John 6: 56-69 (Proper 15B)
Good morning. It was toward the end of July, five Sundays ago--the second of the two Sundays that Cathy Brall spent here as supply priest and guest preacher. Susy and I and my brother-in-law Michael heard the same gospel reading up at St. Luke’s Church in Scituate, at the beginning of the last week of our summer vacation. Seems like a million years ago! But I’m sure the story is still fresh in our minds: the opening of the sixth chapter of St. John. The hour was growing late and a multitude numbering in the thousands, following Jesus into the wilderness, far from their homes and villages, sat down on that broad expanse to feast on the meal that was provided miraculously, at his blessing of that young boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.
Next Sunday in the lectionary we’re headed back to St. Mark, but this morning we pause one last time, as we’ve moved week by week and are now at the end of John 6, continuing as Jesus and the disciples have moved from the countryside to the village synagogue in Capernaum, continuing in the wake of the miraculous feast, in this extended, deep, mystical, and we might almost say sacramental exploration of what it means when we pray in the Holy Communion, the “Prayer of Humble Access,”-- “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Jesus taking the moment and leading us ever deeper and deeper.
That miraculous meal in the wilderness launching us into a challenging consideration of who Jesus is—and about how “who he is” makes a difference in how we understand “who we are.” Provoking new questions, new concerns, new possibilities and new anxieties. All of a sudden it feels like dangerous territory. Just how much do we want our identity and our fate, our destiny, to be wrapped up in his identity, his destiny? Not just a question for those in the synagogue at Capernaum, as almost daily stories in the news continue to illustrate, in the Middle East and Africa, ISIS and Boko Haram and Al Shabab. --To be one with Jesus. To be “of his Body.” To take on his identity. In Syria and Iraq the ISIS troops when they occupy a new town will put the Arabic letter “N” on the door of the homes of those known to be Christians, to stand for “Nazorean,” the word used in the Bible to describe Jesus. A terrifying mark to see on your own front door. Nothing will ever be the same for you again. Get out of town now, or, as we know, the threat of imprisonment and cruel executions, hangings, beheadings, even crucifixions. And yet somehow also, a blessing, a benediction, an honor. A privilege. That’s what the survivors share in the refugee camps. To be called by his Name. They say many of the condemned go to their deaths singing hymns joyfully--like hearing stories of the martyrs on their way to the lions in ancient Rome come to new life in the second decade of the 21st century.
A privilege, they say: to participate in him, to be nourished and sustained by the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. The fulfillment of the ancient sign, the manna that God caused to rain down upon the Chosen People as they wandered in the wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Fulfilling and surpassing, completing God’s holy work. Manna is a gracious gift, but with that also a sign and reminder of absolute dependence. Without me you are nothing—dry bones bleaching in the desert sun.
The imagery is at once both deeply intimate and disturbing, even offensive. Who are you, Jesus, even to imply that I am nothing without you? That I can’t really live without you? That’s a little much—a little too much. The word in our translation here. “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. And apparently so, because as I mentioned last week, anticipating this, many of his followers decide at this point that they’ve had enough and need to move on. They were perhaps hoping for a second course, more miracles, as I mentioned last week. A free car for everyone in the studio audience. But that’s not how this story is going to play out. This is a decision point, and it seems to be dawning on everyone that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Pointing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called, “the cost of discipleship.” The shadow of the Cross already falling across the scene. It’s a fork in the road. Either you’re all in with Jesus now, all in, or you go home. Jesus asks the twelve, who have been his closest companions, and Peter offers his Confession. “No Jesus, we aren’t leaving. There’s no place else we can go. No one else could ever be for us what you have become for us. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The somewhat eccentric but always very interesting Scottish Presbyterian Biblical scholar William Barclay says this about Peter’s Confession in John 6:
“Peter's loyalty was based on a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. There were many things he did not understand; he was just as bewildered and puzzled as anyone else. But there was something about Jesus for which he would willingly die. In the last analysis Christianity is not a philosophy which we accept, nor a theory to which we give allegiance. It is a personal response to Jesus Christ. It is the allegiance and the love which a man gives because his heart will not allow him to do anything else.”
We talk about this relational sense of loyalty in terms of faith. Not simply to believe that what Jesus says is true. Not simply to believe that in and through Jesus God was and is fully present in the world. But as we would say, to believe in Jesus. To have him in our minds and in our hearts as we sing the metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23, “I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.” Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.
So how does this happen, this relationship, this sense of loving and trusting companionship. Of being in it for the long haul. With him and in him, for better, for worse? For Peter and those first disciples there was of course the personal presence of Jesus, day by day, walking with him, eating, drinking, laughing, crying--sharing both the great moments of revelation, healing and exorcism and signs of power, and as well quiet moments, sitting in the shade by the side of the road in the heat of an afternoon. For us, Word and sacrament, the testimony of faith, each word of scripture, the waters of baptism, the call to this Holy Table, to receive the Bread of Life, sacred memory of Jesus now stirred within us to new life and fresh witness in the Holy Spirit.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.” Remember those words in the first paragraphs of John as we heard them in the flickering candle light of Christmas Eve Midnight, our eyes on the Baby in the Manger. They seem to echo again. In the synagogue at Capernaum. And here, now. “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.