People refuse to listen to Jesus
Sermon by Rev Dr Joan Crossley
At dinner last Saturday night my friends and I were swapping stories about the worst decisions of history. Among our favourites were the story of how in 1962, the Decca Recording Company rejected an opportunity to sign the Beatles to a long-term contract. "We don't like their sound," Decca explained. "Groups of guitars are on the way out..." oops! Another bad choosers were the nineteen publishers who didn’t think that JK Rowling’s long book about a boy wizard would sell! There was the film studio who auditioned Fred Astaire and completely missed his star quality.. They wrote down, “can’t sing, can act, can dance a little”. In looking at the reading from St John’s Gospel I was struck by those missing disciples, the ones that pushed off home instead of sticking by Jesus. That must have been the greatest missed opportunity in the whole of history! Imagine being them! Imagine having met Jesus, following him for a while then just leaving him and the other disciples. What on earth possessed them.? Why did the missing disciples cut and run? Their disastrous decision is the focus of my address this morning.
First let us look at the context. This passage from John comes quite early in John’s narrative, but already the disciples had seen Jesus change water into wine at Cana; they had seen him do miraculous healings and they had witnessed him walk on water! They had heard him acclaimed as the Son of God by no less a person than John the Baptist. All the disciples had personal evidence that in Jesus they had found someone very special, special enough to be the Messiah that all Jews were waiting for. So those disciples didn’t turn back because they thought Jesus wasn’t special enough nor convincing enough.
Perhaps they were the sort of lily-livered cowards who run home when things get dangerous? But no, if we examine the history, there is no evidence that any disciples left after the terrifying incident (John 2:14) when Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove all the merchants from the Temple. Everyone must have held their collective breath, waiting to see if Jesus was carted off to prison shortly after but they didn’t leave then at that moment of supreme danger.
Perhaps they found Jesus to be too much of a rule breaker: eating on the
Sabbath and flouting too many social norms? But no! The same disciples had
stayed when Jesus started doing shocking, unconventional things like talking
to a Samaritan woman alone, as though she had been a man! So they weren’t
driven away from Jesus because they were boringly conventional and upset by
his original approach to the Jewish Laws. So what was it that sent them
scurrying off home?
According to John’s Gospel what sent the missing disciples home was Jesus’
bombshell statement that in order to gain everlasting life they would need
to feed on his flesh and blood. You can imagine their reactions -
Disgusting! Impossible! Ridiculous, Meanlingless! If we study the context of
Jesus’ words it isn’t hard to see why they were rocked to the very core. If
we place ourselves in their minds we can see that the words would seem be
appalling and confusing. Was Jesus proposing some sort of cannibalism? How
could a decent person drink the blood and eat the flesh of another? What was
Jesus claiming? How could he be of the same flesh as God, whom everyone knew
did not have a body! What on earth did he mean?
Jesus was surely testing his disciples. In a passage a few lines later he
relented a little to explain that his words were not literally about the
body but were to do with the spirit. His words were to be taken as a
metaphor. What he meant would become obvious when he gave his followers the
bread and wine at their final meal together and told them they were to eat
them as spiritual nourishment in memory of him They couldn’t know what the
true significance of his words might be. And they were upset and offended
and gave up on Jesus.
The issue over which the disciples split apart was to do with what some could accept while some could not. Those with literal minds, who demanded a practical demonstration of the meaning were thrown into a crisis of confusion and went home. Those who were willing to accept the bigger picture: the wonders and healings Jesus had done; the mystical things that had happened to them all, were willing to hang in there and see what Jesus was really saying. Those of a more impatient and down to earth disposition could not bear it and they left. And they missed the greatest opportunity we can conceive of: the chance to be with Jesus and to witness his triumph over death. They went home because they didn’t understand the letter of what he was claiming. And they couldn’t take it on trust. And so they missed out on the experience which millions would have loved to witness, Jesus’ ministry on earth.
I think this story, about faith and the willingness to temporarily suspend
questions, has tremendous relevance to Christians in any age and for our
time.). There is much that is difficult for even the most learned and devout
Christians to understand about God and the way he works in the world. For
example, believers have grappled with the problem of human suffering since
the very beginning. There are some aspects of our faith which remain in the
region of just that, faith. We can’t hope to fully understand God. We can
understand aspects of him. God’s greatness and his purpose can be dimly
perceived, “through a smudgy mirror” or “a glass darkly” if you prefer. A
great deal of our faith isn’t provable but it is knowable. We feel the
action of God in the world, we hear him speak to us in our lives, and
through the actions of others. Faith is a subtle thing, but powerful. Some
of the wisest people in history have shared our faith. Some of the cleverest
philosophers have tried to disprove the existence of God but been forced to
admit that there is a realm of understanding which exists but cannot be
pinned down. The force for good which drives the Universe, which creates
love and self-giving can be experienced but not scientifically measured and
put under the microscope. Faith is a doorway through which we must pass in
order to experience God. Without it the door remains slammed in our faces.
And that is what I think happened with those poor disappointed disciples,
they were not willing to trust Jesus, even after all they had seen and
experienced. They wanted certainty before they would take the next step, and
in that they proved themselves useless to Jesus. Peter for once got the
answer right. He didn’t know what was to come or understand the process of
Salvation, but he knew Jesus was the Way. In the course of the next year,
Peter was to experience the true meaning of Jesus’ mission to save, but he
was willing to trust until he did so. This issue of belief, faith, is a key
component of our religion. The area of love and spirituality is the least
provable part of our existence as humans, but without it we would be less
than human. We cannot know how God’s love operates but we see and feel its
God’s purpose in sending Jesus was made clear in the Lord’s own words. He was part of God, sent by God, to give believers everlasting life. The key word in there is believers. Those who prized their sorry little reason over faith in this wonderful Jesus, went home angry and disappointed and confused. Those who stayed, were willing to wait and see what unfolded were rewarded in inconceivably wonderful ways, witnessing for themselves the Risen Jesus, seeing his ascension in Heaven, hearing God speak. I bet those missing disciples wished that they had been there, as we do.