|Photos in and from my yard: Desert Aire, WA|
Winter Winding Down
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Faith for Life - Diving In
Preached on Sunday, February 19, 2017
Scripture readings: Leviticus 17:10-14; John 6:52-71
Within the space of two days, Jesus went from having a crowd of thousands of people wanting to force him to be their king (if it came down to that), to having a crowd of about twelve people, and a few more, who simply didn’t know where else to go. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
At the beginning of the two days, Jesus had fed a crowd of about five thousand men, not counting the women and children. Maybe you could multiply the five thousand by five for a better sense of that crowd.
He fed them all with the remains of a boy’s lunch basket: five barley flat-breads and two pickled fish. They tried to grab Jesus in order to make him king, and Jesus barely slipped out of their hands and went into hiding. They went on a man hunt and they found Jesus on the second day, on the other side of the Lake of Galilee.
What Jesus had failed to accomplish, by hiding from the crowd, he succeeded at by completely alienating the crowd. Jesus made himself disgusting to them. He told them to eat his body and drink his blood.
No one had ever talked like that to them before. No one would have dared talk to them like that.
We know that eating his body and drinking his blood are good, because it says so in our Bible. If it’s in there, it must be OK.
For the people who thought they wanted Jesus to be their king, eating bodies was what happened when you were under the judgement of God, and your town was besieged by the enemy, and you were reduced to eating your dead. (Leviticus 26:29; Ezekiel 5:8-10; etc.) Drinking any kind of blood carried the death penalty. (Leviticus 17:10-14) Their Bible was pretty clear on that. It was not OK. It was evil.
The crowds left Jesus in disgust. A lot of the people who seemed to be disciples also left in disgust or, at least, in complete horror and shame.
Jesus began the two days with a powerful graciousness. He made himself the gracious host of those thousands of people and, by doing so (according to the culture of their day), he bound himself to them in friendship and faithfulness. That is what sharing a meal meant. Hosting a meal meant so much more.
After Jesus hid from them, and let himself be found, he made himself a little harder to get along with. He said that it wasn’t enough for them to eat the bread he gave them. They needed to believe in him. They needed to trust him as the one who brought them into a true and life-changing relationship with his Father. They needed to trust that Jesus could give them a new kind of life which would never die. That was hard enough. That was a giant step; and Jesus was only going to make it harder.
It turns into a long story. Jesus told them that they believed because he fed them with food for their stomachs instead of believing that he could give them the substance of life in the kingdom of God. They wanted a king who could fill their stomachs and give them freedom from the Romans. Jesus wanted to be their king by being one with them and giving them life with God.
Jesus turned the process of believing into the process of eating his bread. Then he turned eating his bread into eating his flesh, and then he turned it into including that, along with drinking his blood. Line by line Jesus made it worse and worse.
The Greek language, in which John tells this story, makes it worse and worse. Jesus started changing his terminology for eating. At first, he used the standard, routine eating word for eating and, then, in verse fifty-four (6:54), he used a special word for eating that means heavy-duty eating: chomping, and munching, and smacking your lips on his body and blood. Even a lot of the disciples couldn’t take it anymore. That kind of talk made them sick, and they went away.
For the famous twelve disciples and maybe the few others who stayed, this was very disturbing. On one hand, Jesus started out making things very clear and simple. Then he got strange.
When the big crowd found him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (6:26) Remember that the word “sign” doesn’t have the word “miracle” beside it, even though the sign was a miracle. For Jesus, and for John, the signs were demonstrations of who Jesus is.
The plain truth is that God feeds us, and all our blessings come from God. The sign of the bread demonstrated the message that this is who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who feeds us. Jesus is the one from whom all our blessing come. The sign demonstrates something that Jesus said clearly, later: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) “He who has seen me has seen the father.” (John 14:9)
The crowd saw Jesus as “The Bread King”. It wasn’t any stretch of the imagination for them to extend that power from Jesus the Bread King to Jesus the Liberator from the Romans. The crowd, and many of the disciples of Jesus, wanted what Jesus could give them more than they wanted Jesus alone.
Jesus came to serve, and most people wanted him to serve by serving them bread, and freedom, and prosperity, and anything else that they didn’t have and wanted to have badly. Jesus came to serve by giving them a new life, an abundant life, an everlasting and undying life, that came from being one with him.
Jesus came to make himself one with us by being born as one of us, and by living a human life, and by dying in such a way on the cross that he carried on his own back our sins, our sickness, our weakness, our fears, and our own death. Jesus made himself one with us so that we could be one with him.
We let his death become our death because his love on the cross presents itself to us with so much power. When that happens, then his death comes into us just like the best food in the world, only different. Even the worst food in the world keeps us alive. His death, coming into us, makes us alive for the first time in our lives.
Whether it’s the best food or the worst food that this world has to offer, we take that food into our digestive system and our bodies convert that food into us. The food of Jesus is different. The body and the blood of Jesus come into us by faith and it turns us into Jesus. The food of the death of Jesus turns us into brothers and sisters of Jesus who have his life living in us, and through us.
There is power in the body of Jesus living in us and shared by us as brothers and sisters together. And there is power in the blood.
We can understand this, perhaps, from marriage. I live alone (although the truth is that I am never alone). What I mean by living alone is that whatever gets done in my life, I’m the one who has to do it. Sometimes I’ve thought that, if I were married, I would have someone to help me do everything. Because of my wife, I would even be smarter because I would have two heads instead of one. I would have someone to motivate me and encourage me.
Does that mean that I would fall in love with a woman on the basis of what she could give me? Or would I give myself to some crazy woman because she was crazy enough to simply give me herself? Marriage (at its best) is a kind of faith that comes from a miracle of self-giving.
Jesus will not accept a marriage with us on the basis of what we have to offer him. Jesus doesn’t come into us, and live in us, on the basis of what we can, or will, do for him. Jesus will not accept a marriage with us on the basis of giving us what we want, and what we think that we need, if what we want and think that we need is anything less than simply himself. We must want Jesus alone, for his own sake alone.
Jesus is crazy enough to want us alone. Jesus wants us to be crazy enough to want him alone: to want him for nothing but for himself. If that sounds harsh, knowing how harsh it sounds helps us understand the story of Jesus’ loss of popularity.
If that sounds harsh, we have to know that the time will come when each one of us will face life having Jesus alone. The time will come (and maybe there will be many times to come) when we will seem to have nothing but Jesus: Jesus alone.
That will either be enough; or it won’t be enough. Jesus promises to be enough, and he asks us to trust him on this, beginning now; or beginning when you finally come to your own crucial “now”.
The story of Jesus and his loss of popularity helps us learn a few important things.
It shows us a picture of people who think they are followers of Jesus, and believers of Jesus, who haven’t come to this crucial decision. They have followed and believed because they believe that following Jesus will provide them with what they want. For them, Jesus is still the Bread King, or the King of Blessings and Gifts.
Sometimes my own life challenges me to question myself. Have I been willing to choose Jesus alone?
The story of Jesus the Bread King versus Jesus the Bread of Life also teaches us that Jesus can be scary, and that living by faith can be scary. It’s right there in the Bible. The Gospel of John tells us that it is written to show us, truly, who Jesus is, so that we can truly know who he is, and (knowing) have life in his name. It comes down to us having him alone.
So, we learn that Jesus and his requirement of living by faith can be scary. It’s also true that the same story teaches us that Jesus is our bountiful and gracious host, who ties and binds himself to us in friendship and loyalty. We can know this, absolutely and completely, and still know that Jesus alone is our scary, great and perfect love.
It’s no use hiding this from anyone. Anyone who has ever heard anything about Jesus somehow knows that Jesus could turn out to be scary. It’s not that hard to listen to Jesus and think to yourself: “Oh, avoid getting tied down to this at any cost.”
And, again, couldn’t the prospect of getting married look like this? And yet, what, then, shall we do about any love that is truly worthy of being called love? What is left of life if you will not face your fear of love? What is left?
One other lesson to be learned is the lesson of those who were left. They loved Jesus alone. They loved what Jesus must be up to, even though they couldn’t understand it, even though Jesus seemed to be failing and blowing it all. They stuck to Jesus even when Jesus seemed determined to be unpopular, and distasteful, and scary.
One advantage they had was that they had suddenly found themselves choosing Jesus alone. They had taken the leap. They could say goodbye to popularity and numbers. They could still go on working with Jesus for the kingdom of God and, the truth is, Jesus would be faithful.
Jesus would be faithful, and die for the sin of the world, and rise from the dead. Jesus would break the power of sin, the power of the world, the power of the devil, and the power of death itself. That was the greatest gift of all. There, Jesus would give them the brand of life that no bread on earth could possibly give.
All in all, Jesus the Bread King would mean “Jesus and this, Jesus and that”. Choosing Jesus alone is something entirely different.
For Jesus alone, as he offers himself to us, the first step is the hardest step of all. The first step to Jesus the Bread and the Blood of life is the leap of faith. It’s the plunge into deep waters.
When you listen to enough old stories, you find that people used to learn how to swim by getting thrown into the water. Looking back, we will see that Jesus really did that to each one of us, and to all of us together. It’s all the same, though, whether he has thrown us in, himself, or whether we just take the jump and dive in.