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Tough Talk For Tentative Disciples

Sermons on the Gospel Readings
Series III, Cycle B
This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?
-- John 6:60

Many years ago, a missionary society wrote to David Livingstone, a Scottish Presbyterian pioneer medical missionary in Central Africa, and asked, "Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to send other men to join you." Livingstone wrote back, "If you have men who will come only because there is a good road, I don't want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all."

Every ministry and every ministry leader in the history of the Christian faith has faced tough times. Usually seminaries do not tell their students that, but if you are a Christian leader you need to know it and recognize that you may never get used to it. It seems so far removed from the picture of faith living that we expect, and yet it is reality. In any ministry endeavor there will always be times of encouragement and times of discouragement. In discouraging times, ministry leaders often feel compelled to do two things. The first is to shore up as much support as possible and the second is to try to determine who is truly committed to the continued advancement of the ministry.

Jesus Christ clearly did not read some of the latest books on ministry leadership. As chapter 6 of John closes, he seems determined to drive away as many followers as possible from his ministry. There is no mention here of a new ministry growth campaign. Contrast this passage with the opening of John 6. Then, the crowd is so large that Jesus asks where he can find enough food to feed everyone. His disciples cannot imagine where they would find the money to feed so many. Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy's lunch. He makes food packed for one young boy into more than enough to feed a hungry mass. There are twelve baskets left over. Now, as the chapter closes, Jesus has not a multitude but twelve followers, one of whom is Judas, the traitor, lying in wait for an opportunity to betray (see v. 70). This is hardly a textbook example for today's church-growth experts, some of whom would likely recommend damage control and intensive strategies to shore up support. Jesus, however, gives the remaining disciples an opportunity to walk away: " 'You do not want to leave too, do you?' Jesus asked the Twelve" (v. 67). But wait, this is more than an invitation to walk away. It is a call to commitment.

Tough Talk
Today we often are reluctant to present the demands of Christ to would-be disciples because we fear putting them off Christianity and driving them away. That is not the way of Jesus in this passage. His words are difficult for many people in this crowd to understand and harder still to follow. He says, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (v. 56). Then he seems almost critical of their proud heritage: "Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." The Jewish religious leaders have taught them that cannibalism -- eating human flesh and drinking human blood, runs counter to their religious teachings, and remind them time and again that theirs is a heritage that had experienced God's provision. They fail to see past the words and realize that Jesus is using a metaphor that speaks to the real union that must take place if they would be his disciples.

"This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (v. 60). Jesus knows that many people in the crowd are there for what he can give them. He makes claims for himself that will force them to decide whom they will follow. Would it be the teachings and traditions of their old religious teachers or Christ's message that offends more than a few? The moment of decision has come and when his talk gets tough, the people drift away.

Christ's call to commitment is a double-edged demand. First, it sets forth clearly his life mission and his expectation for those who would go further with him. Second, it weeds out shallowness of commitment from among them. As a result, thousands drop out. Now, Jesus turns to the twelve and asks his pointed question: "You do not want to leave too, do you?" It is a make-up-your-mind moment of a lifetime!

We live in a make-up-your-mind generation. While there is evidence of church growth in many areas of the world -- such as parts of Asia and Latin America -- the fact is that the mainline churches across North America are being forced to recognize a decline in membership and mission outreach, so much so that many sociologists are calling us a post-Christian generation. Many people are walking away. Why is that? These verses help us to see some reasons.

The Truth Is Sometimes Hard To Handle
Despite the fact that Jesus performs a miracle with a boy's meal, it is not long before suspicion, doubt, and open hostility set in against him. The majority of the people are not ready to commit to his unique claims and uncompromising truths about the way of salvation (v. 29), about his ultimate identity (v. 32), about his superiority to Moses (vv. 35, 49-58), or about salvation coming from God alone (vv. 35-65). Witnessing a miracle or two is one thing. Unreserved commitment to the miracle worker can be another. When truth comes to us, we finally have but two ways to respond to it: We can receive it or reject it. The people in this crowd reject Christ's truth for many reasons.

Some oppose it because they oppose him. He is new. He is different and people often do not like change. Many Jewish leaders disagree with Jesus' teaching from the beginning. For one thing, he is not a local fellow. He is from Nazareth and they have a saying, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (see John 1:46).

The Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I came down from heaven'?"
-- John 6:41-42

Rejected by his own people!

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
-- John 1:10-11

Later, the same people argue, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52). They reject both him and his teaching.

They are like those people outside and inside today's church who want to rewrite the gospel. Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code is a typical example of this. From the outset, Brown claimed that his book had merit in its historical accuracy. In fact, it is nothing more than a speculative novel in the style of so many before it, written by one who rejects the claims of Christ and of the ancient scriptures. Moreover, it is not original in its attacks on the gospel. Rather, it is one of the latest volumes in a long list of heretical writings.

There are others among the crowd who seem blind to truth no matter how obvious it is. They see and benefit from Christ's miracle with the loaves and fishes, and they marvel as to how Jesus crosses the lake (see John 6:5-13, 22-25). Yet, how soon they forgot! Call it memory myopia, if you like, for that is what it is. How can it be? Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (v. 65). Indeed, how can it be? They are shallow from the beginning. Later, Saint Paul would write, "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Yet, others want the miracles without a master! Constantly on the outlook for some new emotional high, these follow only for the excitement of the moment. Their expectations are all heaped on Jesus, on the last "big thing" he did or their expectation of what should come next. They come looking for a king who would lead them out of Rome's bondage in ways that they imagine it ought to happen. They give no thought about what they themselves might do to make that come to pass. Having seen Jesus miraculously provide food and enough to spare for their fleshly appetites, they want more signs and wonders, something they can report to their friends, an experience that would allow them to say, "I was there!"

Look around you. See what is happening in some areas of the church. There are those who leave the church because they say, "I don't get anything out of it ... that church did not feed me ... it didn't meet my needs." For them, church is all about what it does for them, with little or no thought given to what they might do for the church or its master. They run from fellowship to fellowship looking for the most recent famous convert or newest gospel gimmick. Let us be painfully honest: what they want is entertainment, not devotion to the Lord of the universe.

The truth is not always easy to accept nor readily apparent. We see this pattern in other places, too. In John 3, Nicodemus -- a religious scholar no less -- confused spiritual truth with gynecological medicine. In John 4, the woman at the well first believed Jesus was some kind of water quality expert. In John 5, the man by the pool of Bethesda believed at first that he had been the beneficiary of some kind of welfare program. There was nothing spiritual about his understanding of his healing until Jesus told him, "Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you" (John 5:14).

We see this all revealed in Jesus' parable of the sower:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop -- a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.
-- Matthew 13:3-9

Think about it. It is all there, isn't it?

Make no mistake: The way of discipleship is not easy and not everybody is ready to accept it. Jesus warns us that this would be the case: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves" (Matthew 10:16). "All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22). "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). It has always been the case that discipleship is hard and it is never tentative. Just take a look at the martyrs from throughout the church's history, of whom it is said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

Face reality: The truth makes demands of us and the gospel of Jesus has never been easy to follow nor popular among the majority. Truth, however, is never settled by popular opinion. If it were, it would be in a state of constant flux. The truth is that the truth is always true, whether or not the majority accepts it! It cannot be reconfigured and it cannot be rewritten! There it stands for all time, unwavering in the face of unbelief and uncertainty, or lack of acceptance. Truth itself will never change but it will always change us when we take it and live by it. Jesus Christ, who says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6), will never be universally popular. Because he knows who he is, the crowd's departure in this passage does not panic him. With boldness and certainty, he asks the twelve, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" (John 6:67). How can he do that? Only because he knows that his truth will still be true even if he stands alone, as indeed he is destined to do when he goes to the cross and even the twelve leave him.

Authentic Disciples Cannot Walk Away From Jesus
Peter answers for the twelve, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (v. 68). There is, when all is said and done, only one way to follow Jesus Christ, and that is with ruthless self-abandonment, taking no step except those we take with him and for his glory.

A story about the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortez, tells how he was so committed to his mission that he had his men burn their ships so that they would never be tempted to turn back in defeat.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to burn all our other ships. Peter can see what the crowd cannot see that day. He realizes that Jesus Christ is God's eternal bread come down from heaven and that he has the words of eternal life. As a result, Peter becomes a partaker of two great possessions that I offer to you today, in Christ's name. They are faith -- the inward conviction that Jesus Christ is who he claims to be and will do everything he promises to do. The faith I offer you is not mere emotion. It is, rather, action. I invite you to choose to see it as an acronym, F-A-I-T-H. F-A-I-T-H stands for Forsaking-All-I-Trust-Him. Jesus says, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33). When we receive Christ by faith, we then receive the second great possession of those who come to Christ completely. It is the possession of Christian experience. It is evidenced over time in new desires, new goals, new direction for your life, a full heart, and in the first-hand experience of seeing Christ do all he promises to do for those who follow him. The Bible says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Peter knows that his life is changed for the better in walking with Jesus. This in itself is enough for this moment when he has an opportunity to walk away. Certainly, there would later come a time when Peter would deny the Lord and go his own way for a while, but the reality is that even then he could never really walk away.

Once we have tasted the light of Christ's glory and have sensed the touch of the master's hand on our lives, and once we have known the best that he has to offer us, we will never again be satisfied with second best. Peter knows that and asks, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." We may wander away for a time, but like the prodigal son we will come to our senses and remember that life in the Father's house is life worth living, and we will come home.

The call of this day is for each of us to examine our own commitment to Jesus. Do we follow him for what we imagine he can do for us or for who he is and what we can do for his glory?

What about you? Surely, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" If you will follow Jesus Christ, come with all your heart! Amen.
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