"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the bread from Heaven and stumbling blocks to faith. (John 6)

John 6:56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.”

Today we continue with Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Heaven and this passage is either the preacher’s dream or the preacher’s nightmare because there are so many themes that can be explored. There are two themes that particularly struck me which I’d like to share with you. The thing that hit me most forcefully about this Gospel passage was the theme of a crisis of faith. Given, too, that the crisis of faith comes as a direct result of religious teaching, I also think it’s a passage which is subtly calling on us all to be more willing to argue good theology and to challenge bad or lazy theological thinking.

We can all be theologians.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept 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.

I think this is one of those times.

To understand what I mean we have to recall just what Jesus has been saying here and throughout the sixth chapter of 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 the flesh and drink the blood in order to abide in him. These are, indeed, hard words: hard to hear, hard to understand and for many, hard to believe. For many they are stumbling blocks to faith, as they were for some of Jesus’ followers in this passage.

Are we really all that different? I mean, which of us has not at one time or another wondered whether we have got it wrong about God? People of faith don’t find themselves immune to doubts.

Something of this sort appears to be happening in today’s Gospel. Earlier in this same chapter we read about how Jesus has fed five thousand people with five small loaves and two small fish. This had amazed the crowd so much that “they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” Jesus responds with an extended discourse on bread from God and the assertion that he is himself the Bread of Life, using words that associate himself with the God who had revealed himself at Sinai as “I am who I am.” “I am the bread of life,” Jesus has already declared to them.

That’s some claim: “I am the bread of life.”

And many felt that he had crossed a line with those words. Some around him had already been grumbling because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ Their discontent was clear when they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven?’”

No wonder, then, that many of those following Jesus now desert him. And at this point we need to be careful how we characterise them, because it's always tempting to write off those who gave up on Jesus as people too stupid or lazy or unfaithful to believe. But John calls these people 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 him: 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. We are so attuned to these words we probably find it hard to understand how offensive Jesus had become to his hearers by this point, with the things he was claiming. “Does this offend you?” Jesus had asked.

“Yeah, actually it does.” Was their response and they turned their backs on him.

What just happened?

What a contrast: the crowd witness the feeding of the multitude but within a short space of time have given up on the man responsible because his teaching was too hard. For some, the religious implications of Jesus’ words were a step too far. What we see here is that the teaching of Jesus is itself, not the stepping-stone, but the stumbling-block to faith.

So think for a moment and reflect on your own spiritual journey.

Are you identifying with Jesus or the crowd right now?

The problem was that this wasn’t the Jesus they wanted: they’d backed the wrong horse. Their understanding of Kingship and his were incompatible. They wanted the warrior king, the political leader who would lead them to victory over the Romans and Jesus was offering them quite a different sort of kingdom: The Kingdom of God.

“Pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die!” Some of them no doubt thought. “We want action now.” What good were all these words when contrasted with the expectations of what they really wanted to from Jesus?

Jesus then turns to the Twelve, his inner circle, and asks them whether they, too, wanted to leave him. After all, if significant numbers of others were disillusioned with Jesus, surely those closest to him must be having the same sorts of doubts. They knew him better than any of those who had left. So what did they think?

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So said their chief spokesman, Peter, in words so significant that they have been incorporated into the liturgy of the church.

Now, given that the Gospels make it fairly clear that there were many times when the Disciples failed to understand what Jesus was telling them, it’s probably fair to assume that they weren’t feeling much more enlightened than the others by what Jesus had said. Remember, we come to passages like this with the benefit of hindsight. We’ve heard the stories; we’ve internalised the meanings we’ve heard them that many times ….. but try to imagine hearing and trying to make sense for the first time of some fairly abstract and intractable ideas. You might even have got a handle on what Jesus was saying, but the implications … the implications. “Really? Have I got this right? Did he just say what I think he said?”

These disciples were also plagued by doubt and fear. They suffered at times from pride or a lack of courage, and they, too, eventually deserted Jesus at the very time he needed them the most. So if they aren't any better than the rest of Jesus' followers - then or now - what is it that sets them apart? The Disciples surely didn’t respond as they did because they understood the words that much better than those abandoning Jesus. But they knew one other thing that made all the difference in the world and that made them say that he had “the words of eternal life.” That difference was this: “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Those leaving had neither come to know or believe this. For the Twelve, it was the one thing that made them stay, even though they carried on failing to grasp the meaning of much of what Jesus was saying. Perhaps for some of them it wasn’t until Peter articulated it that they were forced to confront this for themselves.

This man was introduced to the readers of this Gospel as “The Word made flesh.” “The Word was God and he was with God in the beginning.” In him, John asserted in those opening verses, resided life: the “life that was the light of men.” Perhaps the disciples couldn’t have spoken that eloquently when Peter spoke up for them all, but they stuck with Jesus because at some point they recognized the divine in him.

O.K. So we’ve looked at the Gospel story and analysed it.

So what?

It has to have a practical application or we’ve rather wasted our time. We have to turn a piece of religious history into something we can work with in our own lives or we’ve missed the point of being here.

Well, this, according to many Christians down the ages, is what makes what we are doing here this morning so important, so vital. Because each week, through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, we're offered again the words of eternal life which Peter and the others recognised. We're offered again, the chance to encounter Jesus and his living Word. Through preaching and through the sacraments, Jesus' real presence is revealed in our world, we receive the promise that Jesus is, indeed, the bread of life and we are pointed to the place amidst all the mess and ugliness of this world, that we can look to and know with confidence that we can find God there, in Jesus, offering us again the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, meaning, and life.

The 16th-century reformer Martin Luther argues this point. "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."

The trouble is that we have to keep reminding ourselves of this. We are so far removed in time from these events that, however much our imaginations might be grabbed and transported back through time during the readings and the sermon; however much our intellect and soul engage with the spiritual meaning of the words - the theology - coming here week by week can very often seem a tired routine. Perhaps we don't renounce or desert Jesus openly like the disciples in today’s passage, we just don't make the extra effort to get to church quite as regularly, or we reduce what we've been giving, are more reluctant to support church events, we give up on prayer, we find different priorities and other calls on our time until, in the end, we’re just like the disciples in today's reading: turning our backs and leaving.

Considering the difficult times, the times of doubt, the times of misunderstanding, the stale times in our pilgrimage of faith, other preachers at this point might remind us of all God’s blessings and encourage us to consider what God has done – and continues to do - for us. Well, true as that most certainly is, it never quite works for me. It seems a trite refuge when things don’t feel right in your spirit. I don’t necessarily want to count blessings. I’d rather struggle with the problem.

Those other disciples deserted Jesus because his teaching was a stumbling block to their faith. We hear this all the time. “I and the Father are one.” Jesus goes on to tell us later in John’s gospel. In my Religious Studies classroom I am repeatedly told “I can’t believe that Jesus is God. How could one man have created the universe?”

“Man? One man. Right… ” And thereby starts a discussion about transcendence.

And so, unlike the first group of disciples in today’s reading, we aren’t satisfied with our initial reaction to what we read and hear. We spend some time looking at the reasons people give, their stumbling blocks, for not believing in God. We examine them, we analyse them and then we look at alternative perspectives.

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

 “You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

Then there are the misunderstandings of what Jesus says that are the stumbling blocks:

“I can’t believe in God. Look at Jesus teaching on abortion and homosexuality.”

 These are real stumbling blocks for some people. That Jesus doesn’t actually have anything to say about either issue tends to come as a surprise. Does that come as a surprise to you?

People believe some very strange things about God; about Jesus, and what they believe is often a stumbling block to their faith. It is a shame that much of it is ill informed. If you aren’t sure about that, spend some time looking at the statements of American politicians and evangelists in the run up to their election. It has been said, rather unfairly perhaps, that the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer. In America, something which passes for Christianity is the Republican Party at prayer and it’s not a Christianity - in some of its expressions - that many of us would recognise. Often what it proclaims is a stumbling block to the faith.

In the same way that ignorance, misunderstanding and false expectations caused some of Jesus’ would-be followers to turn their backs on him in today’s Gospel, so it is today, but very often the stumbling block for Jesus’ would-be disciples now are not the words of Jesus but the words of other Christians.

It’s not the same because some other people have agendas and don’t necessarily speak with the mind or authority of Jesus.

“Does what I say offend you?” Jesus asked his followers. Perhaps some of Jesus’ latter day followers could do well to adopt that mantra for themselves.

So a practical application for dealing with stumbling blocks to faith?

Well, count your blessings of course, but if it’s of any help at all try to think more like Peter. Don’t be satisfied with an inadequate answer. Don’t assume that what you’ve understood is the meaning that was intended and leave it there. Dust off and examine your own position on things.

Are there alternative perspectives you’ve not considered? Perhaps it’s time you considered them.

Are you sure that what you think is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church actually is the teaching of Jesus or the tradition of the church on any given topic?

What type of Christian is espousing that view you’re listening to? Are you generally in sympathy with such people?

Is what they’re saying related to issues of salvation? If not, in all conscience, can there not be more than one viewpoint?

Ask yourself the question: “Who would I rather have put words into the mouth of Jesus? The Gospel writers or, for instance, Paul Ryan, the current Vice Presidential candidate?

Perhaps in our spiritual lives we need a bit more of:

“Actually, not all Christians take that view because …..”

“But many Christians would disagree with that viewpoint. They would say  …..”

“Actually that isn’t what the Bible says.”

“You’re taking something literally that wasn’t intended to be understood literally.”

I know it sound trite, but a stumbling block to faith – even a mature faith – is only a stumbling block if once you’ve tripped on it you stay down.

Let’s not stay down.

Let’s struggle with it. Let’s argue with it. Let’s engage with it. Let’s talk about it.

Let’s do Theology.

We can all be Theologians.

Who has the words of eternal life?




  1. Some great comments. R C Priest here...I preached on why people leave the Church...is it hard for them too?..Jesus' teaching...some misunderstand...some have been give wrong information...such hatred out there..some hear all that...Church is more than the hierarchy I believe.

  2. This is a piece clearly for the later community of believers, as it is a theological battle with Gnosticism - in its direction and resisting. You try and make it into something that happened with Jesus as if an historical episode, and it doesn't ring true. On the one hand, the material is dead, it is all spirit (Gnostic) and on the other it is a central ritual of eating and drinking matter. The reference to Capernaum is a home one, the notion that he's too well known at home to be effective and was thought of as a bit odd.