Hard to Swallow
[Jesus said,] “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 forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “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 Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 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.”
If you’ve been around Cross of Grace for worship the last several weeks – or in any Christian church that follows the lectionary of scripture readings that guides our life together – it may be hard to believe we’re still talking about the Bread of Life. (We’re in it for week five at this point, but who’s counting!?)
But remember with me that, though this might seem like OLD good news to many of us, what we’ve been hearing and learning from Jesus was very much NEW ground for those who were learning to follow him, back in the day. And today is no different.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, about what it means that he had come down from heaven as bread for the sake of the world. We have to remind ourselves, as 21st Century Christians – Sunday morning quarterbacks, in all of this, if you will – that the symbolism and imagery and teaching here, aren’t that much of a stretch for us. We will share communion this morning – eating bread and drinking wine – just like we did last week, and the week before that; and just like we’ll do next week and the week after that, and so on.
So, we are down with Jesus as the Bread of Life. We get this Bread from Heaven stuff, which fills us with forgiveness and grace and the promised redemption and resurrection of our souls on the other side of God’s heaven, and all the rest. This, too, may sound like OLD good news to us.
But put yourself into that synagogue in Capernaum as a faithful Jewish man, woman or child, and hear these words from Jesus, about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and comparing it all to your ancestors even further back in the day who were lost and wandering around in the desert, but who God saved with bread that came down from heaven in the form of manna in the wilderness – very real food from heaven that saved their lives – right where they were; right when they needed it most.
The people listening to Jesus didn’t have the luxury or the understanding of the sacramental, Sunday morning quarterback’s perspective with which we are blessed. Never mind the audacity and arrogance and blasphemy of claiming to have ‘come down from heaven’ … when they heard Jesus invite them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he may have sounded more like a First Century Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, than any kind of Messiah – or Son of God – or Savior of the world.
And it was too much to bear, for many of them. They couldn’t abide. They didn’t understand. This was crazy talk. They couldn’t swallow it – they wouldn’t swallow it – this bread from heaven, this flesh and blood, Jesus was promising could change everything. So they turned back and refused to follow him any further. And, understanding their perspective, it’s hard to blame them, really. Don’t you think?
Some of you know that a group of us has been studying a book the last few weeks, called UnClobber, by a pastor and theologian named Colby Martin. It’s about a new, different way to understand the place of homosexuality in Scripture. It’s about re-evaluating the traditional theology that condemns lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer people. It involves studying the historical, sociological, cultural context of Scripture, along with the language and translation of relevant passages, in a way that takes the sting out of the handful of Scriptures that, for so long, have been used to shame, judge, convict, and condemn LGBTQ children of God. Ultimately, our time together – I hope – is about learning to love, not just tolerate, our LGBT and Q brothers and sisters, in a new, faithful way.
As many of you know, this is a harder thing to grasp for some of us than it is for others. We made a commitment, at the beginning of our time together, to be “curious” about what we would read and discuss, rather than “furious” about whatever might come of it.
Now, the class and its teaching hasn’t been all that new or challenging for everyone around the table. But it is new and it has been challenging for others. There are some in the group who have been doing some heavy lifting, some faithful wrestling, some hard work with all of this. And that has been quite inspiring to be part of, from my perspective.
But the truth is, that it’s been too hard and too heavy for a few – particularly some guests who had never been to Cross of Grace for anything before this study. At least one person bought the book with good intentions of joining the class, but never showed up. Another person gave up on it all after only our second gathering.
They didn’t buy it, I guess. They can’t believe it, I suppose. They won’t swallow it, if you will; this new kind of bread that’s different from anything they’ve ever tasted or believed before. They’ve decided, as far as I can tell, something like what those first century folks said to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
And I’m working to honor my end of the bargain to not be furious about that. I can’t help but be curious about what more or better or different could be said or done to convince them otherwise. And I’m mostly frustrated and sad, too, that I wasn’t able to break through the hard crust of that old bread I feel they’re still clinging to, still chewing on, still choking down, and still passing around, out there in the world.
Because the bottom line for me is that the good news of Jesus – the bread of life that has come down from heaven for the sake of the world – is almost too good to be true. There are times and places and people for whom my own preconceived notions and prejudices make all of this grace stuff too difficult to buy or believe. How can this grace be for him? Is it possible for them to be forgiven? Will there be mercy and redemption, even, for so and so? (Each of us can fill in those blanks, I believe.)
I feel myself saying, to Jesus, “This teaching is too difficult. Who can accept it?”
And then I hear Jesus responding, just like he said to those first followers, “Does this offend you?” “Is my grace too big for you?” “Is my love too wide… my mercy too mighty… my forgiveness too abundant?” And I hear him saying, something else, too, like he also said to those first followers, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” “Wait until you see me raised from the dead, the Son of Man ascending to where he was before – conquering death, vanquishing sin, redeeming, saving, feeding the world with this bread of life that’s come down from heaven.”
See, this is about more than learning to understand Scripture differently around the hot-button issue of the day – or even having to agree about all of that at every turn. This is about any time we feel God trying to do a new thing in …or for …or through our lives. This is about all the times we wonder if God is big enough to forgive that sin; to comfort that grief; to do that justice; to love that mightily; to merit this kind of hope.
And it’s the story of our faith – that even when we can’t, God does. Even when we won’t God will. Even when we refuse, God has already. So we keep trying. We struggle with the heavy lifting. We wrestle with this grace we’re called to receive and to share. And we are patient with ourselves and with others when any one of us can’t or won’t or doesn’t.
And then we return to the table, together, I hope – to the one who has the words and the way to eternal life. And we eat – with humility and joy – this bread of life, that’s come down from heaven. We eat this bread of life and we are better for it. We eat this bread of life and we share it with the world until all are fed with the same grace and mercy, the same love and forgiveness, the same hope that is ours when we do.