August 26, 2018

1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

“A Difficult Teaching”

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue (the community gathering place) in Capernaum. And he teaches this: “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.”

And when his disciples heard what he was teaching, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Like so many of us today, they wanted an easy answer and a simple way of living. They wanted the great results without the hard work. They wanted a quick fix, but Jesus was asking for more from them.

If you remember from the last several Sundays… Jesus has just finished his miraculous feeding of the crowd of 5000 or more on the hillside. Most of them appreciated Jesus’ ability to produce food for them, but now he is inviting them to go deeper, to respond to God’s goodness, and to follow him in the challenging way of discipleship.

Jesus tells them that they are now invited to eat more than just bread and fish like they just enjoyed. He explains that he has more to give to them than physical food for their bodies, because he is giving them himself. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Take ME into your life, he is telling them. “I am the Bread of Life” and if you feed on me spiritually, you won’t be hungry again and you’ll live forever.

But the people don’t hear this as good news. They call it a “difficult teaching.” Maybe because it sounds strange… like he’s asking them to become cannibals? Maybe because it is a new idea… that this man from Nazareth has been sent from heaven to be the divine presence in the world? Maybe they thought he was just a crazy guy!

Or maybe what he was telling them undermined their assumptions about who deserved to have life, and health, and well-being. Like many people today, they probably assumed that God would help them because of who they were – because of their race, or ethnic identity, or status, or place in the world.

But Jesus says that those things don’t matter. Outsiders and rejects are welcomed in. Foreigners are given a home. And the love and favour of God is given as a free gift to anyone and everyone who is willing to let Jesus into their life.

You’re not going to live forever because you happen to belong to a certain people group. You’re going to live forever because you eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, because you take him into your life completely and let him transform your body, mind, and spirit to his way of love and self-sacrifice.

Jesus speaks words that are the gift of spirit and life for his disciples, but they seem too difficult for some of them. After this teaching, the Gospel tells us that “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

When they realized that Jesus wasn’t offering them a quick fix for their troubles, but he was inviting them to a radical transformation of their whole lives – each and every day, for the rest of their lives – it seemed too difficult for them, and they didn’t want to bother.

It reminds me of the way we often want a quick fix for our health or our weight issues. And of course, many people are quite ready and willing to sell us a solution like that!

Just yesterday, I received an email that said this: “You can now drop 7x more this month with this drink that puts your body into ketosis without changing anything. Take off 10-30 pounds by September 15th with this new discovery that can help instantly with obesity.”

There are the solutions with easy (though usually expensive) supplements. There are the solutions with dietary changes like cutting out sugar or eating more protein. And there are the solutions like “Do this one easy exercise for 15 minutes every day” and transform your body in just a few weeks! Yeah, right.

I sometimes describe my extreme weight loss over the last two years as being just about simple math. Keep track of all your physical activity and count the calories you are burning. And keep track of everything you eat and count the calories you are consuming. It was as simple as that, in a sense. But it was actually a matter of embracing a whole new way of life – eating appropriately and committing both time and energy to physical activity each and every day. And the result was that my body was transformed. I am half the person I was two years ago because I let my life be completely changed.

Not everybody wants to do that – to give up what I gave up – in terms of rich foods, in terms of time and sweat. But it has been more than worth it in terms of the benefits of increased energy and physical and psychological well-being.

I think it is similar with the Christian faith – with the decision to follow Jesus with our lives. It is a difficult teaching – that Jesus says we need to get “all in” with him (or let him get “all in” to our lives.)

An occasional spiritual experience at worship, or on retreat, or when you see a beautiful sunset is not going to be enough. An affinity to a few of Jesus’ teachings or stories will not sustain your faith for the long term. There is no quick fix when it comes to following Jesus.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the difficulties inherent in following Jesus by comparing the Christian Way to a kind of spiritual battle. And although I’m not usually a fan of the spiritual warfare metaphors in Scripture, I appreciate that Paul doesn’t minimize the challenges, and that he invites us to get “all in.”

He invites the followers of Christ to “put on the whole armour of God” in order to withstand the wiles of the devil. You might be inclined to just grab a spear and maybe pick up a shield, but he encourages us that we will need to full suit of armour if we’re going to survive… if we’re going to avoid doing what some of those early disciples did after hearing a difficult teaching – turning back, and no longer following after Jesus.

Paul fills out the armour metaphor nicely to show the kinds of temptations that we all face day-by-day, and the ways that God can help us to withstand those temptations.

First there is the temptation to falsehood… lying. And that temptation is real! We are tempted to exaggeration to make ourselves look good to others. We are tempted to leave out a few details so we’ll get a better deal on our taxes, or our insurance, or so that people will be more impressed with us.

Last week when we were running the kids’ program in White City, I noticed on the first day that several of the kids were lying quite a lot. They lied to get an extra turn at a fun game. They lied to sneak an extra serving of snack. They lied to get the attention of a popular kid or one of the leaders. It bothered me a lot that first day, and I reflected on it that evening.

But as the week went on, I noticed that the lying became less frequent. It almost disappeared. Maybe because they started to figure out that lying didn’t actually get them a better deal. Maybe because they started to learn that they didn’t have to lie in order to be treated well and be included.

It wasn’t that we preached to them about not lying, or punished or scolded them for doing it. I think it was more a matter of trust… that they started to trust the leaders and each other a little more, and they started to feel more safe. And I wonder if we also can trust God enough to put on the belt of truth and know that we also will be okay.

And after the belt of truth, we’re invited to put on the shoes for our feet that will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. The temptation, of course, is to be in conflict – especially with those we don’t like, or who have disappointed or hurt us. It is more work to be people of peace, people who forgive, people who let go of our anger or hurt in order to heal.

I don’t need to give you an example because you can easily identify your own situations. I can hear my husband’s response when I start complaining about someone who has bothered me, when I get myself worked up with anger or annoyance… I need to put on those shoes of peace… so that I can walk softly and securely through volatile situations and come through safely on the other side.

Next, we are invited to pick up the shield of faith. It’s not something we need to work up through a sheer effort of will, but faith is a gift from God. And that shield of faith is what helps us when we are tempted to doubt, which would be a very natural and normal thing to do, given the world in which we live.

When we are distressed by the hatred, violence, and discrimination that abound… when we are discouraged by war and conflict that seem intractable… when tragedy strikes, accidents happen, and illness stumps the medical community… doubt creeps into our hearts and we are tempted to give up on life, and hope, and God.

Or, if things are going fairly well for us, the temptation is not so much to doubt as it is to believe that we can manage life by our own wits and intelligence and diligence. And although some of us may be able to manage for a while, we cannot do so indefinitely. We will never be good enough, wise enough, or strong enough to save ourselves. We will need the helmet of salvation (which is also a gift) and the sword of the Spirit (which has been poured into our hearts) and the Word of God to guide us into fullness of life.

Paul encourages us to pray for God’s help and to pray for each other so that we can stay faithful to God, fulfill God’s mission, and not fall into these temptations. And he advises us to put on the full armour of God to equip us for the challenges we will face – to help us live according to the difficult teachings that Jesus has given us.

So, how do we do it? How do we put on that full armour of God? Our first two readings today (from the Book of 1st Kings and from Psalm 84) give us a good idea. They suggest that we go to God’s house, that we spend time in prayer, that we study the Scriptures, that we praise God, and share in the fellowship and care of the faith community.

For some, going to church every Sunday may seem like a big sacrifice of time and effort, especially in our busy, busy, busy culture and lives. But it is the first and best way to get “all in” and to start opening up our hearts and minds to let Jesus “all in” to our lives so that he can transform us.

The disciples were right about what Jesus taught them that day after the feeding of the 5000 people. They were right that it was “a difficult teaching” and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that some of them turned back and decided not to follow after Jesus anymore.

Yes, God requires a lot from us. Actually, God requires everything that we have and are – our whole selves, our whole lives. But we also GET so much! We receive life, hope, peace, joy, love, and the promise of everlasting life. It’s a big sacrifice, but I think it’s worth it for the transformed lives that we will live forever with God.

May prayer for each one of us today is that with God’s help, with the full armour that God gives us, that we will withstand the temptation to turn back. May God give us all that we need to live into Jesus’ most difficult teaching… eating his flesh and drinking his blood, letting him completely and fully into our lives to transform us into the disciples we are called to be.

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