“To Whom Can We Go?”: Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year B (10:30 AM)

“To Whom Can We Go?”: Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year B (10:30 AM)

Aug 26, 2018

Passage:John 6:56-69

Preacher: The Rev. E. Courtney Jones

Series: Pentecost

Category: Discipleship, Evangelism, Ecclesiology

Keywords: bread of life, hospitality, inclusivity, love, way of love, st. andrew's way


In today's passage, Jesus finds himself abandoned by the large crowds that had been following him. What seems on the surface like a crisis ultimately isn't, because the Twelve have tasted the bread of life, and refuse to walk away asking, "To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Though, for various reasons, church attendance has become less of a priority in our culture, people are still hungry for the bread of life. God is still using Christ-followers to transform the world -- one life, one family, one community at a time.


I'm happy to be with you all this morning, because I was out of the state and out of the country most of the summer, and when I'm gone I miss being here. 


Not "here" as in this amazing worship space, but "here" as in "with the church."  You are the church.  And I've missed being among you.  


So, in the spirit of being back in beloved community, I've got a confession:  even though I've read the Gospel of John a few times, until about a week ago, I had never noticed the major crisis in today's Gospel passage.  Did you notice it?   Maybe you, like me, tuned out it out, because "oh boy, here we go with all that bread talk again."  Is that wrong to say from the pulpit?  Probably?  


Anyway, in today's Gospel passage there's what, by all appearances, is a crisis.   See, before Jesus' bread of life discourse, Jesus had been traveling around, healing people.  The lame walked, the blind saw, the deaf could hear again.  This gathered quite a crowd.  By the time we get to John chapter 6, around 5,000 people are following Jesus through the countryside from town to town.  And we read the story about how with 5 loves and 2 fishes Jesus feeds them all.  It's a story that is so significant to the early church that all four gospels mention it.


Imagine for a minute what that looks like.  5,000 people traveling around to hear what Jesus has to say. 


5,000 people crowding in to be near Jesus.  


And by the end of our Gospel reading today most of them have "turned back, and no longer [go] about with him."  


If we take the numbers literally, Jesus goes from having an audience of around 5,000 to an audience of 12.  Can you imagine what it's like to go from 5,000 followers to twelve? That’d be a 99.8% decrease in followers.  In one chapter! 


5000 to 12.


To put that in comparison.  That'd be like having 1 or 2 people show up for the 10:30 service.  



Talk about a church attendance crisis, right?



Verse 66 says "Because of this many of the disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."  


THIS.  "Because of this."


It's not immediately clear what the "THIS" is referring to . . .


What might have caused that many people to walk away?  I think they're are a few types of people who walk away from Jesus in this chapter:


  • The King-Makers.    Verse 15 says that "Jesus realized they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, [so] he withdrew again to the mountain by himself."   Many of the people  want a powerful, conquering hero that can lead the battle to restore Jewish sovereignty in the region.  But that's not what Jesus is about --  Jesus actually sneaks away and hides from these people.  Jesus hasn't come to save his people through might -- he's come to save ALL people by showing them a new WAY.  [i]
  • The Box-Checkers.   Some of the people following Jesus asked him, earlier in this passage, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"  "What must we DO" . . . these folks want Jesus to give them some sort of list or formula for what they can do to earn Gods favor.  Jesus' answer was probably wholly unsatisfying to this group when he said "This is the work of God//      that you believe in him whom he has sent."  Believe.  Not Do.  No performance.  
  • The Literalists.  These are the folks who get tripped up in Jesus' words.  
    • Jesus says "I am the bread that came down from Heaven."
      • They say:  "Dude.  You aren't from Heaven.  We know your mom and dad."
    • Jesus says:  "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life"
      • They say "Whoa whoawhoawhoa. . . How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Disgusting!”
  • And then, I suppose, there are the folks who are impressed by the miracles, they like eating the food, they enjoy the teaching okay, but really just want to keep the status quo.  Jesus' way is outside of their comfort zone.



Jesus is offering all of these types of people something different than what they think they want.  And they just aren't ready to accept it yet.  They've been fineattending Jesus' talks, but they're not quite ready to do what he asks:  to believe.


The word "believe" appears a BUNCH of times in John 6. 


And it’s different than our most common definition of "believe"which  is something like -- "we intellectually assent to this idea."  Here in the sixth chapter of John, the word used for "Believe" comes out to something between "be-LOVE" and "trust."   


Jesus says to them, "I'm offering something different -- I'm offering you a taste of eternal life.  It is for all people.  You don't have to earn it.  You don't have to fully understand it.  You only have to believe."


Jesus says to the people  "abide in me"   "Follow me."  "Walk this way"  "do what I do"  "love who I love"



Yet, the multitudes sift down to just a few, [ii]

        And Jesus asks the Twelve:  "Do you also wish to go away?"  


Peter answers on behalf of the group saying, "Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God." 



"To whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life."  


Peter doesn't say this because they are out of options or short of people to go follow.   There are plenty of factions in this time:  Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots -- each group has charismatic teachers that they could follow. [iii]


OR They could also go back to their regularly scheduled lives, still in progress -- homes, jobs, families. 

Peter doesn't say "to whom can we go?" because they literally have nowhere to go -- Peter says this because the disciples have tasted the bread Jesus is offering.  They have been abiding with Jesus and they've gotten a taste of ETERNAL LIFE.  That's not just a duration of life, but a radically deepened QUALITY OF LIFE.   Nothing is more life-giving than following Jesus.   Nothing compares to it.  [iv]



A 99+% drop in followers seems, by most measures, like a major crisis.  But we know the rest of the story.  We know that it doesn't stay that way.  The God of Abundance can take a handful of people faithful to the way of Jesus, and make a movement.  Twelve disciples, faithfully following Jesus, was enough to change the world.   



That's Good News for us today too.   God is still using the church to transform the world.



But …   we do hear a lot about the rise of the "nones," (N-O-N-E-S) -- those without religious affiliation.


See, Peter’s proclamation:  “To whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life!”  -- a profound affirmation of faith,  is actually echoed in a very real, existential question for people today.  To whom can they go?  Who has the words of eternal life?


People today have plenty of reasons to walk away from the Church.  Big C.  Church.  The Church Universal.  


In American Christianity, we have our own heavily partisan king-makers, we have incredibly busy box checkers, we have unnervingly certain literalists.  Each of us probably fits in one of those groups from time to time.  But our partisanship, and busy//ness, and certain//ty, while they may fill up our time, but they don’t fulfill us.

And they sure don’t taste like eternal life. 


More than that, the Church in America has many people who just want to keep the institutional status quo.  This can range anywhere from a mentality of "but we've always done it that way," all the way to people who go out of their way to maintain the image of the institution, even if it means covering up abuses.[v]  


By the way, if just now when I said "covering up abuses", a certain denomination popped into your head --  knowthat the #metoo has an ecclesial counterpart called #churchtoo -- and it has thousands of accounts of abuse from every denomination and faith.  


When people walk away from that, they aren't walking away from what Jesus offers -- they're walking away because the Church is serving something other than the bread of life.  Sometimes the Church fails to be the Church.  


But ...

even when loyalties are divided,

when barriers are erected, and the status quo is protected,


God is always loving the church, always calling the church back into covenant -- and God is still using the church – however imperfect -- to transform the world -- to make the world "on earth as it is in heaven" -- one life, one family, one community at a time.  


I am one life that was changed.   

I had grown up in church, been abused by the church, left the church, dabbled in church now and again, and then I came here.  To this parish.  And you fed me.  This collection of Christ followers offered me a taste of the living bread that came down from heaven.  Your love.   Your inclusivity, your hospitality -- your commitment to one bread, one cup -- made this an environment where I could finally hear the words of eternal life.  And that transformed my whole world.  


God is offering you, individually, yes, but as a body, the opportunity to help change people's lives.  When people commit to following the way of Jesus, the way of love -- God uses that.  


On Friday night you had a dinner -- the St. Andrew's way dinner -- where this parish gathered and announced that it is called to WORSHIP with joyfulness, TEACH God's reconciling love, SERVE those with spiritual and physical needs, and PRAY without ceasing.  


As this community lives deeper and deeper into that call -- that's going to change people.  That's going to re-write family histories.  God-willing and God’s-people participating, that going to spill out past these church doors and into the community.  


I can't wait to see how God will use your faithfulness to change the world.  



[i]James A. Brashler.  "John 6:1-15 -- Exegetical Perspective,"  Feasting on the Gospels:  John, Volume 1 -- Chapters 1-9, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis, and E. Elizabeth Johnson.   (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), Kindle ed.  


[ii]Barbara Brown Taylor.  "John 6:66-71 - Homiletical Perspective," Feasting on the Gospels:  John, Volume 1 -- Chapters 1-9, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis, and E. Elizabeth Johnson.   (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), Kindle ed.  


[iii]Michael J. Hoyt.  "John 6:66-71 -- Pastoral Perspective," Feasting on the Gospels:  John, Volume 1 -- Chapters 1-9, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis, and E. Elizabeth Johnson.   (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), Kindle ed.  


[iv]John Proctor.  "John 6:66-71 -- Exegetical Perspective," Feasting on the Gospels:  John, Volume 1 -- Chapters 1-9, ed. by Cynthia A. Jarvis, and E. Elizabeth Johnson.   (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), Kindle ed.  


[v]   “Child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church: What you need to know” BBC News.

"Seeking Forward-Looking Justice for #ChurchToo,"Justia.