Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Choice...

My thanks this week to the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Lindy Black, and Charlene Fairchild, among (I am sure) others.

I have to say that I am going to miss the "bread" passages. As I have written each week, I've been challenged to try and find a fresh perspective. I don't know whether I succeeded in those efforts, but the journey has been enlightening.

John 6:56-69
"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
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." 

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know how they ended up in the synagogue from the lakeshore, but there they were, shocked, puzzled faces turned toward Jesus as he invited them to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood and to live in him.

The noise in the little synagogue was deafening. Not only did you have the folks who had eaten of the leaves and fishes the day before, now enraged that Jesus was claiming to be greater than Moses, incensed that Jesus claimed to have come from and be returning to heaven, apoplectic over Jesus calling God his Father… you had the rank-and file disciples, dozens of them, perhaps more, who had been following Jesus for months – perhaps years – now throwing up their hands in disgust and frustration.

“Dude, I mean, Rabbi, I just don’t get what you’re saying. I mean I hear the words, and I know what each individual word means, but when you put them together they make no sense!”

But the fact is that there is nothing more to say. Jesus has laid it all out for them, if they will listen: “I am the bread of life… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…”

So all Jesus said in response was, “Fellas, if you’re scandalized by this, you are gonna have a real hard time with what’s coming up.”

It’s funny. The people who went and found Jesus so they could see another miracle, get another meal? You’d expect them to leave; in fact, I’d be surprised if any of them had stayed around this long.

The ones our reading refers to as “disciples,” though… maybe they weren’t in the boat when Jesus calmed the storm, maybe they hadn’t seen him walk on water, or turn the water into wine at Cana, but they had seen lepers healed, they’d seen strength return to withered limbs and sight restored to blinded eyes, they had heard Jesus speaking the very words of the living God!

Why would they leave?

I guess up until now it had been fun. Maybe they had nothing better to do… maybe they just followed Jesus around on their off days, I don’t know. What I do know is that now they are faced with a choice: understand that Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the Law of Moses, is in fact calling them beyond that Law, beyond a system of rules and regulations and into a relationship with the Living God.

There’s no doubt that this is the hard choice, the dangerous choice, the scandalous choice. It involves moving beyond everything they have ever known, and everything the society they are surrounded by expects from them, and moving into the now-and-coming Kingdom of God, embracing a sacrifice on their behalf which hasn’t even happened yet.

But it’s that, or…

Go back to the familiar, the safe, the popular, the accepted.

And though they had seen the miracles, had eaten the bread and fishes, had heard the words of God… one by one, or in groups of three or four, these disciples chose…

And soon, all too soon, the synagogue – not a very large room to begin with – felt cavernous in its emptiness. A sandal scuffed the gritty stone floor, and it echoed. Jesus turned to those who remained. Where there had been dozens, perhaps a hundred or more… there were twelve. Some of them looked at the open door. Others looked at the floor, or off into space.

“How about you?” Jesus asked, softly. “Do you want to go, too?”

In my imagination, the question actually confused Peter, because (do you notice?) he never says “yes” or “no.” For him, and for the others, the question is moot.

Oh, no doubt they are sickened by the graphic words Jesus has used… the idea of gnawing on his flesh, like an animal tearing at the carcass of a fresh kill, is a difficult image for anyone to take.

But these men know things that they can no longer pretend to be ignorant of. Maybe the others, those now walking back down the dusty road to their villages and homes and comfortable old lives, can rationalize it and explain it all away, maybe they can ignore it, but these twelve cannot.

Jesus is asking them to make that same hard choice. Like Joshua standing before the newly-formed nation of Israel, and challenging them to “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” the choice facing these remaining disciples is between the comfort and tradition of the life they had always known, and going against all of that, going against their vary culture, becoming social and religious outcasts, all based on the word of a man who claimed to be from God… who demanded they gnaw on his flesh, and slake their thirst with his life’s blood.

But for these disciples, this is not some blind choice, like picking a door on “The Price is Right.” It’s funny: they had seen and heard and experienced exactly the same things as those who had walked away. They’d seen a dead child live again, seen demons forcibly evicted from the bodies they possessed, watched five small barley loaves somehow keep feeding and feeding and feeding until thousands of people could eat no more…

Somehow, though, for these disciples, when Jesus spoke about being the bread that came down from heaven, it all clicked. Not that they had perfect comprehension, mind you – there would be many times to come where they would falter and miss the point – but in this moment, when Jesus asked the question, for them it came down to a matter of putting their future into the hands of the One who had been there for them in the past. And for them, the choice was already made.

Peter spoke for all of them when he spread his hands and said, “But where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe… no, we know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

The choice was made.

For far too many people, believing in God is like believing in UFOs or believing in the Loch Ness Monster – they acknowledge the probability that God exists, and that’s about it. Nothing really changes for them because nothing needs to change.

The easiest, most comfortable place to be is where the majority of the people that day in the synagogue at Capernaum were: straddling the fence between commitment and rejection, relying on Jesus just so far as the fulfillment of their perceived needs go, but unwilling to lay aside those “needs,” take up their cross, and follow Jesus.

But God calls us to get off the fence – pushes us off if necessary, like Jesus did that day on the lakeshore and in the synagogue with his hard words. For the Twelve, just like for you and for me, the decision to go all in, to place our lives and eternities into the hands of the One who gave us life in the first place, is one that we make anew every day.

In many ways, on some days the Twelve weren’t all that much different from those who turned away from Jesus. The Twelve made mistakes, lost faith, missed the point, and when things got really dangerous that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, they scattered.

But when Jesus rose from the dead, they saw him alive. And when the wind of the Holy Spirit blew on the day of Pentecost, they were there, the tongues of fire rested on their heads. Perhaps the difference between the disciples who stayed and the ones who left began when they chose their path that day in the synagogue.

Harry Emerson Fosdick put it like this: “He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determine the end.”

May we be like the Twelve, who though they didn’t understand it, didn’t know where it was going, and had a lot of ideas and expectations that were almost exactly wrong, chose the pathway of eternal life, looked to Jesus, and said, “Who else could we go to? You have the words of eternal life.”

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