Reading(s): John 6:56-69. This sermon was given by Victoria at St Denys.
Finn and Rachel arrived early at the lecture hall. Rachel had been excited about the talk, which was billed as introducing Aristotle’s main philosophical ideas, and particularly suitable for complete newcomers to philosophy. Whilst this was her subject (she had a PhD in it, after all) Finn was less enthusiastic, but didn’t want to disappoint her. A lecture entitled “A Didactic Approach to The Philosophical Treatises of Aristotle” hardly had the ring of philosophy for beginners. As it turned out, they were both disappointed.
By the end of the lecture, Finn had a headache which would challenge a hangover, and Rachel was furious. The talk had turned out to be so high level, so boring, and so badly delivered that she knew Finn would probably never talk to a philosopher again. Finn, meanwhile, had decided to have nothing more to do with anything vaguely about philosophy or Aristotle. He wasn’t sure yet if that also included Rachel…
‘This is difficult stuff!’ might have been what Finn said after the lecture. It was also the response that Jesus got from some of his followers, as we heard in our reading from John. It’s unlikely that Jesus’s teaching was boring. But was it too high level? Too abstract? Too confusing? Some of his listeners may well have ended up with a headache trying to follow it. Far worse, however, was that Jesus was tearing a hole in their world view. And when that happens, don’t we often prefer to back off and ignore what has been said, or quickly try to explain it away?
In his book John for Everyone, former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, says, “If you go to a meeting where someone demolishes the way you’ve been brought up to think and offers you instead a way of looking at the world which, though convincing, will be extremely costly, you may well find good reasons to be somewhere else next time the preacher comes to town.”
Some of his followers kept grumbling about Jesus’s teaching, saying that it was too difficult and too demanding to really sign up to. Many of his listeners had their own aspirations or agendas in mind, and Jesus simply wasn’t conforming to them. He didn’t fit the mould of their traditional Messiah. So the followers were divided. The narrative suggests only The Twelve continued with Jesus, but this is probably an oversimplification. Some who didn’t completely understand would have continued with him as well, at least for a time.
With our 21st century desire for empirical evidence and logical thought, we may find it hard to see this narrative in John as rooted in the physical world. It can make the message feel more comfortable if we assume that Jesus is talking about something purely spiritual, with his physical picture being just an illustration to aid understanding. Does it matter whether things literally happened, if we can understand the spiritual truth in the teaching? Whether John is writing factual history, or spiritual truth, is not the point. What really matters is the actual story of Jesus, the story he is telling about himself.
Jesus is a citizen of both heaven and earth – equally at home in both. By mentioning the ascension of the son of man, Jesus is warning his listeners against a purely physical interpretation of his words, such as their desire to follow him to get more free food (this narrative follows on soon after the feeding of the five thousand). He is trying to show how the physical and spiritual dimensions overlap one another. Despite any uncertainty or confusion they may have felt, the twelve remain. They have seen beyond the merely physical, and although they may not yet fully understand, they have come to believe that Jesus is so much more than just a gifted teacher and healer.
They are prepared to confirm aloud that his is the holy one, the Messiah – the one who has the words of eternal life, the ‘Holy one of God’. Jesus knows that one of them will ultimately betray him, but for now these twelve are the representatives of those who have faith in Jesus and a dawning understanding of who he really is.
What might this mean for us today? It isn’t wrong to have honest doubts or queries, or to be confused. Keeping an open mind, asking questions, and listening to others are all healthy things to do. We don’t have to ‘get it all’ before we can trust that Jesus is worth following. And when we do take the plunge and trust him, we have more opportunities to see who he really is, and to learn what that means for us personally.
Do not be afraid to have discussions – in church or not – about difficult teaching or complex moral issues. Conversations don’t have to involve having all the answers. Do we try too hard sometimes to please other people? ‘Letting the other person hear what they want to hear’ may have its place, but not so much in an earnest discussion. Listening to the viewpoint of others, and in turn sharing our own, will help us begin to make more sense of what it means to follow Jesus.
How do you really feel about this passage from John, and Jesus’s assertion that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood? Imagine Jesus asking you if his teaching is too difficult, and do you “wish to go away”? Have you ever really thought about what you are doing each Sunday when you take Communion?
Despite our doubts and the inevitable challenges to our faith, for a disciple of Jesus there is no other real choice. Jesus alone has the gift of life – real life, life in all its fullness. If we can accept that Jesus has the words of eternal life – never mind the specifics – then that will keep us on the journey with him. It will allow us to respond similarly to Peter, saying, “Where else would we go? Where else can we go?” Jesus has the words of eternal life, and he wants to say them to us. All we need do is keep listening.