Not For the Faint Hearted
A sermon on John 6: 56-69 by Jill Friebel, 24 August 2003

The last two decades have seen people leaving the church in droves. Every one of us knows someone who used to go regularly but for one reason or another has found that church no longer holds any appeal or relevance for them. The reasons vary from person to person and can be complex and confusing. We know someone who never returned after he was welcomed in the service as a visitor and he had been attending regularly for three years! People may or may not intend giving up faith in God, but for some it could be that their faith was in the Church and not in Jesus in the first place. The church will always disappoint us.

Many of us here tonight will have own our story and experience of sadness and disappointment with church but we haven’t left yet, not this one, this week anyway. We profess our faith to be in Christ and not in the church and it is here that we work out our faith in becoming his body. Still that’s not a guarantee that we will not give up. There have been many who also started well with faith in Jesus and left. You will have been tempted to leave in the past and probably will again. The teaching of Jesus is not for the fainthearted seeker because to really become his disciple is costly and demanding and constantly being challenged to stretch us beyond ourselves. It is a choice we will always face and everyday we have to decide whether we will settle for less or continue to grow. It’s not a concept we sit with easily because independence and autonomy is what we all naturally strive for.

In our story tonight there were crowds of Jews who had begun to follow Jesus but now left in their droves because his teaching became too hard to stomach. The reading from John finishes off the dialogue that has been running for 5 weeks. It would be easier if we heard it in one sitting to get the sense of what is happening I put it into context 2 weeks ago. These people have just been given a free feed in the wilderness and they responded by wanting to make Jesus their King. They didn’t anticipate what Jesus had to say next and their eagerness to follow him soon evaporated when they realised their agenda was not what Jesus had in mind. It was an extraordinary turnaround after their initial excitement and decision to be his disciples.

By leaving Jesus they weren’t giving up their faith in God or at least they didn’t think they were. They were simply returning to continue following the customs, rituals and laws given to them by Moses, as they had always practised. In this there was great comfort. By obeying the law they were still fulfilling the requirements of God by continuing in the outward practices but inwardly they had hardened their hearts against trusting Jesus and opening themselves up to God’s new revelation. The Jews had a history of ignoring God’s voice spoken through earlier prophets. They had been given many opportunities and now finally God in Christ is present in their midst but still they refuse to believe. What was it about this theme that Jesus used, this metaphor, the sacramental eating and feeding and consuming of him that they just couldn’t stomach? It was food too hard to swallow.

It was and still is revolutionary teaching and the demands are just as radical. Jesus was asking them to depend on him for all their needs. They had had their physical needs met with bread supplied by him in the wilderness but now he was challenging them to depend on him completely. By eating and drinking him they would become a part of him and find themselves in him. This was going to be much more costly than continuing on in the previous arrangement. It meant losing their rights and claims to what they felt certain God had promised. Sadly they had grossly misunderstood what he had been saying all along.

Jesus turns to the handful of followers left and he asks them if they are going to leave him too? The truth is that they probably wanted to, but deep down they knew there was nowhere else to go. Peter’s answer doesn’t come out of his own understanding and logic, it is a gift of insight and recognition given by the Spirit. He replies with strength, “Lord, who else could we turn to? Your words have opened our eyes to life without limit. You have won our trust and we are convinced that you are God’s Holy One.” He probably had very little real understanding of just what he was saying and what this was going to mean. He couldn’t foresee the change it was going to make to their small rag tag group of disciples standing alone with Jesus and the enormous personal cost to each one of them. He had no idea that he was going to be a foundation member of a movement that now covers the world 2000 years later. Or the violent deaths that most of them would face.

None of us fully comprehend God’s call on our lives at the beginning when our eyes are first opened by God’s Spirit and recognise the beauty and compassion of Jesus for us. When we personally proclaim with conviction “Lord, who else could I turn to? Your words have opened my eyes to life without limit. You have won my trust and I am convinced that you are God’s Holy One.” We have no idea of just how radical the demands will be to live this out and what the cost will be. I would go as far as to say that this lived in genuine desire is going to affect everything you are, say and do. Every relationship you have will be put through the grid of asking Jesus what his demands are. He’s not a kill joy, but he does care deeply about what is really good and right for you and what is life giving and he cares about the other person as well. It will affect how you treat yourself and others, what it is to be compassionate, pure and kind. Every job you apply for, every book you read, your entertainment and how you spend your time and money will be impacted.

It is an unfolding journey that takes unexpected twists and bends which can throw us off balance. It is a continual testing of our resolve to keep trusting and to become less independent but more dependent on Jesus. When our hopes and expectations are not fulfilled, we are faced with a redefining of what God had in mind or a crisis of faith. It will almost certainly mean a redefining of who God is for us. When our world becomes topsy turvey and the rug is pulled out from under us and nothing seems to make much sense, God can seem remote and uncaring. It is in these crises that new light and insight is given. However we are faced with choice, we can put up the shutters and refuse to shift from our preconceived notions. We can even find comfort in this place at South Yarra Baptist by continuing in the outward rituals of our faith while inwardly and often unconsciously hardening our hearts in anger or disappointment or selfishness.

If we become stuck we are in danger and could be tempted to move away or become spasmodic, or stay on the fringe and keep your options open. Trying to satisfy your own needs while also trying to listen to God causes frustration and dissatisfaction. Jesus told us sheer will power would never be enough carry us through. We can fool ourselves to think we are living out our faith but what we believe and what actually happens are not the same. There is an ideal in our mind which is probably impossible to live up to anyway, but by some mental gymnastics we kid ourselves that we are not doing too badly. Jesus doesn’t have ideals, he knows us individually better than we know our selves. It is his desire that each one’s life is satisfied in the deepest ways that are best for us. It is his will to heal us, not to hurt of harm us. There’s no uniform blue print, and we are invited to journey in intimacy and friendship.

Our will power does needs to be exercised but it is in the choosing to feed continually on him. It is the will of choosing dependence when all of you is struggling like mad for independence. Jesus says “I am the bread of life….whatever you eat and drink becomes a part of you, but when you consume my flesh and blood, not only will I become apart of you but you’ll find yourself in me, becoming a part of me. This is a gift. All the effort to live righteously by sheer brute muscle power won’t make anything happen.”

The peace of God that we so crave can be brought nearer through the daily discipline of prayer, Scripture reading and meditation. But our exercise of this discipline of eating and drinking the Word often falls down through lack of a sensible structure. It is the easiest thing in the world to try and live on one spiritual meal a week and to go from one Sunday to the next and wonder why God seems distant. The Eucharist is feeding on Christ where Jesus hand feeds his people with food for angels; heavens bread, the perfect meal for our deepest hunger and hope. It is important for us to feast regularly around this table together, but imagine if you only had one decent meal a week. It’s putting into practice what we believe in theory and experiencing a deeper and more satisfying life. Not only will we feel the difference but others will notice it too. When we are tempted to satisfy our selves from other competing sources which promise the world and leave us empty, we will have the Spirit within to convict and lead us. Our resolve to this deeper radical commitment will be energised by God’s Spirit as we are immersed in his love and transformed into his likeness.