"And many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?'"
I don't know about you, but sometimes it's easier for me to identify with the crowds who misunderstand and question Jesus than with Jesus himself or the twelve. This is one of those times. To understand what I mean, though, we have to recall just what Jesus has been saying here and throughout the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel: that Jesus, for instance, is the bread of life; that he provides the only food which truly nourishes; that he gives us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to sustain us on our journey; that we are actually to eat his flesh and blood in order to abide in him. These are, indeed, hard words, hard to hear, hard to understand, hard to believe.
No wonder, then, that many of those following Jesus now desert him. And at this point we need to be careful, for it's always tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people too stupid or lazy or unfaithful to believe. But note that John calls these folks not simply "the crowds," as in earlier passages, but rather "disciples." The people in today's reading who now desert Jesus are precisely those who had, in fact, believed in Jesus, those who had followed him and had given up much to do so. But now, finally, after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired, and they can no longer see clearly what it was about Jesus that attracted them to him in the first place, and so they leave...and who can blame them?
Seriously. Are we really all that different? I mean, which of us has not at one time or another wondered whether we have believed in vain? During the dark of the night, perhaps, watching and praying by the bedside of a child or grandchild in the hospital, wondering why in the world he is so sick and whether he'll ever recover. Or in the early part of the morning, waking up alone and wondering why your spouse has left you and whether she'll return. Or at noon time, standing in line at the unemployment office and wondering how you ended up here and worrying whether you'll ever find another job. Or in the latter part of the day, while cooking supper and thinking about your family--so full of ill-will toward each other--and wondering why things have not turned out the way you hoped.
At these times--and my word, but if we're honest we have to admit that there are so many of these kinds of times in this life that we lead--at these times aren't we tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty and the faith we once held was misplaced? Oh, perhaps we don't renounce or desert the Lord openly--we just don't make the extra effort to get to church regularly, or we reduce what we've been giving, are more reluctant to help others, or simply stop praying until, in the end, we end up just like the disciples in today's reading.
And so, I think, we can probably conclude that while the picture St. John draws for us in today's Gospel is not a pretty one, it's probably a pretty realistic portrait of disbelief, of disciples then and now for whom the life of faith has become too hard. But...but at the same time St. John's picture is also one of belief, of courage, and of faith. For as John writes, after many disciples drew back and no longer followed him, "Jesus said to the twelve, 'Will you also go away?' [And] Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'"
Where, I've often wondered, do Peter and the other twelve get their faith? Or to put it another way, what makes them different from all those who gave up on Jesus and went away? Now in asking this question we must, again, be careful. For as easy as it is to write off those other disciples as stupid or blind unbelievers, it's even easier to imagine Peter and the rest as flawless faith giants. And this, as each of the four evangelists points out, was simply not the case, for these disciples were also plagued by doubt and fear. They suffered at times from an over abundance of pride or a lack of courage, and they, too, eventually deserted Jesus--and at the very time he needed them the most. So if they aren't smarter or more faithful or more courageous or, in short, any better than the rest of Jesus' disciples--then or now--then what it is that sets them apart?
One thing. Listen, again, to Peter: "Lord," he replies to Jesus' question, "to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Peter, you see, knew where to look. That's it; that's what makes him and the other eleven different--it's not their brains or their ability or their status or even their faith: they simply know where to look. To Jesus and they keep their eyes fastened on him.
And this, according to many Christians through the centuries, is what makes church so important, so vital. Because each and every week, through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, we're offered again the Word of eternal life. We're offered again, that is, the chance to be encountered by Jesus and his living Word. Through preaching and through the sacraments, Jesus' real presence is made manifest in our world, and we are pointed to the one place amid all the tumult and upset of this world and life we share that we can look to and know for sure that we will find God in Christ there...for us.
Now here I want to be clear. This is not to say that God is not at work in other places in the world. My word, but as believing Christians we confess that this world simply pulses with the presence and activity of its creator: in nature, of course, but also in government, and family, in the work you do and in the benefits you receive from the work of others. In all these places and more, God continues to be both present and active, creating and sustaining the whole creation.
And yet each of us knows just how difficult at times it can be to see God there. When nature turns violent or government goes corrupt, when the family is a place of discord and the workplace one of division, when all the things we usually count on come up empty and we no longer know where to turn, then it is that we may hear the church calling us back to see God clearly at work for us through God's mighty Word in the preaching and sacraments of the church, offering us again the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, meaning, and life.
The 16th-century German monk-turned-reformer Martin Luther once said very much the same. "Although [God] is present in all creatures," Luther wrote, "and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water, or even in a rope, for he certainly is there, yet [God] does not wish that I seek him there apart from the Word, and [thereby] cast myself into the fire or the water, or hang myself on the rope. [God] is present everywhere, but does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of [God] in the right way" (LW 36:342).
"Grope where the Word is." What a vivid way to emphasize the importance of the regular gathering of the people of God around the Word of God. What a vivid way to lift up the gift that this program, Day 1, and other broadcast ministries are, as through our congregations and various ministries of proclamation God speaks to us again. And through this speaking, through the opening up of Scripture in the sermon and the giving of the sacraments, we receive the promise that Jesus is, indeed, the bread of life, that Jesus offers us his body and blood, his own life for ours, that Jesus has and offers us, as Peter declares, the words of eternal life.
Given the challenges we face, I know that preaching and teaching, baptism and communion can seem like small, even paltry things. No wonder disciples then and now had a hard time believing. Yet God has determined to be made most clearly known through neither the grandeur of nature or the accomplishments of humans, but rather through what the Reformers called the "weak" word of the gospel that we might cling to nothing other than God's word in times of plenty or need, in times of celebration or sadness, in times of triumph or despair.
So come, come now to hear and receive God's life-giving word, Jesus. Come today and always to hear in Jesus the promise that you have infinite worth in God's eyes, that your life has purpose and meaning, and that through you God intends to do great things in this world. Come, that is, and receive the Word of eternal life, Jesus the Christ, that you might believe in him and believing have life in his name. Amen.
Let us pray. Lord God, we would ask you for the preaching of your Word and the sharing of the Sacraments to draw us always closer to you that we might see Jesus and in him and through him receive the words of eternal life now and forever. Amen.