Monday, August 27, 2012

Scandalous Jesus

This is the message I preached yesterday at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. The service was followed by our church picnic and ice cream social. It was a great day indeed!


The sermon is from John 6:56-69.                                 


            We have been on quite an adventure with Jesus, his followers, and his adversaries over these past five weeks in John’s gospel. Many things have happened since that first passage in John 6. Jesus’ disciples witnessed a feeding miracle and Jesus walking on the water. The audience has changed from being the crowd to being the Jews. Today, they are the disciples and the twelve. Jesus’ audience called him a variety of things. Jesus challenged and shocked his audiences by declaring he is the Son of Man, the one approved by God the Father, the bread of life, the one who came down from heaven to do the will of his Father, the one who gives his flesh and blood for food and drink, and the living bread. If we ever thought of Jesus as meek, mild, and nice, non-confrontational—we need to think again! Jesus’ claims to his audience sounded outrageous and blasphemous. John paints us a portrait of a Jesus we cannot reconcile to any preconceived ideas we may have of him.
            Today we find ourselves in the last of the five weeks of the bread of life discourse in John. Again, the audience is called by a different name. Jesus is now talking with disciples, which means they were learners and followers. He is addressing a group that included, but was not exclusively his twelve closest followers.
            Throughout this chapter, Jesus has not sugarcoated his words. He has spoken plainly about who he is. This larger group of Jesus’ followers declared, “This is a difficult saying” (v. 60). What does that mean? Other possible translations of the Greek are harsh, strong, violent, powerful, hard, severe or demanding. What was so hard, demanding, or harsh about Jesus’ words?
Jesus declares the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood and that he himself is superior bread than what their ancestors ate in the wilderness. He also claims that God is his Father. These are shocking words to these disciples. They are at the very least cannibalistic and blasphemous to Jewish ears. These hard words all pertain to what Jesus says about himself. Who is he, where did he come from, is he from God or the loony farm? 
Jesus asks his disciples if his claims offend them. Offend seems like a harmless enough word. However, the Greek word translates to scandalize.  Jesus knew his words were shocking.  Their significance was enough to cause someone “to give up believing!” (Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), which is another way the Greek could be translated into English. The disciples may have been scandalized because they thought they knew who Jesus was. He was too ordinary to have come down from heaven. He was a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. He was just another kid from Galilee. He was just like they were.  He is just like we are. Are there times when we underestimate the worth of those around us? Are we unable to see how God could use the ordinary people around us?
            If the disciples were offended at what Jesus had already said, then wait until they hear the next zinger. Jesus asks, “[How would you respond] if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v.62 NRSV). That would certainly be amazing, but we do not read of Jesus’ ascension to heaven in John. As one commentary explains, “This ascent is to be accomplished through the cross; for John, Jesus' departure from this world and his return to the Father form one continual movement from [the] cross to [the] resurrection to [the] ascension” (New English Translation Notes). For John, the crucifixion is the flashpoint. If Jesus did all these great things, then how can he die? The constant call to follow Jesus’ to the cross, as Paul writes is seen as “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18), offensive (Gal 5:11), but it is God’s way of reconciling the world with himself.
            Those who heard Jesus’ hard sayings responded in different ways. The disciples complained and grumbled (v. 61). Some did not believe (v. 64) while others betrayed him (v. 64). Many quit following Jesus (v. 66). Jesus had gone too far. To make matters worse, Jesus said that no one could come to him unless the Father allows or grants it. They were powerless in their own strength, by their own works, by their religious heritage to come to Jesus and be his true followers.
            Don’t we struggle with this as well? We independent Americans like to believe we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. The good religious things that we do like devotions, reading the Bible, studying Lutheran theology or the catechism cannot be the source of our salvation. Our trust must be in God alone. Jesus said, “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help!” (v. 63, New English Translation).  For us, this may be the hardest of Jesus’ sayings. When faced with this harsh reality, many in the crowd deserted Jesus.
            Now that they have left, Jesus addresses his inner circle of twelve disciples, "You don't want to go away too, do you?" (v. 67. NET). This phrasing reflects the impact of the Greek words more than "Do you also wish to go away?" (John 6:67 NRSV). Jesus expects a negative response-“No, we don’t want to go away.” How does the response of the twelve compare to those who left Jesus?
Peter, as the representative of the group responds, “Lord, to whom can we go…?” Notice Peter says, “whom” not where else. Who else has words of eternal life? Peter goes on to explain why these disciples would not leave Jesus. “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 69). “Believe” and “know” are perfect tense verbs in the Greek, meaning the believing and knowing took place in the past, but has results in the present time. It indicates “the present ‘state of affairs’ resulting from the past action” (Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 96). The declaration of Jesus as the “Holy One of God” (v. 69) is the first time that faith is expressed for the right reasons in this chapter—for Jesus’ origins and not for his miracles.
Jesus now asks us about our personal loyalty to himself. He asks us individually and as the community of faith at Bethel, "You don't want to go away too, do you?" (v. 67). This is the ultimate challenge. What will we do when we are faced with the hard sayings of Jesus that make us uncomfortable, that are so challenging, and that seem so out of our comfort zone? How will we answer?
Jesus is challenging us to enter into a relationship with him by hearing the Word proclaimed and receiving the bread and wine at the table. We are transformed by what we worship. If we worship Jesus, we will become like him. If we worship other gods whether they are our family, our work, or our possessions, or any other object that gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus, then we fall short of our potential. As Bob Dylan wrote:
…you’re gonna have to serve somebody…
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Special Rider Music, 1979)
            Following Jesus is not a onetime act, but a continual journey of daily turning toward Jesus and acknowledging our helplessness. To quote Joshua from this morning's first lesson, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). May we continually run into the arms of the only One who can truly satisfy our greatest longings. Amen.


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