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Sunday, July 24, 2011

To Whom Shall We Go? (John 6.59-71)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
July 24, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "The Church's One Foundation" (Charles Ore)
Song of Praise: "The Church's One Foundation/I Lay in Zion a Stone"
(Wesley; refrain by C. Youngblood)

Song of Praise: "Ancient Words" (Lynn DeShazo)
The Word in Music: "Lord, To Whom Shall We Go?" (Michael Joncas)
Offering of Music: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (Walker Austell, piano) (Bach; arr. Smith)
Song of Sending: "Jesus, All for Jesus" (Jennifer Atkinson, Robin Mark)
Postlude: "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" (Manz)

To Whom Shall We Go?
Text: John 6:59-71

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

We have been in John 6 for the past three weeks, looking first at the “Feeding of the 5,000,” and then at the teaching that followed on the other side of the sea in Capernaum. We have seen that what is even more important than the miracle of the feeding is the action of God the Father coming down out of heaven in the person of Jesus the Son. Jesus used the miraculous sign of the feeding to explain that he is bread from heaven; he is the Bread of Life.

His insistence on this matter began to frustrate those who came looking for another miracle, or an experience, or an answer to their prayers for a revolutionary Messiah. As he insisted further that the only way to know God was through himself – the one God sent – the crowd turned away. We find out in today’s text that some or all of this teaching is taking place in the synagogue in Capernaum, which explains even further the shock of having a teacher claim to be sent uniquely from God and the only way to know God.

So, in the past few weeks we have seen the application of Jesus’ teaching for here and now. We too, are drawn to experiential Christianity – to retreats, mission trips, spiritual highs, service projects, and answered prayers – and all of those are good and encouraging to faith. But Jesus insists, “I am the Bread of Life; I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to Father except through me.” And we’ve wrestled with the realization that if we miss Jesus, we’ve missed it all.

Today we get to explore some of the ways that people react to this Gospel, this Jesus-centered and Jesus-dependent message. Some stumble over it; some are angered by it; some are drawn to it; but all must deal with Jesus on his own terms. 

Many Disciples Withdrew

The text begins by telling us about “many disciples.” Now, these were not necessarily “the Jews” who were grumbling previously, or the scribes and Pharisees that would begin to hound Jesus mercilessly. These were called ‘disciples’ or students. He was speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum and had been addressed previously as ‘Rabbi.’ He was assuming the teaching role and there were many who had followed and were listening to him. And this teaching was a turning point for many.

We read in verse 66 that “…as a result of this, many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore.” Let’s back up and consider “as a result” of what.

These students or disciples had come to him or were listening to him as a Rabbi, or teacher. Yet after the teaching about his flesh and blood (from last week; John 6:41-58), they grumbled, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (v. 60) This link to what has gone before shows the continuity between the group in the synagogue and the crowd that followed Jesus around the sea from the site of the feeding of the 5,000. That crowd had already been grumbling, as we saw last week. It would seem that only some followed him around the lake, and even fewer to the synagogue, perhaps with folks peeling off all along as they heard what he said and turned away from it. However many remained at the synagogue, this is the breaking point for many of the disciples/students. The “eat my flesh and drink my blood” insistence that he was the real miracle sent from God was too much.

So Jesus asks, “Does this cause you to stumble?” (v. 61) The Apostle Paul will later note that Jesus was a scandal, literally a “stumbling block,” to the Jews because of his claims. And this chapter depicts just how true this was. He goes on to ask, “What then if you see the son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62) But that’s just the point he’s been making in the earlier part of this chapter – signs and wonders, even PROOF, will not be sufficient; they must believe in him, the one sent of God. It is neither bread, nor signs, nor proof that is needed, but the “Spirit who gives life.” (v. 63)

This is a beautiful closing of the Trinitarian loop in this chapter, with Jesus re-affirming what he has already said. No one can climb to the Father or know the Father in Heaven. God must come to us. Jesus has not only claimed to be the enfleshment of the Father-come-to-us, but now is saying something parallel, that the Father also comes to us as Spirit. The Father draws human beings to Himself through the person and work of Jesus the Son and through the person and work of the Holy Spirit, acting in a person’s heart. This work is manifested as BELIEF. And Jesus concludes of those who are turning away from him and rejecting the testimony of the Spirit, “There are some of you who do not believe.”

So when Jesus reasserts in v. 65 what he did earlier in v. 44, that “no one can come to me unless it has been granted him from the Father,” he is saying theologically what he is living out tangibly: you cannot get to God, but God has come to you – listen and believe. (To that, later, he will add, “…and follow me.”)

And so, we again get to verse 66: “As a result of this many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore.” Maybe they were looking for signs, or a Messiah; but they did not believe Jesus was sent to them from heaven by God, and they left. 

Among the Twelve

That was the crowd of followers. What about the twelve disciples? How are they handling all this?

In verse 67, Jesus asks them, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” The underlying implication of that question is that this indeed has been hard teaching, a potential stumbling block for many. And Jesus asks his disciples – the twelve – whether they are also going to leave over this. Were they also following him for the miracles and the signs, or the hope of a revolutionary Messiah? (We know at least one disciple was a “Zealot” – a member of the revolutionary political party.)

Peter answers for the twelve, and his answer sounds to me fully aware that there is much to stumble over with Jesus’ claims in John 6. Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (v. 68) It has almost a “what-other-options-are-there” quality to it. We could read it full of faith and confidence, like “You’re the One, Jesus – there is no other!” But even with Peter’s next declaration, “You have words of eternal life,” I get the sense that the twelve are still struggling along with the crowd to digest the particularly dense meal that Jesus has just served. This come across differently than Peter’s other, more well-known, confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” This may just be my sense of this, but Peter seems to be admitting that Jesus has just made some pretty amazing and faith-stretching claims, but they are clinging to him, in faith and in hope that what he says is true.

Peter’s third statement is presented all together with “Lord, to whom shall we go?” and “You have words of eternal life.” He then says, “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (v. 69) Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it sounds like Peter is wrestling his way through the offense of what Jesus has said – or slowly climbing over that “stumbling block” – perhaps even having tripped – to stand and say, “Ouch, but yes, we believe!”

And Jesus responds, “Did I myself not choose you, the twelve…” (v. 70). And that would be a wonderful and fitting conclusion to this chapter, illustrating just what Jesus has been claiming, that God pursues humanity, coming to us even as Jesus came to the disciples, to call them forth in faith and discipleship, to believe and follow him.

But that’s not the end. In fact, the end is entirely unsatisfying and troublesome. That’s not even the end of Jesus’ sentence. He says, “Did I myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” And John inserts, as narrator, that of course this is a reference to Judas, the betrayer.

While this ends the passage on a rather ominous note, I think it serves as reminder to us that God’s initiative toward us in Jesus is not a God-pulls-our-strings kind of fatalism. On our part, while we cannot climb to heaven or reach God without God first reaching us, we must believe. We must believe in the One God has sent. And even a son of Israel, even a child of the church, even a follower hand-picked by Jesus, can refuse to believe and reject God’s saving initiative.

Not unlike all that Jesus has been saying in John 6, these are hard words – but ultimately, they are words of life. Where else shall we go? 

To Whom Shall You Go?

And that is the key question for you and me as we read and hear this text. We have made Christianity into a lot of things that it is not – from the worthwhile-but-not-saving experiences of mission trips, retreats, service projects, and church attendance, to the trivial like scripture-inscribed candy, coffee mugs, and convenience store trinkets. And in the midst of all of it – experiential, cultural, thoughtful, and trivial – Jesus insists, “Only through me; believe in me.”

It’s still a claim to stumble over, still a scandal. It’s known as the “scandal of particularity” – that there are not many ways to God, but a particular one, the One sent from Heaven, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God.

So, the text raises this question of you and me: to whom shall you go?

Will you grumble, and stumble, withdraw, and not walk with him anymore?

Will you realize with Peter, stumbling block and all, that only Jesus has the words of eternal life?

Will you believe in the one God has sent? Will you follow him?

This is the essence of the Christian faith. Even more importantly, this is life. Amen.

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