There’s something about natural disasters that brings out the best in people. Of course there are always scammers, those who seek to take advantage of vulnerable people but the reality is that we tend to come together when we are faced with difficult situations brought about by events that are out of control. We help each other, but we also want to share stories, tell of our experiences and listen as others share their experiences as well. We do it on social media but we also do it when we’re going about the daily business of life. We chat with cashiers or fellow customers about what we’ve seen and experienced, and what’s happening elsewhere. Many of us also volunteer, filling sandbags, or helping to clean out neighbors’ or family members’ basements after the flood.
Such spontaneous community is increasingly rare in our society and culture. In our divided nation, and with the fragmentation brought on by the many cultural changes that we’ve seen over the last decades, it often takes a natural disaster like a flood to draw our attention away from the immediate concerns of our own lives and focus for a time on the larger questions and larger drama of human existence.
As we have read John 6 these last few weeks, we have seen a somewhat similar dynamic play itself out. The chapter begins with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Imagine the excitement, the conversations among those who experienced the miraculous appearance of food. Imagine the stories they would tell to their children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends!
But the scene and the energy quickly shift. We see dialogue, conversation, and finally, conflict, as Jesus’ dialogue partners become increasingly critical of his statements. And now finally this:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
We’re told that the scene has shifted in another way. Whoever Jesus had been talking with earlier in the chapter—when was he addressing the whole crowd? And when did it become a smaller group? Now he has moved into the synagogue and is speaking with the congregation gathered there.
And another set of characters is introduced—the disciples. So the group of those with whom Jesus had been talking has become smaller, more intimate, more deeply connected with Jesus. They were those who had been following him since the beginning, or had joined the group along the way somewhere. But this is a hard saying—it’s more than a “hard saying” it’s a scandal, an offense, the Greek word from which we derive scandal is used here.
So some of them turn away—not the vast crowd that had been fed bread and fishes; nor even those who had listened to Jesus speaking in the synagogue. Now, some of those who turned away were his disciples—men and women who knew him, had followed him thus far, had listened and learned. But the circle grows even smaller. Jesus gathers his closest companions to him, for the first time in the Gospel, there’s a reference to the “twelve.” It’s a term that appears very infrequently in the Gospel of John. Jesus turns to them and asks: “Do you also wish to go away?”
In the last two verses of the chapter, there’s an ominous note-a reminder that not even the twelve could remain with Jesus to the end—The gospel writer mentions Judas by name and his betrayal of Jesus.
The reference to Judas is a reminder to us that when Jesus speaks of his body and blood, he is not speaking only of the Eucharist, but also of his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s no accident, nor is it insignificant that in our Eucharistic prayers, going back to Paul’s account of it in 1 Corinthians, we begin the words of institution with “On the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…”
But there’s more for us to think about here. Jesus is not speaking only of the Eucharist. He is also speaking of himself. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I in them. Discipleship in the Gospel of John is about relationship with Jesus. Throughout the gospel, from the very first chapter, those who follow Jesus are invited to abide with him, to be with him.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ listeners are presented with a choice. They can turn away or reject him, or they can listen to him, hear his words, and follow him. It’s not a yes or no choice. After some of those who had followed him walk away, Jesus asks those who remain, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Peter’s answer isn’t yes or no. Having walked with Jesus thus far, he can’t imagine life without him. “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter has already experienced relationship with Jesus, abiding with him, and the prospect of life without him is incomprehensible. Jesus’ words are eternal life; his words are spirit, all else seems empty in comparison.
Now the Gospel of John has the characteristic that simple ideas, words, concepts can suddenly seem to be remotely abstract, foreign to our experience and lives. Spending time in the gospel of John can be disorienting and alienating. The words wash over us. We have, after all, been spending five weeks hearing this chapter from John’s gospel. If you read it through in one sitting, it comes across as repetitive, to some, even nonsensical. Many of us, including your preacher, will be happy to return to Mark next week, whose language and message is much clearer, though perhaps equally difficult to make one’s own.
What matters above all in John, once we cut through the verbiage, is relationship. What matters is the life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, offered by Christ. What matters is the experience of abiding with him as he abides with us. John is trying to help us understand, but more importantly to experience, the life that he experienced with Jesus Christ. All of the language, all of the discourses, all of Jesus’ miracles, are directed toward this.
Most of us struggle with our faith. Most of us wonder at times, if God exists, whether Jesus was the Son of God, or whether he truly was raised from the dead. We wonder about heaven and hell. We have lots of questions, doubts, uncertainties. Some of us probably aren’t even sure why we bother coming to church. Does any of it matter? Is any of it true?
But there is something that draws us here, something that speaks to our deepest yearnings and hopes. We might not even be able to articulate or name what it is. We come here and find something. For the Gospel of John, what we find here is relationship, life. We experience in the community gathered, in the bread and wine, in the word read and proclaimed, in all of that, we experience life. Jesus offers us that life. He invites us to stay, to abide with him, to live in him as he lives in us. When we say yes to him, we are not proving an argument or saying yes to a proposition. We are inviting and experiencing relationship. When say yes to him, we say yes to life.