Sermon, John 6:56-71
Here is Sunday’s sermon. Once again it’s appearing here before I get to post it on my other website. I’m still catching up after holiday. Hopefully soon I’ll post this sermon and the last one there.
John 6:56-71 (link opens in new window)
Around the middle of June Debbie and I felt like putting the bunting outside the house. Why? Because a ‘For sale’ sign went up outside our next door neighbours’ home. We had been warned by (my predecessor) Ken that the husband next door was not particularly pleasant, and not least to do with the fact that they own the drive that leads up to their house and our manse. Indeed Debbie had witnessed him swearing at our other next door neighbour over the position of a wheelie bin on the drive, all when our other neighbour was holding his small son in his arms.
Then one Monday evening three weeks ago the infamous Des knocked at our door. “Had your gardener been today?” he asked. “We don’t have a gardener,” I replied.
“I thought you did,” he continued. “Well, there are oil marks on the drive and they weren’t there when I went to work this morning so you must have done them. I’m trying to sell my house and you’re making it look like a council tip.”
Thanks for the compliment, I thought. The fact that manifestly neither of our cars was suffering an oil leak was immaterial.
“I’m going to complain to the church authorities,” was his parting shot. To which I responded, “Do what you like,” and went back indoors.
Debbie said Des was lucky he didn’t encounter her rather than me and immediately began wondering what we might do – perhaps put up a sign at the bottom of the drive saying, ‘Soup kitchen this way – all vagrants welcome’ or something similar. We certainly agreed that there was no way we would do anything to jeopardise the sale of his house!
So was Debbie with her confrontational style or me with my more tactful approach more like Jesus? If you look at the model of what most people in the church say about Jesus, the subtle, diplomatic model is more likely to win the day. But I suggest that Jesus is a lot more like the Debbies of this world than we may often wish to believe. Sometimes Jesus offends. He needs to offend for the sake of spiritual health.
And that is what happens in today’s Gospel reading. In fact I’ve even extended the Lectionary verses by two more at the end to get a fuller flavour of just how confrontational and even perhaps offensive Jesus is to some of his hearers.
Indeed the Gospel itself has from the beginning been offensive to many: ‘a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,’ said Paul.
The offensiveness Jesus causes in our reading seems primarily centred upon people: himself, his hearers and one of his own disciples.
Throughout the whole conversation/disagreement with the crowd Jesus has made claims about himself that they have found offensive. He just won’t play their game. He’s fed the multitude. They want to make him king – their kind of king – by force. But he won’t have it. He escapes. When they catch up with him here in Capernaum he says they need to feed on his flesh and drink his blood. This is offensive language to Jews – drinking blood – and they miss his point that they need to believe in him and his forthcoming death.
Now Jesus ups the ante even further. Hearing the crowd say how hard his teaching is (verse 60 – here ‘disciples’ is used in a very general way rather than meaning those committed to him), he doesn’t soften it, he doesn’t try to meet them where they are, in fact he just gets more confrontational:
‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’
If you’re offended by my dramatic language about the need to believe in me, just wait until you see my ascension. He is going to be seen as having heaven’s highest authority. Not only that, ascension language in John’s Gospel is tied in with talk about the Cross. So really at the heart of this, Jesus is saying, ‘You think I’ve made it difficult for you already with language that sounds like cannibalism and offending the ritual and dietary laws? Well just see what you make of a suffering Messiah.’
And Jesus has to be offensive here. There can be no detouring around the Cross. It isn’t an optional extra. It isn’t something where he or we can find something a little more satisfactory to those who find it unacceptable. The offence of the Cross is at the heart of the Gospel. This was the very thing that Paul said was ‘a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks’.
So where does that leave us? It first of all says something about our message. We cannot present a Cross-free account of the faith. The Gospel is Cross-centred. When we ape the world to the extent that we make Christianity sound like a religious self-help manual, we have missed the Cross. When we translate the message into a form that is a pale reflection of pop psychology, we have forgotten the Cross. When we reduce God’s mission to a marketing exercise or just a recruitment drive to put more bums on seats, we have left the Christ of the Cross out of our message and it is no longer the Gospel.
When we make the Cross of Christ central we criticise the whole notion that ‘I’ am the centre of the universe. We oppose the childish attitude that says life is just about fulfilling my needs. Furthermore we are not calling people to be a statistic, but a disciple. And in this sense ‘disciple’ doesn’t mean a casual enquirer, although we welcome all such people. Our concern is for people to become lifelong apprentices of Jesus.
So being Cross-centred affects the message we seek to communicate. But that message is not only about words and the convictions behind them; it is a message that is lived out. The word is fleshed out. In other words, while we may call people to meet Christ at the Cross, while we may proclaim his Cross to be the key to life, words are not enough. A Cross-centred message goes with a Cross-centred life. It means living the old adage that the letters of the word ‘joy’ stand for Jesus first, then Others, and finally Yourself. Our message will only have credibility if it is one that we live out.
2. His Hearers
So Jesus is offensive by pointing his hearers to the centrality of his forthcoming Cross. In what he next goes on to say he’s going to offend the expectations of many who listen:
‘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.’
So what is he getting at – ‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless’? It’s not the first time in John’s Gospel that ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ are contrasted. It happens in the conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3. ‘Flesh’ here is not necessarily used in the sense Paul sometimes does, meaning ‘the sinful human nature’, it simply means, ‘human beings’. So the contrast between spirit and flesh here is a way of saying that eternal life is only a gift of God. It is not something that humans can attain to on their own.
Right away we’re into another offensive statement by Jesus. Why? Because he is offending human pride. We’d love to get the ticket all by ourselves. It’s a popular belief. We know that God will judge but we like to think that if our goodness outweighs the opposite then God will let us in – it’s as if the pass mark for heaven is to exceed fifty percent. It has even been called ‘the English heresy’, since in one form or another this belief is traceable back to an English monk called Pelagius.
Strictly speaking, despite popular Christian belief, Judaism did not believe this. It knew that God had delivered the children of Israel at the Exodus and that his commandments were a response to his salvation, not a requirement. But it then became possible to slip into the idea that you somehow had to maintain your salvation by being good enough. It was as if you were saved by grace but continued by personal good works. And this was a trap the early church fell into in Galatia. If you read Galatians, especially chapter three, you will see they had done this.
But either of these is a terrible mistake – to practice either the English heresy that we can earn our salvation or the Galatian heresy that our good works keep us saved. And the problem with both is one of pride. It’s all on the basis of me and my efforts. I did this. So the glory does not go to God. His grace and mercy are quickly forgotten.
It happens in the church as well as in the world today. I have heard experienced church members say they were trying to be Christians. I have known people ask for church membership with the request, ‘Are we good enough?’
But Jesus says the spirit gives life, not the flesh. Life – eternal life included – is the gift of God. It is from the spirit. We are entirely in debt to God’s grace in Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. It stems, as I said in the first point, from the Cross. It is about God’s suffering love in Christ and as a Father reconciling us to him, to one another, to creation and to ourselves.
It’s time, then, to put away all our superiority complexes. Not that we don’t believe in the superiority of Christ but sometimes Christians become unbearably smug and insufferable. Our supposed holiness in the world becomes little more than a judgmentalism that looks down its nose at morally inferior beings. Even within the church some of us despise those other Christians who don’t quite ‘get it’ like we do.
But if the spirit gives life and not the flesh, then we are on a level playing field. There are no first and second class Christians, nor are Christians some kind of superior being in comparison to other humans. The level playing field is found at the foot of the Cross, where the only posture for anyone to adopt is to be on their knees.
3. His Disciples
So Jesus’ offensive statements about not being the military Messiah but the Bread of Life, about the centrality of the Cross and the necessity of grace end up thinning the crowd (verse 66). He asks the Twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (verse 67) and gets a resounding vote of confidence from Simon Peter: ‘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.’ (verses 68-69) Surely he is at rest now. No more conflict.
Wrong. The story ends with these (two verses that I added from the Lectionary selection) words:
Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.
Jesus knows right throughout John’s Gospel that Judas will betray him. So what’s going on here? Jesus seems to let Judas know he’s got his number. Yet Jesus won’t ultimately do anything about it in the way others might do if they possessed such information. It would be as shocking as our government having intelligence about a terrorist and not acting.
Yet Jesus doesn’t act – he’s not into political manoeuvring; he knows his destiny is to bring cosmic redemption through suffering; and so bizarrely it seems to us he allows a known ‘devil’ to remain in his inner circle.
Now at this point people get into all sorts of theories about not judging people in the church. They could lead off from what I said in the last point about not having a superiority complex and remembering we all need grace. So, for example, let even the most flagrant unrepentant sinner take the sacrament and just leave the consequences between them and their Lord. Yet other parts of the New Testament militate against this and make it look like just a way of avoiding painful conflict.
Isn’t it much simpler to say that this is one major example of Jesus knowing our inner hearts? We can kid other people. We can fool ourselves. We can put up a good front and look respectable. But ultimately there is no hiding place from Jesus. He knows our hearts and minds.
So why do we play pretend? Why do we put on masks? It’s worth reflecting on the old observation that we get our word ‘hypocrite’ from the word for the masks that ancient Greek actors wore?
Jesus seems to be shocking Judas, the Twelve and us with a reality check here. The way we carry on half the time is faintly ludicrous. Despite the centrality of the Cross and our need for grace, some of us do a better cover-up job than the slimiest politician or the slickest Hollywood make-up artist. We would rather project an image than be real, true – and therefore humble.
Worse than that, we so expect others to maintain an image that we strong-arm the weak, suffering and vulnerable into pretending everything’s fine when the one thing they really need to do is acknowledge that nothing much is OK at all.
The Cross and grace take us into truth, humility and reality. Will we go there – or will we desert or betray Jesus?