Fr. Joshua Daniel
Year B Proper 16
Gospel Text: John 6:56-69
Pictured: The Vine
Around 10,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years, standing on Mount Sinai, Moses smashed the original tablets that God had written the ten commandments on.
On July 20th 1969 NASA landed on the moon. Shortly thereafter they mistakenly recorded over all the original footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on said moon. In 1173 AD construction on the Tower of Pisa began. 177 years later it was finished. Just ten years after that it started leaning. And it’s been leaning ever since. That’s nearly 668 years of leaning folks. On January 1st 1962 Decca records auditioned the Beatles. The rejected the band and signed Brian Poole and the Tremeloes instead.
Moreover, children of God, sometime in 1937 somebody filled the Hindenburg with hydrogen. And the rest is history.
In today’s gospel we learn that more than two thousand years ago, a group of disciples heard Jesus say, “I am the bread of life … I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…” and we’re told that “many” of the disciples who heard this “turned back” and no longer “went” with Jesus.
Today we are confronted with what it means to have heard the Gospel and to reject it. To walk away. We are confronted with, as the kids say these days, an “epic fail.”
What was it that broke the camel’s back for the disciples? Jesus had already preached many difficult lessons, he had already demanded much of them. And they had seen him do marvelous things. Why walk away now? What pushed them over the edge?
I want to answer that question by looking at another period of epic failure. In 1933 a protestant German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, delivered a lecture on broadcast radio in Berlin. He aggressively attacked the German church for having conceded so much to its new leader, Adolf Hitler, whom Bonhoeffer called “an idol,” and the menacing political order he was beginning to install. So fierce was his attack that his radio address was abruptly ended before he had finished.
Bonhoeffer fled to England refusing to have go along with the “German-Christian” compromise that the Nazi government proposed. But in 1935 he was called back to Germany by the “Confessing Church”–a Christian movement established to resist the fascist government–to teach at an underground seminary in Germany. He accepted the call and while teaching there he wrote two famous texts Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.
In Life Together Bonhoeffer addresses, I believe, the very issues that led the disciples to walk away from Jesus and the demands Jesus made of them.
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.
But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.
By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. … Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight…”
The disciples that walked away are confronted by their wish dream for Jesus. They had seen in Jesus, perhaps, another way for control. For keeping a lid on what God could and could not contain, could and could not get access too. They had thought, perhaps, that Jesus would help them keep God in their prepackaged boxes.
But Jesus blew those boxes away. What is so startling in Jesus’ teaching in the sixth chapter of John is that there is no containing how far God is able to enter into our lives. God is fully embodied in Jesus. God fully inhabits the world and Jesus wildly claims that as God abides in him so we are to abide in God. We are to eat Jesus, eat his flesh, do his will. Belief and action collapse into one.
Jesus tells his disciples that it’s no help to merely have all the right ideas about God. It’s no help merely to have all the right answers. Rather for Jesus if we truly love him we must feed his sheep. We must forgive as he forgave, we must take his mercy and care as he showed it and put it into our bodies and live it out. It’s no good to have figured out the intellectual puzzle why “God allows evil” if we cannot show mercy to our enemies.
It’s as if the disciples wanted to keep God at a distance. Augustine famously said before he converted that he was willing to believe in Jesus, just not yet. There is a part of us that does not want to let God into that vulnerable part of our life. There is a part of us that is too tender.
Sometimes those tender parts are caused by shame. We don’t believe that if God truly knew us that God’s love would endure. Sometimes it’s caused by pain. Some of us have experienced such heartache, such loss, endured such vulnerability, that letting God into that seems too great a risk.
Can any being, can any person, see that pain and still love. Still show mercy? Is there anything worth that kind of trust?
All of us know why some of those disciples walked away. The Jesus that says eat my flesh, the Jesus who asks us to abide in him and him in us. That is God not far off but too near. That is a God who has serious boundary issues. Jesus demands all. All those hidden parts of us. For God there is no two faces. There is no private self that we keep hidden and a public self that we show to the rest of the world. God abides totally.
The power and testimony of the Gospel today is not only that–not only that God abides totally–but in that totality there is love. God sees our tenderness. Sees our vulnerability and accepts. Pulls us into God’s divine being and there there is a love that knows no bounds. “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” I am eternal life. Whoever eats this bread, I will raise on the last day.
In God there is no death. God is fundamentally about life. Everything of God is generative, everything of God is life giving. God takes our shame, our pain, our hidden private selves, our wish dreams. Takes all of it and abides there. Redeems all of it to eternal life.
Let me end with the end of Bonhoeffer’s story. While teaching at the underground seminary, Bonhoeffer actively participated in an assassination plot against Hitler. For that and other acts of resistance he was eventually captured and sent to prison camp.
His last weeks were spent with men and women of many nationalities, Russians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Intalians, and Germans. One of these, an English officer, wrote:
Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. … He was one of the very few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near. … On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to us in a way that went to the heart of all of us. He found just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, the thoughts and the resolutions it had brought us. He had hardly ended his last prayer when the door opened and two civilians entered. They said, “Prison Bonhoeffer, come with us.” That had only one meaning for all prisoners–the gallows. We said good-by to him. He took me aside: “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”
And so as Bonhoeffer wrote, Jesus bids us to come and die. And it is in dying we are born to eternal life. Amen.