Our lesson is lifted from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John ~ one of the longest chapters in the New Testament ~ seventy-one verses. For those who yearn to measure the kingdom quantitatively ~ in terms of numbers and success ~ it is bad news. In one chapter Jesus demonstrates how to lose a congregation ~ not "see them grow," but "watch them go."
John 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand. The Master has the crowd in the palm of his hand and the pit of their stomachs. What a feeding! They are ready to rally! They try to force him to be their king. He will have no part of it. Jesus and the crowd play a game of "hide and seek." The crowd wins! The miracle worker dampens their enthusiasm by scolding them. "You do not seek me because you saw signs of the kingdom, but because I fed your hungry stomachs."
"Let me tell you about my kingdom. I am the bread of life! Feed on me! Follow me and you will never hunger and thirst again!" Many complained that his teaching was too difficult. The Greek word does not mean hard to understand but difficult to accept. Some respond with their feet and depart. The congregation dramatically declines. In verse 66 Jesus turns to the remaining twelve and asks, "Will you also go away?"
Rejection! It would only get worse! Isaiah had foretold it. "He was despised and he was rejected!" He came to his own and his own received him not. He had no place to lay his head. He died practically alone on a cross, suspended between heaven and earth, as if wanted by neither. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Rejection is still the most painful human experience. It comes in a variety of forms and faces. It can be real or imagined. Domestic violence and spousal abuse are the tragic results of rejection within families. Generations can reject each other as when a son puts his aging parents on the shelf. As when adults reject, with no effort to understand, a youth culture. Teenage suicide is up 95% since 1970 ~ the ultimate rejection of self. Some imagine themselves rejected by God and live without hope. In the culture wars of our times marked by the loss of civility, people are too often rejected because of race, gender, age, sexuality, economic or social class.
Vocational rejection is rampant in our day. As corporate America downsizes, rightsizes, re-engineers, restructures, relocates, scores of skilled workers experience rejection striking a blow at their self esteem.
Look at the lengths many people go to avoid rejection ~ to be accepted ~ to belong ~ to conform. An entire counter-culture of gangs, cults, dress codes, language, ethical behavior is spawned by the fear of rejection.
I love the story of the woman who celebrated her 102nd birthday, and when asked if there were any benefits living to such a ripe old age, she replied. "Yes, the absence of peer pressure."
Rejection usually results in anger turned in on self or turned out on others. There is a destructive chain reaction in rejection that often moves from self-pity ~ nobody wants me ~ to sour grapes ~ I don't want anybody ~ and can go on to bitterness and sometimes vengeance. The millions of refugees in our world at this very minute are graphic reminders of the horrible reality of rejection.
What are the resources of our Christian faith that enable us to deal with the realities of rejection, in our own life, and those around us? What we call the grace of God is an unmerited love. Even when we may deserve to be excluded and rejected, we are accepted and included. God is not capricious. Both the old and new of our Bible proclaim that God has covenanted to love us. The paradigm is perhaps the parable of the Prodigal Son who returns from the far country expecting to be rejected. That is what he deserves. Instead he experiences unconditional acceptance by his father who in the story represents God.
Think of the traditional doctrine of "justification by grace through faith" this way. Our acceptance with God is not the goal, but the starting point of the Christian life. Our acceptance by God is not something to be hoped for, or worked for, or worried for. It is what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us" ~ that is the gospel ~ that is the good news. Often, we are our own worst enemies ~ we need to be saved from ourselves and our damnable perfectionism. A rather self-righteous Christian once confronted a colleague by asking, "Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?" "Yes" came the reply, "but I leak"! We all leak! We all leak, and by the grace of God we all are loved!"
Our faith also claims that God calls us into a community where each accepts the other as all have been accepted by God. A community of faith whose climate is controlled by the warm and welcoming love of God and where no one will experience rejection. A neighboring church has a mission statement that says it all ~ WE AGREE TO DIFFER ~ WE RESOLVE TO LOVE ~ WE UNITE TO SERVE! As the gap between church and culture widens, we need congregations marked not so much by standing committees as support groups where each is accepted by another as all have been accepted by God.
Let me close with a story I read recently. It is good news for all who have experienced rejection. A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. It is a pleasant day as they leisurely motor along a country road. Suddenly the two children strapped in the back seat shout at the driver. "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car. There's a kitten back there on the side of the road." The driver pretends not to hear. "Daddy, you must stop and pick it up." "No, I don't have to stop and pick it up." "But Daddy, if you don't it will die." "Well, then it will have to die. The last thing we need is another scrounge animal around the house. No more animals! We are not a zoo." "But Daddy, are you going to just let it die?" "Quiet children, and look at the beautiful scenery." "Mommy, we never thought our Daddy could be so mean and cruel to let a little kitten die." She turns to her husband and says, "Dear, I think we should go back." He turns around in a huff and eventually pulls off on the side of the road. "You kids stay in the car ~ I'll take a look." He stoops to lift the little kitten. The mangy creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed and full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Ssst! He grabs the ingrate by the scruff of the neck and carries it back to the car. "Don't touch it he warns - it probably has leprosy." Back home they go in silence. When they arrive the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk and then plead, "Can we let it stay in the house just for tonight? Tomorrow we'll fix a place in the garage." "Sure, the father mutters, be my guest, use my bedroom, I told you this place was a zoo." They fix a comfortable bed fit for a queen. Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down and there is the cat. He reaches down carefully checking to see that no one is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss, instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? No. It is not that same frightened, hurt, hissing creature on the side of the road. Of course not! And you know as well as I do what made the difference.
Long ago, there was another man who stretched out his hands to bless us and lift us. He did it for all who have been rejected ~ for all refugees by the roadside of life ~ for all who are hurt, hungry and ready to lash out.
Look at his face ~ look at the wounded hands ~ there are even holes ~ they are bleeding. Such are the hands of the Savior ~ the hands of love and acceptance ~ extended this day to all who feel rejected.