'Jesus said, “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.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “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.”'
--John 6: 56-69
In the first chapter of his book Chase the Buffalo: A 25-Year Odyssey of Discovery and Awareness, my Dad, Preston Mitchell, chronicles the first of his many bicycle trips that eventually would take him through all 48 continental States in a continuous loop. That first trip was from our house in Flat Gap, VA to St. Louis, MO in July of 1982. After coasting down the road from the house he hit his first major hill a mile and a quarter from the VA-KY line. As he slowly peddled up that hill an old man was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a house on the right. He hollered at Dad, “How’s it going?” to which Dad replied, “Ok, although these hills are a little tough.” The old man paused for a second and responded, “Well, if it was all downhill everybody wold be biking.” As Dad put it in the book, “truer words could not have been spoken.”
The cover of my Dad's book, Chase the Buffalo.
What if my Dad had turned around that day? What if he had said that it was just too hard, that he couldn’t go on, that he didn’t see any point? He certainly would not be the man that he is today had he not pushed through that first tough hill. He just kept on peddling. Many of you have even read his book or heard his stories. If you've met my Dad or read his book you know how impactful those bike rides have been, but it all started with one tough hill, the sage words of an old man in his rocking chair, and the determination to keep moving forward.
Faith, I have found, is a lot like that. Following Jesus is a lot like that. Being a disciple of Jesus can feel like one uphill climb after another for us now; imagine what it must have been like back then. For the past month we have been listening to Jesus give what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse. After feeding 5000 people, who then try to make him their king and get him to perpetually provide them with enough bread and fish to make sure they’ll never go hungry again, Jesus has spent the last three weeks explaining to them that he is the Bread of Life, not the bread of mere sustenance. The Bread he offers is his very self, his life, his love, his teachings, his divine nature. If one were to cling to him, if one were to eat of his bread, that person would never hunger for power, privilege, or possessions ever again. Last week he commanded the people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to share in his very life-force. We know this to be connected with our celebration of Communion, where we meet Jesus at this table and take him into ourselves, so that we may be the Body of Christ when we go back into the world from this place. But, we are told by the Gospel writer, that this teaching was exceptionally hard, harder than any of the rest, harder than selling all of one’s possessions and giving them to the poor, harder than being told to take up the cross and following Jesus. This is the straw that breaks the backs of many of the camels following Jesus, and so they turn away from him because, as they put it, “This teaching is difficult.”
The Greek word is skleros, which is best translated as “hard to accept,” rather than “hard to understand.” It wasn’t that the metaphors he used were too tough. They knew what Jesus meant, that to follow him meant surrendering completely and totally to him, but accepting that surrender and allowing themselves to go through with it was a different matter entirely. He was not there to be a cosmic vending machine that would give them whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. Instead, he was inviting them into a relationship that was lifelong and life-altering. And there wasn’t anything about it that was supposed to be easy. The beauty of this passage is that it makes no effort to hide how hard people felt Jesus’ teachings were…still are, for that matter. The fact that those who leave Jesus are disciples themselves (like all of us), not simply members of the religious authorities, brings the issue close to him for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and believe in his salvation and his love, but who still have a hard time accepting some of those more difficult teachings that push against our social, political, and personal preferences.
Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the message of Jesus is tough, and anyone who has had a true conversion experience and wrestled with Jesus over that message can tell you that it would have been a lot easier for them had they said no. And once they accepted that invitation into a relationship with Jesus they found themselves climbing some pretty steep hills, sometimes wishing they could just turn back. Because the fact is that Jesus demands full participation in his life, death, and resurrection, all three. We are to share in his message of love and liberation for all God’s people, but we must also be willing to share in his death, the death to self that we are meant to die each day, and then to share not only in his promise of resurrection on that great Last Day but to experience resurrection on a daily basis all around us and practice resurrection ourselves. As the scholar Walter Bruegemann put it in his commentary on this passage: "the Jesus to be followed is no docetic figure whose teachings, arrest, trial, and crucifixion were rounds in a game of charades." Truly embracing Jesus and following him is no easy feat; after all, his trip also takes us up a hill, the hill called Golgotha. Is it any wonder that people turned back?
Even though this passage today has a somber note of unbelief to it, it also poignantly reminds us of the power of divine grace. Jesus himself reminds his audience in verse 65 that no one comes to him except by the divine grace of God. No one is ever forced to do it. Jesus offers the Twelve a chance to get out as well, saying, “Do you also wish to go away?” If we don’t wanna climb that hill we don’t have to. But could you really imagine a life where you didn’t accept that invitation? Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it will lead to arguments and possibly estrangement from folks we know and love. Yes, there will be times when we will want to throw our hands up and quit. But somewhere deep down there is a voice, the same voice that Simon Peter spoke with, that says, “Where else are we to go?” Jesus is our home. He marked us as his own forever. He is the one with whom we belong, the one who has the words of eternal life and who invites us to share in it with him. To follow him truly and utterly means facing a great many challenges, but it also means being more fully alive than we ever were before. The earliest followers of Jesus were called The Way because claiming Jesus as Lord meant an entirely new way of being, whether you were Jewish, Greek, Roman, or otherwise. It was about reorienting one's whole self toward the way of Jesus, the way of love, the way of self-sacrifice, the way of light and hope in the midst of darkness and despair.
If following Jesus were easy, everybody would be doing it. And while it sometimes looks like we all are—especially when we drive down the road and see 10 different churches within a mile of each other—the truth is that we aren’t all doing it. We aren’t all willing to love our enemies or give to anyone that asks. We proclaim Jesus as Lord with our lips, but in our hearts we still act as if we've got it figured out, that we are the ones in control. We call this functional atheism, professing we believe while our actions say something else, and Christians of all kinds fall into this modality because, at the end of the day, it’s easier to follow our own hearts and desires than it is to follow Jesus. But blessedly, by the grace of God and nothing else, we have been called to do just that! We have been called to know and love Jesus more fully and to follow his way. We have been called to love in the times when it is hardest to love, to give when we so desperately want to retain, to keep climbing the hill when it would be easier to give up and go home. Even when Jesus’ teachings offend us (and many times they certainly do that), we listen, we learn, we grow, and we not only become more Christ-like ourselves but we sow the seeds of the kingdom. For that is what it means to be a disciple, to be one who follows along the often hilly path that we call The Way.