The Difficult Signs

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

February 13, 2022

John 6:25-40, 60-69

We use figurative language all the time that is never meant to be heard literally. Like “I’m drowning in work right now”. If I were to say that, people might challenge me on my work life boundaries, but nobody would send out the Coast Guard to rescue me.

This language can be metaphors, like the illustration I used, or they can be more hyperbolic. “I’ve told you a million times to pick up your toys!!” With my kids, it was probably more like 432,000 times I told them so there was no need for me to exaggerate.

Jesus in the Gospel of John uses very figurative language. In chapter three, he tells a man named Nicodemus that he must be born again. In chapter four, he offers a woman at the well living water.

Both people treat his language as if it were literal and not figurative.

Nicodemus replies, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

And to the promise of living water, the woman says, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get this living water?”

We’ll see a similar scene in this story with Jesus saying he’s the bread of life, but with a different outcome. Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well are at least willing to be in conversation with Jesus and figure out what he’s talking about with his figurative language they insist on taking literally.

Since last week’s episode, where the royal official’s son is healed, quite a bit happens. I encourage you to look at chapter 6 this week. Jesus has fed 5,000 people literal food on a hillside. Actual bread and fish in their actual bellies. Nothing figurative about that feeding miracle.

Then Jesus’ disciples set across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and three or four miles across the lake, in the midst of a strong wind, they see actual Jesus walking toward them on the water. He tells them not to be afraid as he climbs aboard.

And our passage today begins with people asking Jesus, “when did you come here?” They knew he wasn’t in the boat with the disciples when they set sail. They didn’t see him on the road with them as they walked. It is a legit question.

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

I love Jesus. I really do. But what kind of answer is that?

He’s clearly still not a big fan of having to do signs and wonders in order for people to do the work of God, which is to believe in him. But on some level, the signs appear to be working. People are traipsing all over Galilee to find Jesus, and then to follow him from town to town. They want to be healed, fed, saved.

Jesus seems to sense the signs and wonders are leading people to want spectacle, and to ignore the rest of his message. The day after he feeds them all on the hillside, and then walks across the water during a storm, they ask him—again—for a sign. “What sign are you going to give us then, so we may see it and believe in you?”

It is impressive that Jesus doesn’t yell out with exasperation, “what in the world do you think I just did yesterday?! Sheesh, people!”

And when I feel in my little heart that I’m finding the people in the crowd a little lacking in faith, it makes me stop and  wonder how many signs I’ve seen only to ask for more.

Jesus gives a rather long discourse about the Bread of Heaven, and we didn’t read it all because I’m guessing some of you might want to watch the Super Bowl later today. But Jesus is back to his figurative language.

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe’.

He goes on to explain the symbolism, but using yet more figurative language that people hear literally. “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”.

This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?

Did you notice that question came from his own disciples? Not some random people in the crowd. Some of his own disciples were like, “we’re out. We were with you on the born again thing and the living water, but this vampire zombie cult business is too much.”

When we hear the language of this passage, we think of our communion liturgy, where bread that David Barnes purchases Sunday morning is called Christ’s body, and where Welch’s grape juice becomes the blood of Christ, poured out for us.

Jesus’ language doesn’t seem as jarring for us as it might have for them. In the last church I served, a church member started bringing a young man to worship. He had just moved to the US from Thailand when his mother married a friend of my church member. He thought this young man would learn English and meet some other high school kids, so he brought him to church.

As I was at the Table presiding at communion one morning, the young man turned to my church member, and asked him “whose body are we eating? Is that really blood she’s pouring out?”

He realized he couldn’t give a good answer in that moment while sitting in worship, so he said “Don’t worry. It is only bread and juice. I’ll explain later”.

I think the question, and the discomfort of the disciples, is worth remembering. If Jesus instructions were literal, it would be shocking. But even when they are figurative, they shouldn’t be comfortable and familiar.

Do we really want to rely on God to provide for us? Or would we rather be the ones in control, baking our own bread of life?

This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?

As a pastor, this passage both makes me a little queasy and it inspires me. I love this Jesus who is so clear on his message that he doesn’t really care who follows along behind him.

And let’s go back to the fact that it was disciples who walked away. When did that get added to the Bible? You mean to tell me that for the past 2,000 years, there has been a report in scripture that DISCIPLES turned back from following Jesus and nobody told me?

Sure. I knew the CROWD often turned away. I knew rich men turned away in sadness when they were told their money wasn’t going to buy them eternal life. I knew the Pharisees and Sadducees turned away from what Jesus said and then went and plotted to have him killed.

But I never noticed that verse before, where DISCIPLES threw in the towel and went back to their job at the call center or Starbucks or wherever.

And when they left, Jesus just let them go. He didn’t announce that ‘boy are you in trouble now and I hope you like hell!’.

He also did not race after them, crying,  “PLEASE come back! I need you! Please. What will it take? Do you need a coffee bar? An X-Box in the youth room? I’ll do anything!”

He’s very chill about it all. “Does this offend you? Sorry. As I was saying….

Maybe the reason I’ve never noticed these verses before is because church people get twitchy when disciples leave. No matter how much we say and know that church isn’t a about the numbers of people in the pews, the reality is we miss our friends when they leave.

We want church to be like the Hotel California—you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

But Jesus just watches them walk away and gets back to what he has to do.

On one hand, this text is a huge relief to me as a pastor. It is a reminder that not even Jesus made everyone happy. In that sense, it frees me a little to do what we’re called to do and just keep on keepin’ on.

On the other hand, of course, I’m well aware that I’m not Jesus and so I shouldn’t make that comparison too easily.  I will always continue to mourn the disciples who leave this family.

Think about difficult signs and truths you’ve had to reckon with in your life. When you realized a relationship was over. When you were face to face with tragedy. When the illusion of your control came crashing down.

Think about your difficult truth.

I’m just now beginning to come to terms with a difficult truth about my relationship with my birth mother.
And I’m grateful that this particular truth was obscured from me until now. It was too difficult for me to consider that the woman who gave birth to me didn’t love me the way we believe mothers should love their children. Until I’d healed some other parts of me and felt I was strong enough and safe enough to face it, I packed it away. Seven years of counseling, and a myriad of other loving and supportive relationships, including here at church, have given me the ability to face it square on.

But even when I could face it, I’ve had people who love me try to tell me I’m wrong, and that surely she loved me. And I appreciate the sentiment, but obscuring what I know to be true is not helpful for me. It doesn’t make it less true.

I don’t know what your difficult truths are. But watching Jesus in this story, I’m reminded that nothing anyone can do could make our difficult truths less difficult. Jesus doesn’t even try. We are either ready to face them or we aren’t. And so we seek to build community where people can face the difficulty or they can leave. Hopefully we build community where they can come back when they are ready to give it another try.
Are we interested in being a community where people can struggle with the difficult truths of their lives, without feeling like we need to fix things, or explain away their difficult truths?

To get back to the first question they ask Jesus in this passage, ‘how did you get here?’

There are lots of other things we could be doing. Yet we are here.

And Jesus’ message to us has not gotten any easier, quite frankly, than it was 2,000 years ago. He still challenges us and confronts our assumptions. His teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?

Yet we are here. We have chosen, this day, to come to church.

I think, though, that in equal measure to our choice to be here, there is a double measure of God’s love compelling us here.

After some of the disciples turned back, Jesus asked the 12 remaining disciples:

“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.”

Peter’s answer makes it seem as if they don’t really have a choice to be there, as if the power of God’s message is so strong that they cannot turn away. We are not puppets on a stage. Yet God seeks us, and wants us to seek God. Whether or not we respond to God doesn’t change the fact that God will always seek us.

As the psalmist writes in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

That’s what Peter responded to. “Lord, to whom could we go?”

Our decision to follow Jesus and his difficult teaching is only a part of the equation. We are also here in response to the much stronger power of God’s choice to seek us.

And that compelling love of God that draws us in is not an easy love. It requires things of us. It demands things of us. Part of Jesus’ challenging message was: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Are we ready to abide in Jesus? To make our home and life in him? Even scarier, are we ready to let Jesus abide in us? In our brokenness. In our pain. In the parts of our lives we can’t make pretty and perfect?

Often, I think, when church leaders  hear that message, we think, “we’ve got to clean that message up a little. Make it more palatable for folks. Let’s tell them that if they abide in Jesus they’ll get rich, skinny, and beautiful. Let’s tell them that even though abiding in Jesus sounds difficult, it’s actually easy.”

When we do that, we give people a false choice. It leaves them with God’s compelling love drawing them in, but then they don’t find the words of eternal life when they get there.

As we think about following Jesus, about how we want to cultivate and nurture community here, we have recognize that others may make different choices. We aren’t called to change the message so more people will feel comfortable facing it. We aren’t called to deny the difficulty of what people are going through either.

What we can do, though, is reflect God’s love back to the world so people might be able to find community when the difficult truth needs to be faced.

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’

I began this sermon with the difference between literal and figurative language, and why the people in this gospel keep getting them confused. And maybe it’s as simple as this. When we aren’t ready to abide in Jesus, to trust the mystery that there’s an unseen God out there creating the world for beauty and goodness, maybe it’s easier to look for easier to see, literal signs around us.

The mystery I’m willing to live into right now is that in the messiness of our lives, when we’re facing the difficult signs we’d rather not see, we’re not alone. We have each other, we have God, we have community where we can be fed and we can feed others.

I am the bread of life, Jesus tells us. Let us be a community that feeds people in both literal ways, as you have done this week at Interfaith Shelter, and in figurative ways, as you do each week in study and worship and support. Where else could we go other than here?

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