Today’s Gospel reading, the end of John chapter 6, is about two things we all despise, and they’re both related to rejection. We hate being rejected ourselves when someone we love or trust decides to set us out with the weekly trash. And we also despise those people who choose their own selfish desires over the call of Jesus. We’re in John’s gospel today and rejection is the final result, disappointing as that is. For a long time there had been a lot of excitement surrounding this Jesus, especially since he fed those 5,000 people a few weeks ago. But now there are some undercurrents of conflict, and the result is that many, if not most, of Jesus’ followers give up on him, preferring to “return to their former way of living.” What the %$@!!! is wrong with them anyway??
Here’s a recap of the back story: Jesus has been working signs and teaching about who he is and who we are, so there are two fundamentals that we should recognize. First, Jesus asserts that God is uniquely at work through him, in his teaching and in his miracles, or signs. Second, this same God is working through Jesus’ ministry to reach out to those who’ve been rejected, discriminated against, or sidelined by the religious majority. To accomplish God’s dream for humanity, God offers everyone a different kind of living, a new life where we feed on Jesus and are thereby empowered to feed others.
This was not what people wanted, however, because they had already decided how this story was supposed to end. It was going to end by making Jesus king and then assembling a holy army of God annihilate Herod first and then demolish the Empire. There was going to be an armed revolution that would not only usher in the Kingdom of God, but even better, it would provide ample opportunity to wreak revenge on all those who deserved it. The people are PUMPED! They’re swept away with their battle plan fantasies and now only one thing is missing before they put their plan into action: Jesus just has to agree to the role they’ve assigned him to play.
When Jesus reiterates several times, bluntly, that his way is the more difficult road of non-violence, sacrificial love and genuine reconciliation, his base abandons him. It is just too much for his listeners. They cannot accept these words, and they’re not shy about sharing their feelings. “This teaching is hard; who can accept it?” When Jesus realizes that even his inner circle is whispering among themselves, he asks them if they’re really on board. He reminds them that to continue thinking the way humans have always thought, to continue to act like we’ve always acted in the past isn’t going to be successful. “I’ve spoken words to you that are Spirit and life, but still some of you don’t believe it. So do you guys want to leave as well??”
Whatever else we might think about the historical Jesus, it’s clear that he doesn’t pander to his base. He doesn’t soft-sell the core truths in order to win votes from the undecideds. He hides nothing when he insists his way is hard, that his way will cost us a lot—maybe everything. He just wants to know if we’re in or if we’re out.
But, 2,000 years after the fact, we’ve gotten smarter in how we respond to Jesus and his teaching. We’re not going to end up in with those slackers who left him and went back to their former way of living because, let’s face it, we’re better than them. And much more clever in the way we answer Jesus’ questions. But we’re sure as heck not going to risk everything for the sake of some pie in the sky dream either. So, we find a middle road of appeasement, avoiding the extremes of losing everything and complete abandonment.
How do we manage this? Simple. We throw up some excuses that sound plausible enough to let us off the hook. We all have moments of clarity in church or when we’re praying or fishing in the early morning hours when we feel deeply connected to God. There is no doubt in our minds that we share the divine life and calling. But then we sleep on it, get up in the morning to have our coffee and think of a dozen reasons why it’s not good to be too extreme. Thank God we’re Americans who have a passion for moderation. (If that makes any sense…)
In other words, we ARE those people in this story who give up on Jesus and go back to living their former lives. But we do it in a sneaky way. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’re taking the easy way out. We can’t stand the thought of identifying ourselves with these sorry, misled people who openly declare that Jesus is not part of their lives anymore. Instead, we turn our backs with a smile, a wave, and a promise to stay in touch. Heck yeah, we’ll be in touch! The very next time something goes wrong! Or the next time we want something!
John makes it clear in his telling of this story that this was the moment of decision for the disciples themselves; it was do or die time, and Jesus wasn’t going to give them any wiggle room. Jesus wants us to know the score, too. He’s not sugar-coating anything. The way of Jesus is hard, but because everything else has already been tried in the past, it is the only way to life and peace in our hearts and in our world. The way is hard and will cost us something, maybe everything. Having faith in this Jesus is being convinced that Jesus is who he claims to be. This has nothing to do with a set of denominationally-owned doctrines or propositions. It’s not about intellectual agreement, and it’s way more than just hoping against hope that it’s true. Sometimes real faith means accepting that the hard path we travel makes no sense, doesn’t match up to our dreams of what our life was supposed to look like, and in fact, sometimes doesn’t even seem to connect to common sense.
Peter certainly lacks common sense when he walks away from a successful fishing business, to leave everything and follow some unknown preacher. It makes no sense for Peter, after he learns that there isn’t going to be a military coup to continue following. It’s illogical when, after the teacher he was following is executed by the Empire for Peter to persist in going down that same road. And it makes no logical sense that Peter’s faith should be so deeply held that he himself ends up crucified because of Jesus.
It is Peter who makes the most memorable confession in all of Scripture: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.
Following Jesus means, finally, being willing to forego our own agenda, our own life dreams and plans instead be willing to sacrifice it all for the sake of the Gospel. That is why the way of Jesus is the way most often rejected.
Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him…
So it was and so it is today. The way of Jesus is rejected because people sense his radical nature and they are fine with themselves the way they are. It’s much easier and more uplifting to sing some praise songs, wave our hands in the air, and maybe get an emotional fix for the day than to actually engage with the real Jesus. I look around this country and I see the resurgence of hate that I have not seen in my 61 years, and I wonder where the %$@!!! Christians are in all of this. Are there even any Christians out there? Certainly I don’t usually see one looking back at me in the mirror. My only consolation in accepting the hypocritical way I live, my half-hearted living of the way of Jesus, is that at least to this point I haven’t actually walked away. I am still hanging in there, still struggling, still bearing the scars of my past, still making new scars on my heart because my discipleship, my following Jesus is still more theoretical than practical. But maybe someday I’ll get on board with Peter and the guys, and we’ll give this Christianity thing a shot.