Preached August 23, 2015.
I’ve had a number of experiences in my life where--after I got into something--I realized, this is not what I thought it was, and I dropped out. Have any of you ever done that? Whether it was a job, school, a volunteer position, a club, a relationship. After you saw what it really entailed, you bailed.
Well, that’s exactly what we read about a whole lot of Jesus’ disciples doing in today’s lesson from John. It comes at the end of a very long discourse in John’s Gospel that follows John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has used this miraculous feeding as a teaching opportunity. What begins with Jesus literally giving bread to the hungry moves on to imagining life beyond the literal, beyond basic needs and survival. And what Jesus tells them is just too much for them to handle. This is not what they signed on for and they’re outa here.
John tells us that many of Jesus’ disciples walked away. They couldn’t accept the kinds of things Jesus was telling them about the abundant life God promised them by his grace. They just couldn’t bring themselves to go there. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe they were afraid. But it was enough for them to walk away.
In churches we see people walk away all the time. At Holy Trinity I’ve noticed that new people are sometimes so excited to be a part of our community, it’s like we’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Some stick around and some don’t. After a time, there are those who suddenly evaporate into thin air, and I wonder why. Whenever possible, I try to have a conversation with them about this, but the conversation isn’t usually very satisfying. For one thing, I’m not sure they’re being completely honest with me. And for another thing, I’m not sure they’re being completely honest with themselves. By that I mean, I don’t know if people always realize why they’re walking away. It could be something as simple as we did something to offend them, or maybe I said something they couldn’t agree with in a sermon. In some way, being part of our congregation didn’t meet their expectations. It may be because they really didn’t understand what we’re about, or it may be because they understand exactly what we’re about. But there was something about this experience that was hard for them. So hard that they decided to walk away.
The disciples in Jesus’ time walked; they couldn’t enter into the kind of relationship Jesus was inviting them to be a part of. I suspect they were afraid. They couldn’t take that step, even though Jesus promised them that it was the way to real life, life abundant, what John calls eternal life. They couldn’t trust that Jesus was speaking the truth to them. They couldn’t risk who they were to become the people Jesus was calling them to be. And so they decided to play it safe. And they turned their backs on the life Jesus offered them.
Now, no doubt some of those same fears are present among us today. Fear may send us running from our God who only wants to love us. I know that’s true for some people. But today, following Jesus is vastly different than it was in the first century. Over the years, the gospel has become domesticated so that being a follower of Jesus has come to mean something more than simply accepting or rejecting the love God offers us.
For many Americans, religion has become a consumer experience. People are not seeking religion that challenges them with truth so much as they are seeking religion that meets their needs. They seek out worship experiences that entertain or at least make them feel comfortable. Should the preacher fail to bless their political agenda or their lifestyle of endless consumption, they move on to one who will. They’ll find a preacher who preaches no more than 10 minutes, tells funny stories, and leaves people feeling great about themselves.
And this is bailing on Jesus. We bail on Jesus when we fail to truly follow him.
There was a lot of tension in Charlotte over the past week as we awaited a verdict in the Kerrick trial. When it was all said and done, the verdict wasn’t satisfying to anyone. In the world around us, people have taken sides. Some stand on the side of the victim, Jonathan Ferrell. Others are taking the side of the police officer who shot him. So, which side do we take, as followers of Jesus? The Jesus I follow weeps for both sides and everyone caught in between. He weeps for the black community that has a long, painful history of experiencing police brutality and discrimination in our criminal justice system. But Jesus also weeps for a young man who was so frightened for his life that he felt it necessary to kill another young man who was only trying to ask for help. Jesus weeps for them both. While the world around us is demanding that we take a side, Jesus invites us to follow him to a different place. Guilt or innocence becomes irrelevant when we follow the one who calls us to show love and mercy to all, even our enemies.
Following Jesus isn’t about choosing the easy way, or the comfortable way, or the enjoyable way. It often means doing what’s difficult. Allowing ourselves to be open to an authentic relationship with the God who knows us and loves us, no matter how scary that may be. Doing the hard work of reconciling with one another before we meet at the altar. Sharing in the suffering of others, including people we’d rather ignore, by standing with them when the going gets tough—in a shelter, a prison, a nursing home. Quite bluntly, following Jesus means going where we don’t want to go.
You can stay in your safe place. If you’re straight, you don’t have to concern yourself with gay folks. If you’re white, you can leave the black folks to take care of their own problems. If you’re an American citizen, you can let immigrants fend for themselves. If you’re wealthy, and educated, and were raised with all the advantages a person could have… you can eat drink and be merry and to hell with those you view as “less fortunate.” You can do all of that.
But you can’t do any of that and follow Jesus. You can pretend to follow Jesus, you can use the name of Jesus, and you can call yourself a disciple of Jesus. But in reality, you’ve bailed on Jesus. Just as surely as the disciples we read about in John 6 bailed on Jesus.
That’s the way it goes when the going gets tough. But we also read in John 6 that after those who couldn’t fathom what Jesus was teaching walked out, a handful of his closest friends remained. Jesus turns to them and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter answers for all of them, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Nothing else was going to do it for them. No other way was going to bring them life. And so the Jesus way became their way, too.
I suspect that most of us who are in church on a Sunday morning have come to the point in our lives where we don’t worry a whole lot about deciding whether we’ll be Christians or not. That was decided long ago. But the question worth asking again and again, as people who call ourselves Christians is: Am I going to follow Jesus? That means acknowledging the truth about your struggles. It means acting in compassion when you’d like to lash out. It means loving the unlovable, sticking your neck out on behalf of someone who doesn’t look like you or act like you or think like you. It means following Jesus when it’s hard.