“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him; “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.”
There are two surprises at the end of the Bread of Life discourse in John. Jesus has all along been trying to move people along into considering the spiritual dimension of what he comes to offer.
The crowds came at first because he offered them free lunch, bread for the hungry.
They stayed because of the promise of continued feeding, and some intrigue about his teaching.
They persist a bit longer to argue with him, trying to understand how he fits into the grand scheme of their heritage and tradition. How is his “bread” like the “Manna?”
But it turns out that Jesus’ teaching is hard. For some, it is just too far of a stretch, this idea that Jesus is God in flesh and blood before them, offering himself for them. They turn back and no longer follow him.
So the first surprise in the story is this mass exodus of followers because they can’t get over “Exodus!” They prefer the meager subsistence bread of their current lives over that which would lead to never hungering again.
Maybe that doesn’t surprise us as much as we think.
We’ve kind of grown accustomed to people taking a good, long, hard look at Jesus and then saying, “No thanks.”
That’s why we have the empty seats here.
We grieve over the people no longer in them.
Empty seats, the trickle away of those who found the teaching too hard, or who didn’t see how it applied, or couldn’t understand what Jesus was trying to say, or found contradictions in faith, life, scripture, or belief, or just better things to do on a Sunday morning. Tailgating at a Chiefs game beats the fair trade coffee and stale donuts we offer.
“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
Yeah we get that.
But there is a second surprise at the end of this Bread of Life discourse.
As the crowd thins out down to the remnant twelve Jesus does not turn and say to them, “Way to go guys, I knew you’d stick with me.”
Jesus does not turn and give them a particular blessing for their discerning capabilities, the way he did to Peter when he made his great confession. “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you…”
No, the surprise here is that Jesus asks the twelve if they wish to go away as well.
It is an honest moment.
This is how I imagine that scene: One by one the people file out of the synagogue at Capernaum, just as we do when we leave here after worship. They head back home across the Sea of Galilee, heading back to other things.
Jesus and the twelve named disciples remain standing in the Synagogue, the sound of rustling footsteps echoes off the stone walls. As the last one leaves, they wait for Jesus to tell them what is next, where they will be going.
It is then that he drops the bomb question.
“Do you also wish to go away?” As if, this were a real possibility.
Time stands still for a moment as they consider the gravity of his words.
And now, in my mind’s eye I try to imagine what raced through their thoughts…. Maybe some pondered it.
We know Judas is standing there, and what he will eventually do, but what did each of them think in that briefest of moments before Peter answers for them all?
I’m struck by the incredible fragility of this honest moment, and all the fragile moments before and after, when the story of Jesus seems to hang by just a thread.
The story of Jesus, the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us hangs upon the willingness of a young girl, Mary; to be the vessel for God to enter the human scene.
The story of Jesus hangs upon the decision made by the Wise Men to turn aside and not report back to Herod about finding the child…
The story of Jesus hangs upon the flight to Egypt, Joseph being willing to upend the family and leave the business on the warning of an apparition…
The story of Jesus hangs on how a child is received in the temple by the teachers, upon the child being actually listened to instead of sent away or dismissed…
The story of Jesus hangs on the response of the call of those twelve named disciples, one by one… that moment when at the invitation of Jesus they choose to abandon the boat, the father, the lucrative tax position,… instead of turning and going about their normal business.
The story of Jesus hangs on the ability of the women to hold vigil at the cross with him, go to the tomb, and eventually choose to talk about what they witnessed…
The story of Jesus hangs on the tentative actions of those remaining eleven named disciples gathered on the hilltop at the ascension… watching Jesus leave a second time, and having to decide what to do next.
When you peel away the layers of the story of Jesus, you come face to face with all these honest moments, these uncomfortable moments when it really looks like it could all really go either way.
It all hangs by such a thread….
This is what I find most miraculous about the church.
We file in here on a Sunday morning looking for bread… of one kind or another. For some it’s the Pantry services downstairs, and we may never actually find a way to tell them the story of the Jesus that is the reason we do all of that.
For others it’s the fellowship and camaraderie they find here.
Still others it is the opportunity to gather with family and friends, or to find a little piece of hope, or to hear a song that fills the heart and makes the walking back into the new week a little more bearable. They wander in to see if anything is really happening here, or if it meets their needs, or reminds them of what they want in life, or perhaps find a little bit of healing, or a last ditch effort. Maybe if I get a little religion the crap-hole my life is in will somehow turn around.
There are such a myriad of reasons why people seek out Jesus.
And we as Church have come to expect that if we’re doing our job right as church, they will keep coming back, and our numbers will grow, and our institution will flourish, and our bills will get paid, and we’ll be able to expand, address the building issues, feed more of the poor and hungry, or support more ministries. That’s what rumbles in the back of our minds right up until we read this story, and hear about this most honest moment with Jesus, and begin to realize that this is a legitimate possibility. We are reminded that the story of Jesus all always hangs by such a thread…and a moment of decision, because that is the nature of faith. It is not certainty, it trust, it is following, it is finding in Jesus something that we cannot quite describe, but also cannot live without.
“Do you also wish to go away?”
So it comes as such a moment of Grace to hear Peter give voice to what none of us standing in the room can figure out exactly how to say.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
So this is what it comes down to… Where else ya gonna go?
This is how it has always been, and how it always will be.
We all have this moment when we soul search and either walk away or come to realize there really is no place else to go. We either throw our lot in with Jesus and follow where he leads, hard as that is; or we head for the hills to be left to our own devices.
And just as it happens in the biblical narrative, such moments will happen to us over and over and over again, because coming to believe, really coming to trust that Jesus reveals God to us in a way that we can truly “take in” is something that requires a continued journey, with all its’ twists and turns, and yes, continued feeding on the very body and blood that Jesus has come to offer … himself.
Here is the good news at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus, the Word made Flesh does not force himself upon anyone. He is persistent in the journey, and the invitation, and following will change everything, but he is brutally honest as well.
“Do you also wish to go away?”
This really does all boil down to this for us, for the church, for faith itself. Pack it up, or keep on going. Where else are ya gonna go where you can find eternal life?