Pastor Michael Frye:
John’s Gospel for today begins by summarizing Jesus’ words from our lesson from last Sunday: “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread which your ancestors ate, and they died.
But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
John goes on to say that many disciples who had been following Jesus were so puzzled by Jesus’ words about being the living bread from heaven that they openly questioned: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?
Jesus overheard these complaints, and not being one to shy away from controversy, Jesus himself asked a question: “Does this offend you?
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
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…
For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Jesus’ calling to follow him is a strange and difficult one for those who feel that every “i” must be dotted and every “t” crossed.
So, in this case, many disciples turned back and no longer went with Jesus.
That is when Jesus turned to the twelve whom he had personally chosen from the beginning of his ministry and asked point blank: “Do you also wish to go away?”
There it is; there is the question that all disciples of Christ must be ready and willing to answer.
Just think about it.
There are many sayings of Jesus, many actions that Jesus has taken which defy human understanding or intellect; yet, Jesus is asking those whom he has called to be his disciples to trust him so much that they will choose to follow with him all the way to the cross.
And what is even more fantastic, Jesus expects us to believe that though he suffered terribly on that cross and died, he has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, from which he will one day descend and call all believers to join him around the throne of God in heaven.
Many who have been baptized as infants, who have affirmed that baptism through confirmation, who have regularly worshiped and served faithfully in numerous capacities, have found themselves at a crossroads between belief and unbelief, often because of life’s circumstances.
It is easy at that point, out of bewilderment and fear, to walk away from Christ and his Church.
“Do you wish to go away?
Jesus said to the twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “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.”
Peter didn’t always understand the words Jesus spoke; he sometimes reacted contrary to what Jesus would have expected; he was often awkward in his handling of things; but, Peter believed with all his heart that Jesus is the Holy One of God that he was willing to follow him whatever the cost.
No, I am not forgetting that Peter denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest; I am not forgetting that he and most of the other disciples cowered behind closed doors while Jesus hung on the cross.
Neither am I forgetting that he was one of the first to rush to the empty tomb; that he was the one to whom Jesus said prior to his ascension into heaven, “Peter, if you love me, feed my sheep;” he was the one on the day of Pentecost who stood before thousands preaching one of the most eloquent sermons to be found in Scripture.
Peter and the other disciples were fallible; they made mistakes.
In this very passage we have today, mention is made of Judas’ impending betrayal of Jesus.
But they chose on that day whom they would serve.
They chose whom they would follow, although they often didn’t understand his teachings at the time; although they were puzzled by some of Jesus’ actions; although they sometimes were critical of Jesus’ way of doing things; they hung in there.
They hung in there because they trusted that Jesus was revealing God’s truth, and there was no one else on this earth who they would rather follow.
Although Peter couldn’t totally wrap his head around what it meant for Jesus to be the Holy One of God until his Pentecost experience with the Holy Spirit, he believed Jesus to be who he claimed to be.
What, then, does it mean to choose to serve God and follow Jesus?
It meant enough for the twelve disciples that each of them gave their lives for the sake of spreading the Gospel; it meant enough for Paul that he, too, would sacrifice his life for the Savior he once denounced as a heretic.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul bid Christians to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power;” to “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
Paul’s words are just as true for Christians today as they were those centuries ago.
Although we are no longer familiar with the kind of armor Paul was referring to in his letter, we certainly understand their significance: “belt of truth;” “breastplate of righteousness;” “shield of faith”; “helmet of salvation;” “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
These metaphors, along with Paul’s summons to pray in the Spirit at all times, remind us that we, too, are fighting the spiritual battle against the evil that is still so prevalent in our world today.
We must remember Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf that reveals his self-giving, his compassion, and his love poured out for the entire world. This is what it means to be “alive in Christ.”
Dawn Wilhelm has observed that: “Our modern culture tells us that we are in control of our lives and our destiny.
It tells us that if we work hard, we will be rewarded with material gain; that we will feel good about ourselves when we are successful, have a good job, a clean house, children who make good grades, we belong to the right clubs or live in the right neighborhoods.”
She goes on to say that this attitude can also spill over into our faith life in preferring religion over God.
Preferring religion over God can manifest itself in one’s feeling good about involvement in community service, but refusing to acknowledge the person who just doesn’t seem to fit into the neighborhood.
Preferring religion over God might manifest itself when one righteously worships and prays in church every Sunday, but refuses to forgive the person in the next pew whom they feel wronged them in some way years ago.
Preferring religion over God can mean having a strict mindset about following the rules, yet ignoring Christ’s mandate to love one another with all our faults and frailties.
When we choose serving God and Jesus, we give up the notion of being the one in control; we turn our back on the fears that paralyze us and keep us from doing what is right in God’s eyes; we understand that we are no better than any other child of God.
We accept that because God loves us unconditionally, we can love and forgive one another without setting preconditions for that love.
The gospel of John shines a light on “the twelve” because they chose to follow Christ and not turn away as others had. Likewise, it is our commitment to follow Christ alongside of one another that makes us a people who have chosen to serve God above all else.
You had better believe serving God above all else is not as easy as we would like for it to be.
It takes practice, and it takes accepting our failures and then being determined to get up and keep trying.
If Jesus could tolerate and forgive Simon Peter’s denials, if he could forgive Judas’ betrayal, if he could forgive James and John’s bickering over who should sit at Christ’s right hand in the Kingdom, then surely he can tolerate and forgive our failures and frustrations, our feeble attempts at being perfect, our jealousies and our bickering among one another, our bouts with doubt and struggles with things that we find hard to believe or understand.
All Jesus expects of any of us is that we truly believe that the sacrifice that he made on the cross was for us, as well as for all of God’s children; all Jesus expects is that we take up our own crosses and follow him, inviting others along the way to do the same; all Jesus expects of us is that we say with conviction and clarity: Yes, Lord, I believe; yes, Lord, I will follow; yes, Lord, I will serve you and the Kingdom of God.
Let us pray:
Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us.
Cast us not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from us.
Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and uphold us with your free Spirit.”