Wow! What a day. A baptism, a new family, new officers to be ordained and installed. It is a full liturgy day. It seems the only thing missing is communion. So let’s talk about that.
When I teach communion to children I use that age-old guidance of age-appropriate instruction. Which is to say when working with pre-schoolers, it is enough to introduce communion telling them it was Jesus’ last meal with his best friends and they will always remember that special time. With third grade boys, one can introduce words like flesh and blood. They get into it. As we get older, however, maybe less so. Today’s opening, “…eat my flesh and drink my blood…” is less exciting for us than for 3rd graders. It is rather jarring. So what’s Jesus getting at?
Hearing these words we might be just as thrown as Jesus’ audience. In this section of John’s story of Jesus, it has been good and exciting to be around. Stories of Jesus’ healings and solid teachings have brought great crowds out to hear him. With the enthusiasm of early Sinatra or Beatles crowds, he is wildly followed and adored. They are hanging on his every word and seemingly will follow him anywhere. As the excitement grows, there is anticipation that this is the Messiah, the one that will set all things right. He has got to be the one who will rally the people to cast off the Roman oppressors. It is a good time to be around Jesus.
But not so fast. Just when a good rock concert might whip a crowd into a frenzy, Jesus seems to take a detour. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Like nails on a stadium size chalk board, his words bring the party to a screeching halt. To the ears of Jewish faithful, words of eating and drinking flesh and blood are abhorrent. Like Sinatra dating Ave Gardner, or the Beatles Jesus’ remark, suddenly the adoring crowds start to peel away. Perhaps thousands who thought the Jesus way would be their way, now realize his way can’t be their way.
Before long, only the disciples, the twelve, remain. His closest, most devoted, ardent followers. They are the ones who have been baptized into the movement. They are the ones who would join as new members to follow where he leads. They are the ones whom he will ordain and install as his leaders to establish the church when he departs. And they are the ones who now hesitate. “This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” Suddenly Peter Rock and the rest are pebbles of uncertainty.
“Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. Does the idea of the bread of life come down from heaven to sustain and nourish offend? It is easy to see how the crowds fled, they were not well versed in the imagery Jesus uses regarding the bread of life. Frankly it is a bit confusing however, that the disciples are hesitant. Isn’t eternal life good news? Isn’t bread from heaven a blessing? Isn’t the promise of never hungering or thirsting again a teaching we want to embrace? What is so hard to accept?
An underlying theme throughout John’s story is Jesus’ identity. So perhaps it is this that stops the disciples short, they still can’t quite connect this ordinary fellow, a carpenter no less, from backwater Nazareth, with the One come from heaven to save the world. Feeding a bunch of folks on a hillside is a nice feat, but wouldn’t a revolution be a more effective way of showing the world who is in charge. Wouldn’t God use a grandeur person to display God’s awesome majesty?
On a day of baptism and membership and officer installation, this text says, not so fast. It is a yellow caution light the disciples throw up. I think what offends the disciples, is what can throw cold water on my approach to Jesus. Often I want that grander Jesus. I want a Jesus who will storm the palaces of injustice and give what’s what to those who exploit the poor and abuse their positions. Yet Jesus says he is the living bread for all. Say what? How can that be? When we read of priests abusing children, and teenagers killed by suicide bombers and migrant workers rendered indentured servants, it is hard to accept that Jesus offers living bread all around. It is hard to accept that nothing will be left behind and all gathered together. It is hard to accept that Jesus has come not to condemn, at least parts of the world, but to save it.
Perhaps you are like me as well. Because to tell you the truth, there are days when I would rather follow a different teaching than that of Jesus Christ. I don’t want to pray for my enemies. I don’t want to sit at the same table with betrayers. I don’t want to go to the cross. I don’t want to seek reconciliation. I don’t want to extend forgiveness. It is all too difficult. And yes, Jesus, come to think of it, your bread of life, your grace, is offensive. Revenge is much more satisfying. I want to see certain people, and you know who they are, eating crow, lots of crow.
And Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, come down from heaven for the sake of the world. Not everyone will believe, many will be offended, but for those who abide in me, they will live differently. Fully. Abundantly. And they will live for the sake of the world as well.”
So baptizing and joining and ordaining today, and scripture says not so fast. Not so fast because eating this bread from heaven requires that we put on the whole armor of God and take on the cosmic powers of this present darkness. It requires that we offer bread indiscriminately. It requires that we eat with anyone and everyone.
Not long ago a local free paper posed a question to its readers: “How does your faith get you through difficult times?” The answers ranged from “I have no religious faith whatsoever, and never have. This helps me get through difficult times because I don’t expect the celestial cavalry to suddenly come and rescue me. Instead, I depend on my own wits and experiences” to “Whenever I need to find a being greater than myself, more valuable to the world than myself, all I need is to look to the trees.” And then there was this: “Christ Jesus has been the great answer to everything in my life in the last 30 years. He is totally real, and he’s 100 percent love. It’s easy – just invite him in. No risk and no downside. I promise!”
Now I don’t agree with the first two responses. But it is the third that is troubling. “It’s easy.” And, “No risk and no downside.” Not so fast.
Somehow this follower missed the offensive, scandalous, take up your cross, lose your life part of following Christ Jesus. Jesus sounds like the latest gadget being proffered on late night television infomercials, not the Messiah who came down to serve and pour himself out to the point of death on a cross. We might as well look to the trees or rely on our own wits if the One we follow requires nothing of us but our invitation.
When we forget the offense and difficulty of Jesus’ teachings, we fail to recognize that there is nowhere else to go for eternal life. We reduce the bread from heaven to some sort of magic beans that grant our wishes. We turn the bread into comfort food that confirms the status quo when what Jesus did was give up his body that we might be salt and light and leaven for the world.
Being baptized, joining the company of saints and sinners and accepting the call to lead said company, puts us in the company of those we do not choose. Eating the bread of life incorporates us into the Body of Christ and calls us to be dependent upon and concerned for every member of it. Hearing the word of the Spirit means going where it wills. Believing that Jesus is the Messiah requires that we follow his teachings. As difficult and as offensive as they are. So Hailey, and Dan and Charlotte, and Don and Tom, Sally, David, Pam and Don, Dennis, Cathy, Bob, and not so fast, Jesus has a reminder for you, for us all:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” So as you go forth to grow and live, to lead and serve, Abide in Christ.