“Where else Ya gonna go?”

“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? 

Complaint Department John 6:35, 41-51

I was having a gritchy day.  That doesn’t happen to me terribly often as I tend to be obnoxiously positive, but things had conspired.   My body was off kilter, a series of technology failures had frustrated me, plans made had been interrupted and an e-mail string had frazzled my nerves.  I could do nothing right, nor get anything to work right, and so I entered into the realm of complaint and venting.  

            That is a place that rarely seems very satisfying while you are in it or afterward, because once you enter that mindset you have a tendency to dwell there.  

            You become like Elijah under the broom tree, moody, brooding, depressed, and generally in a funk.  So much so, that you can’t see anything but your own troubles.

            That is the real danger of engaging in complaint.   It will blind you to any positives, any gifts, and any the blessings that are coming your way.

            In John 6 we are told that Jesus’ own people, were complaining.   And what is it that they are complaining about?

            They complain about the gifts that Jesus claims he comes to bring them. 

            “I am the bread that came down from heaven….” 

            Wait a minute there, Jesus, how can you say that?  We know you.  We know your father, we seem to remember you running around here in diapers at one time, how can you make such a claim, that you have come down from heaven?   Aren’t you just Joseph’s son?

            In that moment of the beginning of the complaint, the whole focus of what it means for Jesus to be “bread,” is lost.  It is swallowed up in the question, “How this can be?”

There is in John’s Gospel this tension between the present and the future, which is really very much like the tension we live in and of which we try to make some sense.

Just what is it that Jesus does for us really?   Is this talk of the “Bread of Life” about life right now?   Is Jesus saying if we just trust in him the job will come, the money will come, the blessings in this life will come naturally?

If that’s the case, then I am trouble because clearly I am not believing or following enough.  I don’t have all the good things I want.

Or, is this “Bread of Life” thing about the future?   Is Jesus acknowledging that life pretty much sucks right now but in the end those who are faithful to him will get “eternal life”… that heavenly reward that makes all of the crap of this life somehow endurable?

If that’s the case, well then that sucks too, because it means that I have to trudge through life trying to be faithful just on the off chance that this thing about Jesus might be true.   I guess I won’t know until I die.

So which is it?   Is this Bread of Life thing is about life now, or about the future?

The answer as it turns out happens to be “yes”, frustratingly so; but it is not as simplistic as thinking in of the Bread of Life in terms of quantity.

It isn’t that you get more of the “good stuff” now if you follow Jesus.

It isn’t that you get more of the “best stuff” in eternity if you have followed Jesus.

What Jesus seems to be saying is that the quality of life changes when you follow him, and that is tricky to talk about or to describe, but it has to do with the blessings now and future, and how we perceive them because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This is where the “complaining” in this story reveals something to us.

            Look at the blessings that are being ignored by those to whom Jesus is speaking because they are stuck in trying to make sense of his words.

            “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father.”   Here Jesus stands, telling them that they are all here in his presence because God the Father has acted to draw them together this day, and they miss it.

            Do we miss that as well?  

Look around you today.  Has it ever occurred to you that you are not just here because you decided to come today, but that you are here because God drew you here!  

What does it mean that out of all the churches in the Kansas City area, and all the opportunities in general for things to do on a Sunday Morning, God has intentionally drawn you to this place, at this time, to be with these people.

            We are here because God drew us together today.  That is a blessing.  We are here for each other, drawn together this day to care for each other.  Do we miss that?  We can if we are tempted to enter into the world of complaint, the world of “How can this be?”

How often do we miss the chance to be lifted up by God, and lifted up by one another, because we prefer to stew in our own juices?   We prefer to focus on what we can’t understand, or what has happened to us recently, or what we think God ought to be doing, and in doing so miss being open to what God wants to give us as a free gift!   Here it is, a whole community of people who are drawn here together today by God, could it be there is someone here that needs you more than you need nursing your current complaint?  

Eternal life, the real life that Jesus comes to proclaim is the kind of life that we hear Paul talking about in the Ephesians 4. 

Listen to the balance in life and relationship that Paul says a life in Christ gives.

It’s o.k. to be angry, but not o.k. to act on it in a way that hurts someone else or that lingers. 

It’s not o.k. to steal, even if you try to rationalize it in any way.  Rather you must be about honest labor with your own hands, and then not for your benefit solely, but so you can help others.  That is the key, not your benefit, but for the needy, for the other.

It’s not o.k. to just say whatever pops into your mind.  “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth.”   Instead your words should be chosen and tempered to be useful in building up, in being constructive and “grace filled” Paul says.

Put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving…

This is the kind of life that God in Christ Jesus says is to be our staple, our “bread”.   It is a life that orders your events and days and gives you balance in care and relationship to one another, and it is a gift that Jesus comes to bring.  It is free for the taking, but you will miss it if you close your mind to it and prefer instead to remain in the world of complaint and questioning.   “How can this be?  What are you doing for me really Jesus?”

This is not an easy thing to do.  It is often said that the worst thing you can say to a depressed person is “cheer up.”   After all, if it was just a matter of choice, who would choose to be depressed!  

Complaint too, is not simply a choice.  We don’t choose usually, to be complainers.   The world is a place which does sorely vex us.  There are terrorists, and there are thieves, and there are those who would seek to harm us, there are complications in families, and injustices of every kind.  There are uncaring individuals and systems that oppress and are sick unto death. 

But, if we come to believe that the whole world is out to get us, we are being tempted by the evil one who wants us to disparage of this world and wants us to close in upon ourselves.   We most often fall into complaining when we become self focused.  When the only concern we have is for ourselves, for how this affects us, for how this will inconvenience me.

That has been the story throughout this Gospel story in John 6, as people have sought Jesus for their own needs, looking for the bread with which Jesus fed them.

But what Jesus continually presses them about, and presses us toward, is leaving behind the concern for ourselves and instead taking up a servant life where we focus on caring for the other.  That is where sustenance is found.  That is where we find the bread of life that Jesus comes to offer.  That’s what happens in his life, death and resurrection.

We know, deep down, that this is where we are fed. We are fed when we care for the other.

The spouse discovers this; the more you seek to care for the other, the more love and joy you seem to get in return.

The child knows this.  When life is scary, the place to go is to the parent, and while the wrapping of the arms around the mommy or daddy’s neck is meant to be a way to draw comfort from them, it is also a strange way of giving comfort as well.  No matter how scared or tired the parent is, in that moment of embrace all of the worlds cares melt away in the need to love, and to be kind, and to be tenderhearted, and to be forgiving for someone else.

This is the life that Jesus wants us to discover.   The life that he says he will give his own life to give us. 

Can you see it this day? 

Look around you.  Here is the bread of life, it is found in each other, as we meet Christ and one another here, drawn here today, for each other.