I remember it as if it were yesterday. A friend and I were heading back to the states after the trip of a lifetime to Eastern Europe. I was in line at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, getting ready to board the flight to Boston, when my friend called me over. He told me that he had cashed in enough of his frequent flyer miles to get both of us upgraded to first class. First class. I had never flown in first class before. It was, in a word, WONDERFUL!
No sooner had I found my seat--my spacious, comfortable, semi-private seat--than the flight attendant handed me a heated moist washcloth to freshen up with, placed a dish of warm roasted nuts on my tray table and asked me if I would like something to drink. When she came back with my beverage, she also presented me with a menu of my dinner choices. And all of this was before the plane even taxied out of the gate!
And though it seemed impossible, it only got better when we were up in the air. The dinner came on REAL dishes and flatware! More than that, it was DELICIOUS! After dinner, I was given my very own zippered incidentals bag, with all the necessities for luxury travel: a spare toothbrush and toothpaste, booties should my feet get cold, and a night mask to help me sleep. And I slept. Boy, did I sleep!
Now I understood why they pulled the curtain that separated first class from coach: Those of us in first class were having a TOTALLY DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE. If the people in coach knew what was happening up there, they wouldn't like it. They wouldn't like it one bit. The curtain was essential, really; because as long as those in coach couldn't see what flying first class was like, it was possible for them to be content, even happy, with their flight. But the moment they realized what they were missing, it would be all over. One glimpse and this flight and every flight thereafter would be forever ruined.
I know this is true, because that's what happened to me. That one flight in first class ruined coach for me FOREVER. I am incapable of enjoying a perfectly good flight anymore because all I'm thinking about is what I'm missing. I have seen behind the curtain, my friends; and, try as I might, I cannot forget what I saw.
This is what I think Peter is getting at in our lesson from John's gospel. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. For many in the crowd, he goes too far with his remarks. When we catch up with Jesus, he has just finished saying some pretty crazy stuff about having to eat his flesh and drink his blood if we want any hope of eternal life. Some of those listening to Jesus tell him they are having a hard time following what he's saying. "This teaching is difficult," they said. "Who can accept it?" Who indeed?! It was a perfectly understandable response; and underneath it was a perfectly reasonable request. Just tell us what you're getting at, Jesus. Just tell us what you mean. Help us to understand.
Instead of explaining himself to them, instead of telling them plainly what he means when he talks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, what he means when he calls himself the "bread of heaven," Jesus does otherwise. "Does this offend you?" he says. "Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" In effect, Jesus was saying to them: If you thought that eating my flesh and drinking my blood was hard to swallow, try to swallow this!
And at this, we are told, "...many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." Are you surprised? I'm not. Nor do I blame them.
Jesus doesn't seem surprised that they leave either. Hurt maybe, but not surprised. He then turns to the twelve and asks, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Peter speaks up for all of them when he says, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Peter didn't say this because he understood what Jesus was talking about. He didn't have a clue, any more than the rest of them did. Truth be told, Peter probably didn't understand half of what Jesus talked about over the years. But that didn't really matter. Being with Jesus had ruined him to follow anyone or do anything else.
My guess is that there were plenty of times when Peter wished he could have gone away and gone back to his old life. Perhaps he even made plans. Let's be honest. Jesus wasn't the easiest person to get along with, let alone understand. He upset as many people as he delighted. He did things you weren't supposed to do, he said things you weren't supposed to say, he touched people you weren't supposed to touch, he welcomed people you weren't supposed to welcome, he forgave people you weren't supposed to forgive.
And just when Peter thought that he had Jesus finally figured out, Jesus inevitably did or said something that made him wonder all over again who in the world he had given everything up to follow. One moment Jesus would be blessing Peter for his insight, and the next he would be cursing Peter for his ignorance. Following Jesus was, in every aspect of the word, exhausting. Peter's life was a lot simpler and a lot safer before he dropped his nets to follow this rabbi. But it wasn't better. True, following Jesus was exhausting, exasperating even; but oh, it could be exhilarating also! And the exhilaration of being with Jesus was worth every bit of the exhaustion and exasperation.
Years ago now, before I had children of my own, I asked a friend of mine what it was like to have kids. At that time, he had three children under the age of three. He smiled at me and said, "It's a terrible blessing." It was only when I had kids of my own that I realized just how right he was. Being a parent is frightfully hard work. The hours are long, the costs are great, the worries are monumental. Your life is no longer your own. Every waking moment revolves around those little dictators. And yet, we pay the price gladly, gratefully, and constantly. That's because, for all of the terrible demands our children place upon us, they pale in comparison to the blessing that they are to us. Our kids positively ruin us, and yet somehow we welcome the ruination.
I feel the same way about Jesus. Like Peter, I'm not always sure I understand some of the things Jesus says. And that's not even my biggest problem with him. My biggest problem with Jesus are those things he says that I do understand but don't particularly like.
• Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
• ...if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also....
• Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
• ...if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
• Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.
• If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
It's when Jesus says these things that I want to throw my hands up and walk away, because he's asking too much of me, expecting too much from me. Following him is just too hard.
Leaving Jesus behind would make my life simpler, and much, much easier. It's tempting. I admit, I've often fantasized about how fun it would be to finally nurse a grudge in peace or spend money without wondering if I was being a good steward of God's blessings or just laid waste to a Sunday morning.
But fantasizing is about as far as it gets. Because, honestly, where else would I go? Like Peter, I know how exhausting and exasperating following Jesus can be. But I also know how exhilarating! I've never come across anyone else who maddens, frustrates, confuses and embarrasses me like Jesus does. But I've also never come across anyone else who inspires, encourages, astonishes, and delights me as he does either.
No one else places bigger demands upon my time. No one else sets loftier goals for my life. No one else scares me as much as Jesus does. But no one else makes me feel safer, either. And no one else loves me quite the way he loves me.
Jesus has given me a peek behind the curtain. He has enabled me to see what being fully alive looks like; and try as I might, I cannot forget what I saw. Jesus has ruined me from following or doing anything else. I'm afraid he has ruined me for good. Knowing this, I stand there with Peter and say, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
There are plenty of good reasons to not follow Jesus, just as there are plenty of good reasons to give up on the Church. Trust me, I know. I'm a pastor. I've even given you a few reasons of my own.
As far as I can tell, there's really only one good reason to stay with Jesus and stick around with his body of followers we call the Church. But, oh, what a reason it is! It's the reason Peter gives right after Jesus offended half of Capernaum with his sermon: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Let us pray. Jesus, you have ruined our lives. It would be a whole lot easier and simpler to leave you behind. But it wouldn't be better. You ask more of us than we can ever give, yet you also give more to us than we can ever ask. Since following you has ruined us from following anyone else, we only pray that you will ruin us for good...and for the gospel. Amen.