(RCL Proper 16B) John 6: 56-59
This morning, the fifth and last Sunday in a kind of summer interlude, as since the end of last month the course of our readings in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary has paused on the journey through St. Mark’s gospel for a sustained time of reflection on the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.
This chapter, beginning at the end of this past July with the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and then unfolding to this very profound and mystical meditation on what is to be our true food and drink, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior—who is now and always our nourishment, our strength, our life, and our eternal life.
This eucharistic meal, as we receive him, so that he might receive us. So that there might be this state of “abiding.” Such a great word. To abide. One life resting fully in another. To have together, one home. Our lives subsumed into his. Each one of us as individuals, and all of us together. In the Liturgy for Christian Marriage we say about marriage, “it signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” And here: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” The two become one.
And of course as I pointed out last week—not that I needed to, as we all read this for ourselves, but to quote the disciples in their response: “This teaching is difficult: who can accept it?”
And there is this great falling out. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” The first schism, we might say. The division of the Church. And we have some real sympathy for those who depart, no question about it.
“I thought I was signing up for one of those continuing education classes. Tuesday and Thursday nights, 7-9:30. Last year we took Italian, and I was maybe thinking about Yoga. Some personal enrichment. Maybe some good hints about improving family life. A new idea or two about spirituality. Fresh perspectives on the issues of the day. But this thing is going way too far. And this teacher . . . . Is he crazy, or what? I wonder if they really checked his credentials before letting him teach the class.”
So, the great division. The fork in the road. Many leave. And Jesus turns to the 12, his inner circle. “Do you also wish to go?” And one of those moments when I kind of picture him talking to his disciples and then kind of glancing out over their shoulders and making eye contact with me. With us. Across all that time and space. “Do you also wish to go?” The good times of that wonderful picnic of loaves and fish suddenly seem very much long ago and far away.
And the answer, honestly, Jesus, from my heart, is . . . maybe. Maybe: there are times, there have been times, when I’ve thought about it. I guess I say that I’m as American as the next guy, which at least partly means that I like to have things go the way I want them to go. In family and other relationships, in work, in society in general, in the church.
And when things don’t seem to go my way—well, I have a pretty strong sense of persistence and patience, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take a careful look around to be sure I know where the exits are located. Just in case. People do it all the time. Relationships. Jobs. Even in the church, as we all know from recent painful experience, sometimes it just seems tempting to fly away. As some of my dearest friends have done. People I respect and love. And of course maybe sometimes it is even the right thing to do, which is what discernment and prayer need to be all about. Sometimes relationships or jobs or communities can be so toxic that the only thing you can do to survive is abandon ship.
But the critical point as we check the state of our own hearts and our own loyalties and commitments, is that in all our comings and goings, our departures and our arrivals, our separations and our reconciliations, we not lose sight of the one who calls us to himself here this morning. It sometimes gets to be all about us, and when it is all about us, our preferences, our opinions, our choices, he can slip off the radar screen.
Sometimes our running away is about our not wanting to face the truth about some aspect of our lives. About not wanting to do the hard work. About a Fantasy Island escape to those greener pastures that always seem to be over the next horizon. And so the reminder in the affirmation of the 12, in their holy discernment at this critical moment in the story: “ Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The late Attorney General John Mitchell once said about his wife Martha, and perhaps some of us will remember this from the days of the Watergate hearings: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Which was I think an unfortunate and somewhat denigrating comment for him to make about his wife. But it is a saying that has lived on in popular culture, because it says something true about us perhaps as a society, and perhaps just about the human condition.
Looking for the easy way. Not much for the long haul. Thinking about the story in Genesis of Jacob and Esau, when after a long day of hunting the older brother in his hunger sells his patrimony to his younger brother for a bowl of lamb stew. Or simply about the reminder that comes from one of those sayings in the 12-step movement, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
The invitation this morning is to come closer. To approach the Holy Table this morning, as we approach him who is our food and drink every day of our lives. Opening our eyes and ears, our minds and our hearts, unlocking the doors. Dismantling the defenses. If there are all kinds of things to be anxious about, to take a deep breath and come closer anyway.
As I said last week, quoting my friend, this coming forward to be an altar call, a decision for Christ. To let this be our answer, my answer, to the question Jesus asks. Are you staying or leaving? Because there is no one else to whom we can go. No other word of life. Because he is true, and here for us. To receive the gift of his presence. To abide in him who is the Bread of Heaven, the Cup of Salvation.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.