the disciples were not always easy companions. The story of that little band of believers is a difficult, troubled, very human story.
In one way the words we heard this morning in the gospel reading are bewildering and maybe even a little bizarre. Jesus is talking about the bread that comes down from heaven, and then that becomes the bread of life that lives forever, and somehow by the end of the story, the part we heard this morning, Jesus is talking about people eating his own flesh.
To make sense out of all this we can retreat in relief to the work of scholars, who will teach us, in the commentaries, about the way in which Jesus’s audience would have heard this kind of language in their own day, or the significance of the metaphor of flesh in the ancient world. We can do that, and when we do we can get some distance between our own lives of faith and these, well, frankly embarrassing words.
We can do that, but we do it at our loss, and maybe even at our peril. Because if we do, we miss the lesson in this story about how people of faith handle the hard stuff, the unpleasant stuff, maybe even the embarrassing stuff.
Jesus and his group of followers have been out on the hustings. Jesus has won a great throng of interested followers, mostly through the time-worn gambit of offering free food. They’re eager to be part of the buzz. They like what they see. They’re happy to join.
But Jesus wants to make sure they’re there for the right reasons. He starts laying it down for them. He even questions their motivations. (Imagine a presidential candidate who would dare to question whether followers were supporting the candidacy for the right reasons!)
He starts talking about how the God from which he came, and whom he claims to be, really works. Pretty quickly it becomes obvious that sticking with this guy is not going to make them popular, or powerful, or even safer. And so, the more he talks, the more the crowd starts to thin. People get up and leave in the middle of the sermon. What had been enthusiasm turns to enervation.
And at the end of the story, only a few are left.
It’s worth stopping the story for a moment and pondering this question: Why do they stay? What keeps them there, when everyone else, the people they fed, melt away?
Is it that they know something the rest didn’t know? Not likely; they’re hearing the same message everyone else did. Is it because they know how the story will end? No, it can’t be.
What makes the difference?
Peter speaks that answer for all of them. They may be tired; they may be confused; they may doubt. They probably have taken a fair amount of abuse from their friends, and they may even have caused their families some worry, even some pain, by choosing to stay.
But there is some essential truth they have glimpsed. There is some compelling hope they are not willing to abandon. “Lord, you have the words of eternal life. Where else can we go?”
Whether we like it or not, and if we have an ounce of sense we don’t, we see our own situation in theirs. We have been drawn, somehow, to the idea of faith. We have followed God through the winding path of our own lives. Sometimes our faith has given us deep comfort, sometimes it has been so much frothy emotion, sometimes it has flickered to a tiny little flame. But for some reason it has never left us.
And yet when we listen to the message, the core of the message, sometimes it is confusing. Often it is discomfiting. Occasionally, if we really listen, it can even be offensive. Because at the very center of it are a few very unpleasant truths: We belong to God, not to ourselves; our own behavior stands in the way of acknowledging that fact; we need to be saved from ourselves; we can’t do it ourselves.
Even all that we might accept if it happened in the terms the world usually operates on. We accept the idea of paying off a debt with interest. But taking on the right amount of debt and paying it responsibly—all of that is something we can control. It’s within our capability.
We want a God like that. We want a God that makes sense. We want a God who works by the same rules we do, who operates in accord with the discoveries we make every day about how the universe works.
Many people will only accept a God who works on those terms. Said differently, they demand a God who is completely within the bounds of what we know, or what we can know. And when we offer the God we have, the God we have come to know by faith, those folks drift away. A God they can’t find by reason is a God they are not willing to find.
But a God confined only to reason would not be a God of faith. Faith has no part where reason is sufficient. And the God we have come to know, to experience, to sense in our lives is a God who works both within and outside the constraints that bound human understanding.
Our world has become suspicious of mystery and deprived of enchantment. We see these things as childish or simple. But they are not. At the very least they are reminders, increasingly overlooked reminders, of our need for humility.
Humility, of course, is not a message that wins a lot of converts or enthusiastic followers. A God that is somehow unreachable by reason is not easy to sell, because it confronts us with our own limits. But that is the God we have come to know; and we cannot deny it.
There is a kind of helplessness in what Peter says—a human helplessness, a confession of a deep truth. We can’t do this on our own. There is nowhere else to go—nowhere else worth going, at least. We may not like it; we may not be able to explain it; we surely will never understand it all. But we know it to be true, and we accept it, not as proven, but as a proposition of faith.
We are resigned to our lot. It sounds almost like defeat. But in that surrender we find the freedom to live by faith; and when we do, we finally touch a solid foundation, we find the strength of our first resolve to stay, to live by faith, to move forward even when we cannot see the path. That freedom, the freedom from the tyranny of proof, is God’s greatest gift to faithful people. Amen.