Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here we are again—for the fifth and final time in row—at John chapter 6 considering his exposition on the Bread of Life. Today, the focus, appropriately coming at the end of the series, is on the choice-the decision-which is presented by Jesus' Bread of Life sermon. As stated and as received, it is a very difficult choice indeed.
At the beginning of chapter 6, the Galileans are impressed and amazed after Jesus manages to feed a multitude in which the men alone number five thousand. They are even prepared to make him king.
The next day, Jesus makes use of his opportunity to teach the folks who could follow him the true nature of discipleship, using the material symbols of flesh and blood, of bread and wine, to communicate the spiritual reality of God's life-giving Word.
The Jews, however, are predictably offended. Few things are more abhorrent to a Jew than to eat the blood of an animal. Blood for them represents life—life given by God. Their meats are specially prepared so that the blood is completely drained from them-part of what is known as "kosher" preparation. Yet Jesus speaks of eating flesh and drinking blood—his own. This was perceived as blasphemy. Hence their response: "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?"
It's no wonder that many of Jesus' would-be disciples broke away and chose not to remain in his company. He had profoundly offended them. They had been scandalized by Jesus' words. Or, it could be that they understood that Jesus talked in the language of symbol, as he explains after their rebuke: "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." Perhaps they understood and weren't willing to pay the price. Whatever the reason, the choice was theirs.
We might assume that a significant part of the crowd remained from the day before and was present for Jesus' sermon. If that'is true, there may well have been a mass exodus on the part of most except the twelve disciples. And there was cause to doubt their faithfulness as well.
It is reminiscent of the testing of Gideon's army. When the faint-hearted were asked to go home, and when they were tested again, the number dwindled from 32,000 to 300. Ranks were thinned again among the followers of Jesus at his crucifixion. And I often wonder how the stresses of our lives cause folks to fall away today. And, in this season of beginnings for schools and universities, I think of the students who mistakenly confuse the horizon-expanding intellectual rigor of the academy with spiritual insight—and lose their faith in the bargain. Too often, trial, fear, doubt, and confusion are permitted to shape our difficult and important decisions.
Jesus wondered if this might be the case with the twelve as well. So, he turned to them and reiterated the essential choice that they must make. "Many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, 'Do you also wish to go away?'"
This scene depicts one of the major crises of our Lord's ministry. Imagine falling, in the eyes of such a large group, from proclaimed hero and preferred leader to blasphemer, in one brief day! And now, those who have been closest and most faithful seem to be considering the possibility of following the crowd. Public opinion is very hard to resist. Witness the silliness taking place at town hall meetings across the nation as our congressional representatives attempt to carry on fruitful conversation about a very important matter-health care for all. The disciples too were inclined to side with the misguided mob, who in that time were voting their sentiments not with shouts and mistaken information, but with their feet.
And yet, Jesus still offers his chosen ones the choice that they must have been considering. He knows that reluctant disciples can't be relied upon. The decision had to be theirs; he couldn't force the issue. Joshua knew this too when in the Old Testament reading today he calls for commitment from the new possessors of the land of Canaan: "decide today whom you will serve." It is the call and decision that confronts each of us today and every Sunday we gather for worship. Will we wish to go away from our Lord, or will we recommit ourselves to the God we choose to serve?
Peter—the disciple known for his hot-headedness and later for his denials—chooses promptly and in a rather winsome way. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." It's another of Peter's strong confessions in scripture, and this one has been given weekly life in our liturgy. You will recall having sung it just moments ago prior to the reading of the gospel. That should be no surprise, of course; the liturgy is the bible set to music.
These words from Simon Peter comprise his decision—his choice for the Lord. His answer begins with a splendid rhetorical question: "Lord, to whom shall we go?" It as if to say, "There is no one else who even comes close. Who else but God's Chosen One could we choose to follow?!" It becomes a decision almost by default. It seems more an admission that there is simply no other conceivable option to exercise. "Who else is there?" Until something or someone better comes along—which is hardly likely—they'lll hang in there with Jesus.
Peter and the others had doubts, as do we. People can be fickle. There always seem to be those at the edges, checking things out, never quite certain, looking for weak spots. Or they're on a search for a better God-some other less offensive or less mysterious or more exciting way that beckons. Others are drawn by more secular considerations—whether abstract like success, or power, or something more concrete like money or nation or self. Today, and every day, we get to decide "whom we will serve" and "to whom we shall go" in spite of our doubts and questions.
Peter, in fact, does that. While he begins his response with a question, he concludes with a statement of faith—a confession. "You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God." The twelve had lived the truth of Jesus' words, and their experience with Jesus and their relationship with Jesus put their doubts aside. Their trials, fears, and doubts are not the deciding factors.
This is where we find ourselves every day of our lives—between faith and doubt—having to make a decision, and that decision is ours alone. Choose today whom you will serve. To whom shall we go?
That sort of decision faces us all, but it may be particularly difficult for young people. As a new year of learning begins, a new year of challenges and temptations also crowds in upon tender hearts and hungry minds. At many turns, we are called upon in life to reaffirm the fundamental stands that we will take, the bedrock beliefs and values that define us. These calls from Joshua and John are excellent guides for us—young and old—as we make new beginnings. May God be with us.
The truth is that every time we gather together to worship, every time we confess our faith, every time we pray, every time we come forward to receive communion, we make the decision called for—with the support of the other members of the body of Christ.
Each time we are tempted to cheat on an exam in class, to falsify a time card at work, to give misleading information to a customer, to pass on uncomplimentary comments about a neighbor, to let our own troubles keep us from reaching out to others-each time we are tempted in these ways and we do not give in, we make that blessed decision. In the immortal words of that great philosopher Professor Dumbledore, of the renowned Hogwarts Academy: "Sooner or later, we must all face the difficult choice between what is right and what is easy."
The numbers who make these decisions may be small. Gideon was left with only 300 of 32,000. Jesus was left with twelve. Christians are a shrinking percentage of this nation's population.
But there is strength in the faith even of a few. Gideon and his 300 men defeated the Midianites and the Amalekites who lay along the valley like locusts. Jesus and the twelve began the work of the Church which continues without the help of the thousands of Galileans who broke away. Strength lies in more than sheer numbers, and great things are in store for those who choose to serve the Lord. When we are led to a decision—when we choose to serve the Lord—God is with us, whatever our struggles and no matter what our apparent strength and ability.
Jesus' words in the sixth chapter of John are indeed hard words. They challenge all that society would have us believe. Western economic and social theories suggest that bigger is better, that quality is measured by quantity, and that success is to be equated with size. Jesus merely says: "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail." Joshua merely demands "choose this day whom you will serve." The question of size or number is irrelevant. We need not be intimidated by the press of social or peer pressures. Faith and service are determined not by size but by commitment. The mustard seed is a symbol of size as well as potential.
Whom do we serve? Are we preoccupied with ourselves and those around us, or are we occupied in service to our neighbors? Are we worried about ourselves or are we busy about the work of the Kingdom in this community, in our institutions of learning, and in the world? These are the questions that matter.
And so, decide each day to serve the Lord. And don't let trials or fears or doubts or confusion stand in your way. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.