Too Hard John 6:56-69

56 If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you are one with me, and I am one with you.

57 The living Father sent me, and I have life because of him. Now everyone who eats my flesh will live because of me. 58 The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever.

59 Jesus was teaching in a Jewish place of worship in Capernaum when he said these things.

60 Many of Jesus’ disciples heard him and said, “This is too hard for anyone to understand.”

61 Jesus knew that his disciples were grumbling. So he asked, “Does this bother you? 62 What if you should see the Son of Man go up to heaven where he came from? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life! Human strength can do nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are from that life-giving Spirit. 64 But some of you refuse to have faith in me.” Jesus said this, because from the beginning he knew who would have faith in him. He also knew which one would betray him.

65 Then Jesus said, “You cannot come to me, unless the Father makes you want to come. That is why I have told these things to all of you.”

66 Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him. 67 Jesus then asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave him. 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life. 69 We have faith in you, and we are sure that you are God’s Holy One.”

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Have you ever set a meal in front of your family with a less than pleasant response?  How about “This is gross!”?  Has anybody ever said that about your culinary efforts?

That was the reaction Jesus got when he suggested that his followers eat his body and drink his blood.  Gross.  I think that’s gross, too. It reeks of cannibalism.  It is obvious to us that Jesus is speaking in metaphorical language. He doesn’t really expect us to chew on his fingers or drink his actual blood, does he?  Still, as John tells it, Jesus’ speech is quite graphic….and offensive. His Jewish audience was familiar with the very strict rules against any kind of cannibalism.  One theory I’ve seen says that the strictest kosher laws are the result of cannibalism being practiced in neighboring tribes of the early Israelites. Yuck.  One of my personal theories on the need for 513 laws, as enumerated in Leviticus, is that each of those laws contributed to the survival of those poor, wandering nomads we call The Chosen People. Eating each other would certainly not increase the population, hence the need for laws against such a thing, especially if the tribe next door condoned such practice.

This chapter, Chapter 6 of John, begins with the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes and feeding thousands of people.  A few days later, members of that same crowd caught up with Jesus again. The food theme continues  as Jesus lectures them about the food that he can provide:26 Jesus answered, “I tell you for certain that you are not looking for me because you saw the miracles, but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for food that spoils. Work for food that gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because God the Father has given him the right to do so.”

The  listeners bring up the manna that God sent to the followers of Moses in the desert.  Jesus says, that’s not the same.  58 The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever.

Raise your hand if you understand exactly what Jesus was telling the disciples. Me, neither.  I have been taught a number of ways to read this idea of body and blood.   

Let’s throw in a confirmation lesson here:

Transubstantiation

The term is employed in Roman Catholic theology to denote the idea that during the ceremony of the “Mass,” the “bread and wine” are changed, in substance, into the flesh and blood of Christ, even though the elements appear to remain the same. 

Consubstantiation

The idea is that in the communion, the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine, coexist in union with each other. 

Spiritual Presence

  While no physical change takes place in either appearance or substance, a spiritual change takes place. Namely, that Jesus Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, but it is thought that Jesus Christ is spiritually (although not physically) present in them.

Symbolic

  This view refers to the fact that the bread and wine are just bread and wine, and the sharing of them in a communal meal is simply a symbolic expression of the unity of the congregation. 

What does our denomination cLaim?

United Church of Christ

Just as many grains of wheat are gathered to make one loaf of bread and many grapes are gathered to make one cup of wine, we, the many people of God, are made one in the body of Christ, the church. The breaking of bread and the pouring of wine reminds us of the costliness of Christ’s sacrifice and the discipleship to which we are all called. In the breaking of bread, we remember and celebrate Christ’s presence among us along with a ‘cloud of witnesses’ – our ancestors, family and friends who have gone before us. It is a great mystery; we claim it by faith. 

None of these definitions mentions forgiveness of sins, which surprised me. For many Christians, that is a major reason to participate in the sacrament.

There are 13 references to the Lord’s supper in the New Testament.  Those 13 references have all influenced our varied ways of interpreting what the wine and the bread mean to us.

The disciples in the synagogue on that day did not have any other theories or versions or stories with which to compare Jesus’ shocking words, so their reaction is not so surprising. Still, Jesus is not easy on them. Earlier, he had accused them of not really wanting to understand: 26 Jesus answered, “I tell you for certain that you are not looking for me because you saw the miracles, but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for food that spoils. Work for food that gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because God the Father has given him the right to do so.”

Their response should not surprise us 30 They replied, “What miracle will you work, so that we can have faith in you? What will you do?  In other words, “seeing is believing.”

Is that our problem as a congregation—do we lack miracles?  Just wondering.

Shortly after that, we read that 66 Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him.  

Why? Because they were grossed out?  It was more than that: 60 Many of Jesus’ disciples heard him and said, “This is too hard for anyone to understand.”

This dialogue, this falling away, this failure to engage, to understand is not such an unusual scenario. It’s especially poignant to us in this congregation.  There are more empty than full seats.  The saddest part, the part that distresses us the most, is that these seats used to be full.  Why aren’t they now?  Was Christianity too hard to understand?  Were people  looking for something that we couldn’t or shouldn’t provide?  We don’t need to answer these questions, nor do we need to beat up ourselves for our shrinking numbers.

We live in a culture much different from the days when we were all earning our perfect attendance pins in Sunday School.  We grew up “knowing” that everybody went to church. It was a social expectation, an unwritten law that, if you were a respectable family, you all went to church.  That is no longer true.  Anybody who wants to go to church participates for more profound reasons than wanting to be respected in the community. 

I don’t for a minute doubt that we have something to offer everyone.  There are as many ways to approach religious faith as there are pages in the Bible. David Lose says, “ Jesus [was] surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up.”

About 22% of the American population considers itself “nonaffiliated.” A good number of them however  define that further as “spiritual but not religious.”  Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a book about the fallacies and weaknesses of that claim.

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

On the other hand, Linda A. Mercadante, who teaches at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio contests that description of the spiritual but not religious. In “Beliefs Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious,” she makes the case that spiritual people can be quite deep theologically. For example, “they reject heaven and hell, but they do believe in an afterlife,” 

Where does that put us, sitting here inside these four humble walls? John adds one more vignette to this story of rejection:

67 Jesus then asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave him. 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life. 69 We have faith in you, and we are sure that you are God’s Holy One.”

For me, that puts everything back in order, puts everything in perspective.  What else is there?  I can’t create my own religion; some of my friends have.  I can’t meet my own spiritual needs; some of my friends do.  I’m not above shopping around, but I’m not going to reinvent the wheel of religion. I pray for those who are searching. I bless those who have found spiritual meaning through other paths. But for me, Jesus makes sense, even when Jesus’ teachings are illogical, hard, mysterious, challenging. I know, I believe, I preach that following Jesus is not easy. But overriding my ignorance and my confusion is my faith.  If I don’t understand everything written in every concordance, every reference book, on every page of the Bible, I’m not giving up.  I know enough to keep me from getting lost, to keep me from rejecting Jesus.  Like Peter, I have faith in Jesus, and I am sure that Jesus is God’s Holy One.”  Amen.

1 https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/477-what-are-transubstantiation-and-consubstantiation

2 https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/477-what-are-transubstantiation-and-consubstantiation  (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F.L. Cross, Ed., London: Oxford, 1958, p. 337).

3 http://www.catholicbasictraining.com/apologetics/coursetexts/2b.htm

4 http://www.catholicbasictraining.com/apologetics/coursetexts/2b.htm

5 http://www.ucc.org/about-us_what-we-believe

6 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/us/examining-the-growth-of-the-spiritual-but-not-religious.html?_r=0

7 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/us/examining-the-growth-of-the-spiritual-but-not-religious.html?_r=0

Compassion Fatigue Mark 6:33-44

30 After the apostles returned to Jesus, they told him everything they had done and taught. 31 But so many people were coming and going that Jesus and the apostles did not even have a chance to eat. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.” 32 They left in a boat for a place where they could be alone.33 But many people saw them leave and figured out where they were going.

So people from every town ran on ahead and got there first.

34 When Jesus got out of the boat, he saw the large crowd that was like sheep without a shepherd.

He felt sorry for the people and started teaching them many things.

35 That evening the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This place is like a desert, and it is already late.

36 Let the crowds leave, so they can go to the farms and villages near here and buy something to eat.”

37 Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat.”

But they asked him, “Don’t you know that it would take almost a year’s wages to buy all of these people something to eat?”

38 Then Jesus said, “How much bread do you have? Go and see!”

They found out and answered, “We have five small loaves of bread and two fish.”

39 Jesus told his disciples to have the people sit down on the green grass.

40 They sat down in groups of a hundred and groups of fifty.

41 Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish. He looked up toward heaven and blessed the food.

Then he broke the bread and handed it to his disciples to give to the people.

He also divided the two fish, so that everyone could have some.

42 After everyone had eaten all they wanted, 43 Jesus’ disciples picked up twelve large baskets of leftover bread and fish.

44 There were five thousand men who ate the food.

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Are you tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Ferguson, Missouri, and Tom Brady and Benghazi?  Me, too.

I could go the rest of my life without hearing anything about presidential candidates and racism and cheating and war. 

But that’s not possible, unless I stay in my house, stay off the internet, never listen to television or radio, or visit with any of my friends or family. So, I’ll continue to hear about people I don’t know doing things I wouldn’t do. I’ll still listen to the news and filter out what I don’t want to deal with.

Jesus wanted to escape from a similar world, a world overloaded with people and their troubles.

He had been working hard, doing what he could to be a positive influence, even sending his disciples out to carry his message further.  When the disciples returned from their mission trips, they had so much to tell him; they needed time to tell Jesus about their successes and miracles. 31 But so many people were coming and going that Jesus and the apostles did not even have a chance to eat. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go to a place where we can be alone and get some rest.”

I spent last week away from most of my usual responsibilities. I spent a couple days with a dear friend, and several days with my brother.  I didn’t have to do anything but eat and sleep and go to the fair and the rodeo. I had to do a lot of listening, because my brother and my cousin talked nonstop about biofuel and infrared and wagon gears and cattle and switchgrass and substations and salesmen and scientists, but if I dozed off, they didn’t notice. I didn’t have to lift a finger or strain a brain cell.

If Jesus could have gone to visit my brother, he could have relaxed and recharged. But Jesus was seldom able to be alone. Jesus was too popular to get away. He was a celebrity, and he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.  That worked to his advantage most of the time because he wanted to reach and teach as many people as possible. 

Once again, I am reminded that Jesus was fully human.  He got tired. Weary. Exhausted. LIke any human, he needed to pause, refresh, rebuild, reenergize.  That was the whole point of getting in a boat: 32 They left in a boat for a place where they could be alone. It didn’t work. 33 But many people saw them leave and figured out where they were going. So people from every town ran on ahead and got there first.

Nowadays, I would expect a celebrity to brashly shove through the crowds and go lock himself in a room.  This celebrity, Jesus, could not do that. His heart overruled his tired body and 34 When Jesus got out of the boat, he saw the large crowd that was like sheep without a shepherd. He felt sorry for the people and started teaching them many things.

Today’s lesson is a popular Sunday School story, the story of Jesus and the disciples feeding 5,000 men, plus their families, with two fishes and five loaves of bread.  So two smoked or dried fish and five little loaves of bread.  Much has been written about how this was possible.  Some like to think that everybody sat down and shared what they had after being inspired by Jesus’ example. Others accept feeding 20,000 people as a miracle.

I want to look at what didn’t happen.  What didn’t happen was that Jesus didn’t get away from the crowd to debrief with the disciples or to spend time in quiet meditation. Instead, he stepped out of the boat and into the crowd, despite being exhausted, despite needing to spend time with his disciples. He found the energy to continue teaching, even as the day wore on.

Have you known people who have had that ability to go beyond physical and mental and emotional limits?  Who of us hasn’t had to go to work dead tired, had to care for a family member when we didn’t feel well ourselves? I remember Bim rocking Laura for hours at night because I was exhausted from rocking her all day long.  I remember getting up at 5:00 a.m. on school mornings to play racquet ball with my son.  I remember thinking all day long about how good bed was going to feel that night. I had a choice, and, once in a while, I chose to spend that time with my seven-year-old son.  I remember my mom getting up in the middle of the night to finish typing my term paper for me. I remember my dad doing chores, then putting chains on the school bus, and picking up kids for school on the coldest days of the year. I remember my parents inviting my grandparents to move in with them so that they could care for them. 

We all have stories like that. We have compassion.  When we hear about abused dogs or car accidents or murder on television, our hearts go out to the victims. But after awhile, after too many similar news items day after day, something happens. 

The trauma that we see as media consumers or the trauma that we experience second hand as we care for people chips away at our capacity for caring. The name for this loss of interest has a name: compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue has such symptoms as hopelessness, physical and emotional exhaustion, a negative view of the world, and becoming emotionally detached from personal relationships. As you can imagine, this is a real threat to nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, and lawyers, to name a few professions.  In those professions, one sees much illness, misery, misfortune, and injustice. Because the people in these professions cannot always do what they are trained to do–fix problems, cure illness, right injustice, correct misfortune–the failures can overpower the successes.  Eventually, they lose hope and see only the lack of recovery, the lack of justice. They become less effective as they grow to believe less in their abilities.

I wonder if this is what happened to Mother Teresa, the nun who worked so hard in the slums of Calcutta.  Thousands of people admired her work and were inspired by her example.  Her compassion did not come easily.  After her death her personal letters to her spiritual advisor were published.

She did not live an inspired life, a life that felt holy and blessed.  She was, for most of her life, plagued by doubt and despair.  She found it difficult to believe in a loving God, she found her faith to be useless.

I focus on this obscure part of this popular story because I want us to all be able to serve with compassion.  I want us to view the people around us through Jesus-colored glasses.  I have to constantly remind myself to stifle the cynicism. It is so easy to say, “Well, that’s they way THEY are.” “There’s nothing I can do about it.” “Well, what do you expect from those people.”

A combination of fear and arrogance make me a callused, uncaring person.  We had a fine example in our community this past week.  A man was shot in front of the DeWitt police station.  The general reaction was “How could that happen in DeWitt?” “We’re not that kind of town!”  Negative allusions to the Quad-Cities were made.  Arrogance—we’re better than other people in other towns…and fear–what if we have to deal with gunshots in our precious neighborhoods—showed how little compassion we had for any of the participants.  I felt sorry for the police because they would have to get their damaged police car repaired.

Did I ever pray for the three men who were involved in the shooting?  Did I ever even worry about what provoked the shooting? Only as it pertained to my assumption that people who shoot people must be involved with drugs. Those people. Those druggies.  Not me.  I’m not involved in any of that. 

Maybe I need to be involved. I don’t need to visit the jail.  I don’t need to apply for a job as an undercover cop and go out and bust people.  I need to look inside my own heart and pray.  Pray, first of all, for Jesus to restore to my heart the kind of compassion he showed. Then, pray for those who managed to get their names spelled correctly in the newspaper.  And for their families. 

Have you checked your compassion battery lately? Does it need to be recharged?  Well, you’ve come to the right place. How far does your compassion flashlight reach?  Does it go beyond your immediate circle of friends and family?  Does it shine on the people who are unlucky enough to make the news?

Are you tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Ferguson, Missouri, and Tom Brady and Benghazi?

Spend some time debriefing with Jesus. Tell Jesus what you think of the Trumpster and Michael Brown and Deflate Gate and screwed up politicians.  Then, after your Jesus battery is reenergized, pray for your brothers and sisters, who are after all, related to you on your Savior’s side.  Amen.