Sermon delivered at Wallace United Methodist Church on August 26, 2012
John 6: 52-69
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.’ 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But 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.’
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’*
Once upon a time, a group of people got together at DARPA, the US government defense agency, along with an international group of engineers and computer scientists, and invented something great. It was a system through which people could share information between several computer networks at a time, much faster than ever dreamed before. This system, throughout its various incarnations in time has come to be known as the system we now call THE INTERNET.
Ever since then, the world has opened up massively. Now, people from all over the world can communicate instantly over the internet, almost any kind of information is but a click of the mouse away. We live in the information age now, and information is the gold-standard of the world. We’ve learned how powerful information can be, and I believe we are better for it, because now we’ve redefined intelligence from “having the most information” to “being able to use information well.” It’s a brave new world people, and I’m glad to be a part of it. At the same time, what comes out of the internet mostly, despite its variety of uses, is the ability to share silly pictures on email or Facebook. I do it, a lot of you do it, and I think we’re better people for it.
I’m sad to say, however, I am fascinated by a particular brand of silly picture. Here’s how it works. Somebody somehow manages to mess up royally and that unlucky so and so happens to have a picture taken of their mess-up. Like, say, a boat wind’s up on its side in the middle of a suburban street. Or someone manages to get a pickup truck stuck in a tree. Or someone installs a camera immediately facing, not down the hallway where it can see anything, but right in front of blank wall. On and on we can go, there are hundreds of these pictures out there, but the one thing that connects them all is somewhere on the picture, in bold, all-caps lettering, someone has typed the word “FAIL.”
FAIL. It’s a word that so aptly describes the situation. Even saying aloud gives the speaker satisfaction. There are many reasons why we find these pictures funny, and you may think me or yourself horrible for laughing at them, but think about how humor works. What’s the base of all humor? Misfortune. It’s why slapstick, while simple and at times stupid, manages to get a belly laugh out of everyone. It’s why Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, Dick Van Dyke, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, and so many other people can make us laugh. In fact, it’s the only reason that America’s Funniest Home Videos has lasted as long as it has. We laugh at misfortune, but not out of spite. We laugh at misfortune because everyone at some point has messed up royally, and so we can sympathize with the mess-up through our laughter. The more ridiculous the mistake, the harder we laugh, because we wonder how hard someone had to mess up for that to happen to them, and we get self-conscious about it because at any minute, someone could catch us in the middle of a FAIL, and we can be the next one with a picture of our failure.
The sad fact is, we all mess up. We all make mistakes. And sooner or later, we all fail. It’s no lie that the best teacher we often have is failure itself. We all get to a point where we hit a wall, and we come to a hard lesson, and we have to face facts; we didn’t study or train hard enough, or we just plain aren’t equipped to deal with the problem, or worse still, we just got stuck with a raw deal. And we fail.
I can personally testify to this on many occasions. I will admit to you guys, while I may be capable of doing math and even succeeding in math, I in no way enjoy it. Not one bit. I have been this way since I was a kid. Math has been the most frequent subject where I met with failure. When I was in 2nd grade, we had these quizzes where we had to finish 100 math problems in 5 minutes. Simple, easy addition or subtraction problems, nothing difficult, but it wasn’t the difficulty of the problem that made me stumble. It was the time constraints. Time constraints give me all kinds of anxiety, and doing something I didn’t like doing in the first place while under a short time limit made me freeze. I failed almost every single one of those tests. My parents even helped me on it at home, testing me and giving me trial runs, but I just could not speed up. I hit a wall. I stared failure in the face.
Facing failure is never easy. However, failure can be our greatest teacher. It can teach us the lessons we can’t teach ourselves. It’s never easy when we’re going through it, but we remember what we learned better because it wasn’t easy. When we hit that wall, and reach the limits of our abilities, we learn the importance of failure. We learn creativity. We learn to overcome adversity. We learn perseverance. And the best lesson we can learn is to get swallow our pride. Pride and ignorance gets in the way of enlightenment, and when we accept that we aren’t perfect, we step on the path to being made perfect in love.
When we read the gospels, we begin to realize that if you’re going to be a disciple, you’ve got to be an expert at failure. Peter was chief among failures, especially, which is probably why he wound up leading the whole group in the end and became the first bishop of the church. Every lesson Peter learned, he had to learn the hard way. The truth is, that’s the way almost every Christian has to do it. It’s not going to be spoon-fed to us.
Now Jesus was a fairly conventional teacher in some ways, but in others he was starting a whole new ball game. Many of his fellow rabbis taught in stories and parables, but often the way Jesus did it was in an intentionally difficult, intentionally unclear, and intentionally convicting ways. In this passage, we see people really struggling with what Jesus is saying to them, because quite honestly, these people had probably never had anyone talk to them this way. At this point in the story, Jesus had just done a few of his many signs and miracles: he had fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and he had just walked on water in the middle of the storm the day previously. As we all know, when Jesus performed miracles, it tended to attract a lot of people. And who could blame them? Really, honestly, if you heard that somebody was doing miracles like that, you’d want to see it for yourself. We’re curious. It’s human nature to be that way. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to see Jesus perform a miracle.
But here’s the crucial truth of Jesus’s ministry. As much as Jesus’s deeds attracted masses, his words repelled them. It happened over and over again. People see him do amazing things, but as soon as he opens his mouth, he confuses them. He confuses them, and gives them difficult lessons. Lessons like “you didn’t come here to see a sign, but to be fed.” Lessons like “I am the bread of life.” “I am the bread of heaven.” “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood shall have eternal life.” These are, quite frankly, really strange things to say to complete strangers who came to see you perform a sign and a miracle.
That’s one of the hallmarks of Jesus in the Gospel of John, he never talks on the same level as the people that come up to him. He wouldn’t do it with Nicodemus. He wouldn’t do it with the woman at the well. He’s not doing it with the people in the synagogue at Capernaum. They come to him for comfort; Jesus gives them cannibalism. Well, at least that’s what it sounds like. If you think you can come to Jesus to get your questions answered, think again. Jesus ultimately deflects those questions, and sticks with the hard lesson. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. Do this, and eternal life is yours.
So, for one, Jesus is giving them an intentionally hard lesson in discipleship. Jesus isn’t always going to give you the answer you’re looking for, but he will give you the questions to think about. Most of the crowd? They didn’t get what they were looking for, and so went away from Jesus in confusion, and perhaps disappointment. But it doesn’t end there, because then his disciples see this strange behavior from Jesus, and they confront him about it, in actually a pretty reasonable way. They come up to him and say, “Jesus, this is a difficult teaching; who could possibly accept it?” What I’m hearing from the disciples along the lines of “Jesus, why are you giving calculus to preschoolers? Why are you teaching Shakespeare to kindergartners? You keep on asking questions like that, keep on making potentially blasphemous statements like that, and soon enough you won’t have anyone following you.” Remember, nobody in their right mind would listen to a rabbi who was telling people to eat him! And this was way, way before the last supper, so there was no way a person would ever associate what he was saying with anything other than insanity.
But what does Jesus do? He keeps at them. He doesn’t give up. He says, “Oh really? You think that’s offensive? You think me offering myself to others is offensive? What would happen if something truly astounding happened, huh? The truth is, my words are of the spirit. You are thinking too small, too literally. Listen to my words; my words are spirit and life. My words are what’s going to give you life in the end, anyways.” And then he pauses and says, “It’s because my words give life, and because they’re hard to accept, nobody’s going to come to me unless God wills it.”
This brothers and sisters, is the day Jesus lost some of his close friends. Not just the masses. Not just sycophants and hangers-on, but true, real friends. Jesus lost many of his disciples that day. Not just some. Many. They abandoned him, because they weren’t going to accept his hard teachings. They left him because they could not face a truly great obstacle, and could not get past it. This is the day that his friends had an epic Fail.
And so he was left with the twelve. The faithful few. Even then, he knew that one of them would betray him. One of his chosen. One of the closest friends he made. And that was all he had left. But you know what? I thank God for the fact that Jesus drove people away. Why? Because the right people heard the message at the right time. Because the twelve were the ones who saw that yeah, this doesn’t make sense, yeah, he’s giving them hard teachings, but if you don’t stick it out, if you give up on it, you’re giving up on something great. Because, you see, Jesus isn’t talking about cannibalism. Jesus was talking about his death. Jesus knew that eventually things were going to get ugly, and blood was going to be shed if he kept this up, because that’s the way this world deals with problems like him. Jesus knew that not everyone could eat his flesh, drink his blood, take the hard lesson, and eventually stare his death in the face. He needed people to see that his message, his ministry, according to the ways of the world that he came to save, was doomed to Fail. His life was going to end with him dying the death of a traitor, on a cross. And that, my brothers and sisters is the great mystery of Jesus’s ministry, that he could turn the cross from a symbol of death, a symbol of failure, into a symbol of victory over death, a symbol of overcoming failure. Jesus, on the cross, turns a Fail into a Win.
They say that the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. This was what Jesus was trying to get across. This world has a problem, and that problem is sin and death. Believing in Jesus, believing in these life-giving words, believing in the Win that is the Cross solves the problem. Believing in the life, death and resurrection, will solve the problem and lead to eternal life, to union with God. Some of his closest friends failed this lesson. Some of us fail this lesson too.
However, we need not be discouraged when we fail. Like that one blessed saint who said in the gospel of Mark, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” We need not throw in the towel when we hit a wall. We need not run away when Jesus calls us to carry our cross and follow him. When we fail, we hopefully learn from our failure. We hit a wall until we learn to climb over it, get around it, dig under it, or even knock it over. Christ helps us. Christ is the one who gives us life. Christ even helps us laugh at ourselves when mess up royally. Christ picks us up when we need help, and Christ is the true bread and wine, the real food, the real drink. Accepting that is the first step to a life defined by love. When we eat at the table together at communion, we unite with the bonds of love, and break down the walls that divide us.
Because Christ is the bread of life, Christ can turn a FAIL into a WIN. Taste and see that it is good. Thanks be to God for the gift of life that comes from the bread of heaven.