Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 22, 2021
John 6:56-69 Commentary
We are now at the end of our long jaunt through John 6. Rather climactically, the final question of why we find it difficult to simply believe culminates with Jesus asking a very non-hypothetical question of his own, forcing us to consider ourselves in the process.
Can we accept God’s work and ways?
There are a number of pieces to today’s volley of questions, but they all hinge on what people can accept as reality. (See the Illustration Idea below for more on “reality” as a central image for this passage.) Interestingly enough, today’s verses are the first time we get a fuller picture of who’s been listening in on Jesus’ conversation alongside the crowd from the feast (verses 1-21). Besides the twelve chosen disciples, other disciples, people who have been following Jesus for a period of time, are also there. They too are being confronted with a picture of reality and an identity of Jesus that seems to be “news to them.” In fact, the crowd seems to have completely fallen out of the conversation by the time we’re in the synagogue in Capernaum.
This larger gathering of disciples hear Jesus’ words, and like the crowds did on the way to the synagogue, instead of asking Jesus, they ask each other about what they are willing to accept: “Can we accept what he says?” Or as The Message translates it, their question isn’t really a question, it’s an answer to an unspoken question; they say to each other: “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”
So let’s remind ourselves what’s so difficult to accept:
…that there is a nourishment we need from God that only comes through accepting belief;
…that Jesus is the eternal bread of life that provides and sustains;
…that the Father draws in and teaches all who are able to accept these truths;
…that we need to literally integrate the very body and blood of Christ into ourselves;
…that if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty again;
…that the Spirit of God is life and our human flesh and ability will get us nowhere—we must receive from God.
Can we accept that we need life (especially since it implies we don’t have it!)? Can we accept that someone else has done “the work” for us and there’s nothing we can do? Can we accept that what we have accomplished for ourselves doesn’t amount to much? Can we accept that the very ideas and rituals that we have built our lives upon need to be uprooted and transformed? Can we accept that what we thought was true is actually a fiction? And can we accept God’s reality in Jesus’ Spirit-filled words of life?
Jesus himself knows that they could not—that we cannot. That’s why he reminds them why he told them about the way that the Father works, drawing and teaching people, enabling them to accept the true-but-seemingly-hidden reality. No one comes and sticks around unless God is behind it.
It seems that many of them were not ready to accept the invitation from the Father because they chose in that moment to leave Jesus at the synagogue, no longer wanting to be attached to the reality that Jesus was describing.
I wonder what emotion was in Jesus’ voice when he asked the twelve if they also wanted to leave—if they too were simply unable to accept what their leader was giving them to follow. Even more than the others who have encountered Christ, these twelve are people Jesus called to follow him—to sign on the dotted line and do as he does, teach as he teaches, proclaim the reality he proclaims, to “risk themselves with him.” (v. 64 in The Message) And I wonder what he felt when he heard Peter’s proclamation of acceptance and trust on behalf of the group.
The lectionary leaves out verses 70-71 in which Jesus reminds the twelve that though he chose them to come to him, one of them is the devil who will betray him. Ending the reading with verse 69 allows us to end on the high note of faith and trust, but I actually take some hope from reading these two following verses. For me, it underscores that the imperfect nature of our faith and that holy living does not need to make us doubt whether we ever truly believed and accepted God’s reality as the reality. For one, we can’t fully know God’s reality; it’s too amazing and immense and of-God for us to even begin to comprehend. (I’m not making any statement on the Judas’ salvation here, but reflecting more widely on the entire pericope.) Secondly, until Christ lifts us up on the last day (v 40), we will continue to try to accomplish and live by our own flesh-power. Only Jesus, as Peter says, is the “Holy One of God.” Third, it shows how much God is willing to endure, not only for us, but by us and with us.
So, though our actions flow from what we believe to be true, they will betray our beliefs because believing in ourselves (a form of idolatry) is part of our fallen nature—it is its own kind of reality that needs God’s reality to replace it. Replacing it, of course, is exactly what Jesus is offering to do in John 6 as the bread of life. Perhaps the comfort is that the dinner invitation to feast on Christ is never rescinded, and the Father grants our return even when we walk away.
Peter and the rest of the gang do not yet fully know the meaning of the “eternal life” that fills Jesus’ words. They get many “tastes” while following their rabbi, and spiritual nourishment when they become apostles who tell others about the bread of heaven (as recorded in the book of Acts). They were not perfect followers, and their story proves that it’s more about what God is doing through and for us than what we are doing at all.
In verse 69 Peter says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The perfect tense is used for “believe” and “know,” indicating that they are actions taken once but continue to have impact. It underscores what Jesus has been saying all along: take and believe what God is giving and you will be nourished for eternal life. Believing begins in a moment (sometimes imperceptibly) but continues to play out and grow from the kernel over a lifetime. Accepting a piece of information and coming to really know it means living it as reality. “So no,” Peter is essentially saying to Jesus, “We’re not leaving. We know there’s nowhere else to go. We believe in you as the giver of life and we’ll follow you.” Notice that the perfect tense doesn’t mean we live perfectly… but that we can respond to the work of God and set our intention, allowing it to permeate and integrate into every facet of our lives.
In the play A Yard of Sun (1970) by Christopher Fry, it’s July 1946 in Siena, Italy. A little group of people, family and close friends connected to the Palazzo del Traguardo, are hoping for renewal and for peace to be real—even as they carry the baggage of all that came before and that they are still who they are even though the war is over. Set on the backdrop of a famous horse race between neighbourhoods, sons come home and prisoners-of-war return, but each character struggles to be truly free.
This is particularly true for the ostracized son, Edmondo, who ran away from the community, intent on becoming a self-made man in Portugal. He is home now, successful and rich, the new owner of the Palazzo his dad is the caretaker for. But he is afraid by how he cannot integrate the two realities: his self-identified truth and the reality he encounters at “home.” His wife explains it to another brother, Roberto, after Edmondo announces, less than 48 hours after arriving, that he is leaving (emphasis added and lines omitted from original):
ROBERTO. Afraid? Edmondo?
ANA-CLARA. Terrified of losing
The self-confidence that worked his wonders.
Afraid of seeing himself in the old mirror…
Of losing the person he has worked so hard
To make a reality.
Whoever suffers—do you call that a reality?
ANA-CLARA. Maybe not. I’m not sure of ours, either…
…There may always be another reality
To make fiction of the truth we think we’ve arrived at.
I first heard a version of this quote (misattributed to T.S. Eliot) in a recorded sermon by Bryant Kirkland at Princeton Seminary from 1982. Kirkland used it to draw attention to the hope story that God offers and our role as Christians to keep revealing God’s truth in a world that offers all sorts of other “truths” as reality.
After reading the play for myself, though, I see it connected in another way to our text. Edmondo cannot accept to live in a place where all that he has done with his own power and knowledge (in the language of our text, by his “flesh”) is challenged, forced to be set aside, and a different reality be appropriated. He is terrified to have to let go because he is confronted with a reality that makes what he has made himself to be an utter fiction. He chooses to walk away (again) rather than change his understanding of the truth even when he is confronted by its reality.
Some of the disciples did the same: they literally leave Jesus at this point in the story. Others, like Peter, chose to accept and believe. They chose to let their fictions continue to be dismantled as they followed Jesus, and to integrate and be integrated into the reality of Christ in whom all things hold together. (Col 1.15-20)
Looking at the rest of the gospel narratives, it seems that this work is essential to the way that God proclaims the Kingdom; it is central to our repentance, it is the gospel’s good news.
It is necessary for us to continue to explore the ways that God’s reality confronts our “arrived at,” hard-won, built-our-lives-upon truths and reveals them as fictions. The reality that Christ speaks into existence is of the Spirit and is life. By comparison, the realities we build by our own power (the flesh) are useless for any other purpose than to be our graves.
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