Do You Want to Leave Too? (August 26, 2018)
Do you want to leave too?
It’s a heartbreaking question.
It comes at the end of John 6. The whole chapter has to do with food. It begins with the feeding of the 5,000, and continues with a declaration that Jesus is the Bread of Life. In John, earthly realities always point to spiritual realities. As Dorothy Day put it, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.”
When John proclaims that Jesus is “the bread which has come down from heaven”, we are dealing with Eucharistic imagery. We participate in this spiritual reality every week: “This is my body, this my blood … for you.” In this ritual meal, Jesus is truly and deeply present with us and in us. We eat and drink, and Jesus becomes part of us, and we become part of Jesus. We are fed spiritually. We are renewed and transformed to see the world from the new perspective of God’s gospel values.
The people don’t get it. Isn’t this Mary and Joe’s boy? What’s he talking about?
John continues, saying very clearly that if we want to know God, we must look to Jesus. If we want to know God’s character, watch what Jesus does. If we want to know the heart of God, look at Jesus’ compassion for the vulnerable ones in society. If we want to understand God’s passion for the world, watch how Jesus loves those around him.
But many of Jesus’ followers found this teaching too difficult. It was too much for them, and so John writes, “Therefore, many of his disciples turned away and no longer went about with him.”
Notice that John uses the word “disciples” for those who turn away. They weren’t just casual listeners, hangers–on. They weren’t the folks who come for Christmas and Easter services. They are the ones who are there every week, the Sunday School teachers, the Lay Ministers and priests. These disciples have journeyed faithfully with Jesus.
And now it’s too much. It’s too hard.
That’s when Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you want to leave too?”
I wonder how Jesus asked the question. I wonder if there was an edge to it — was he issuing a challenge? I sometimes imagine that he asked it sadly. Maybe he asked it with a sigh, his shoulders sagging a little. It’s hard to watch those you counted on as followers leave.
Do you want to leave too?
And then I wonder how I would have answered that question. Because sometimes the answer is yes. Yes I want to quit. Yes, I want to be more comfortable. Yes, I’d like an easier, less demanding, less costly way of life.
Yes, sometimes I want to leave.
Notice that Peter doesn’t give a definite answer. He doesn’t shout a Spirit–filled “No!” Neither does he say “yeah, I’m done.”
He asks a question of his own, which becomes a statement of trust: “Where else would we go? What are the alternatives? Your teaching is hard … but it has life. You tell us you are life itself, abundant life. If you truly are who you say you are, why would we leave?”
It’s a pretty stunning statement. You are life. Why would we leave?
What about us? Could we say the same?
We live in a dark time. There is pain and hatred and suffering all around. It’s a challenging time to live. How do we face those challenges?
Well, there are all kinds of ways of coping with those challenges … retail therapy; a stiff drink; hiding in your own cave; living behind walls which will let no one else in; turning a blind eye to the suffering; making sure you and yours are doing ok above all else; making sure your retirement account is as strong as possible; hanging out only with your own tribe. There are all kinds of ways of coping in our society.
The trouble is that none of these are gospel ways.
The gospel invites us, calls us, to get involved with the world so that we can shine in this place as beacons of God’s light, God’s grace, God’s love. The gospel calls us to be light and to feed the world with the bread which we have received.
That’s why Ephesians advises us to put on the whole armour of God. I don’t much like this militaristic image … but it seems appropriate these days. It feels like a battle out there. We are waging war against forces of exclusion and hatred and division. There are people all around us who want to build walls instead of bridges. Some people are feeling empowered to express their racist rants. Some people speak more freely about their hatred and intolerance.
They’re waging war on women’s rights and marriage equality. They’re waging war against immigrants, and the poor and vulnerable among us. They’re waging war against aboriginal and indigenous peoples; They’re denying climate change and they claim that we are not ruining the earth. They’re fighting against a free press. They’re fighting against diversity.
That’s tough stuff. It’s tough to stand against those kinds of attitudes. And it’s also true that there are no easy answers. These are difficult questions, and there are reasonable differing attitudes about them.
But for us who follow Jesus, if it doesn’t show love, it’s not for us. If it doesn’t show compassion, it’s not for us. If it doesn’t seek to welcome and embrace those who are different, it’s not for us.
So Ephesian’s call seems timely: put on the whole armour of God and go into the world to live as followers of Jesus. Do not be afraid. We are held by God. We are a people who live by the power of God’s gospel values — compassion; grace; inclusion; welcome; hope; trust; and above all else, love.
There’s a wonderful story about Desmond Tutu. During the time of evil known as apartheid, a rally had been planned in protest. The government cancelled the rally, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. Soldiers and riot police carrying guns and bayonets stood all around the walls of the cathedral, ready to shut it down.
Bishop Tutu began to speak about the evils of apartheid, and that the rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. He pointed a finger at the police who were there to record his words: “You may be powerful — very powerful — but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.”
Then, in the middle of that moment of unbearable tension, Tutu seemed to soften. He came out from behind the pulpit, flashed that radiant smile and began to bounce up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.”
The crowd roared, the police melted away, and the people began to dance.
What about us? Do we want to leave too?
Or are we ready to share in the abundant life which Jesus gives to those who follow?
As for me, I will choose to speak out. I will choose to practice justice. I will choose to live with compassion. I will choose to walk in righteousness. I will choose to embody peace. I will choose to include all people, regardless of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their wealth. I will choose to remain loyal to God, the Source of abundant life.
What about us?
This is a question of our vocation. How will we live? How will we minister in the world as people who are part of the Jesus-movement? How will we show by our lives that we live the abundant life given to us by God?
As people in the Jesus-movement, I invite you to put on the armour of God, to learn to walk in compassion and grace, and to learn to dance. Don’t leave. I invite you to join the winning side.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
August 26, 2018 (14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21)
John 6: 56–69
Ephesians 6: 10–20
1 Kings 8: 22–30, 41–43