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This afternoon I’ll be flying out of town again. After my delightfully awkward 20th high school reunion, it might seem odd to rush off again, but this time, I’m headed to a continuing education event at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The two-day course is called “Stepping up to Staffing,” and there I hope to expand upon my year and a half of on-the-job training supervising a team of high-quality employees. This continuing ed. opportunity, like every other one that I’ve ever attended, assumes that the goal of every congregation is to move forward, to maintain health, and to grow. There just doesn’t seem to be a market for continuing ed. events that will teach you how to shrink your church, but given the trajectory of the last five weeks in John 6, maybe that’s something we should be studying. The ministry of Jesus wasn’t always popular. It didn’t always grow. In fact, sometimes, it was an exercise in ineffectiveness to the glory of God.
As you might recall, our triennial summer excursion into the Bread of Life Discourse began with Jesus looking out upon a crowd of more than five thousand hungry followers and having compassion on them. With five loaves and two fish, he fed the multitudes with such an abundance that twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered. In our time, that was a month ago, but in the context of John’s Gospel, it was only yesterday. Yesterday, there were more than five thousand people following Jesus around the Galilean countryside. It had likely been days on end that the crowds followed Jesus, listening to his teaching, experiencing his healing ministry, and longing for the salvation that he was promising. Yesterday, the crowds were so impressed with Jesus that they openly proclaimed him as a prophet. Yesterday, the fervor grew with such intensity that it looked like the crowd was going anoint Jesus their king.
A good church growth consultant would point out all the good things that Jesus did yesterday. He preached the Gospel of grace. He offered true healing. He connected with his community, learned what they needed, and worked to make a difference. To the hungry, he gave food to eat. And when it became clear that the crowd was missing the point, trying to make it all about Jesus and not the Kingdom of God, Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray for strength, to take stock of his ministry, and to give the crowd time to figure it out on their own. Jesus was doing a lot of things right, and as a result, his ministry was flourishing. Yesterday.
Today, things are very different. By morning, Jesus and his disciples were on the other side of the lake. Many weren’t willing to travel that far to continue to listen to Jesus, and so they returned to their daily lives. Some were so desperate that they followed Jesus, if only to call dibs on the twelve baskets of left-overs from last night’s meal. As Jesus looked upon this smaller crowd, he again had compassion on them. It wasn’t just that they were hungry. John tells us that this time Jesus’ compassion wasn’t for their physical needs, but rather for their spiritual ones. “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” They were lost, wandering in the wilderness, destined to follow anyone or anything that would offer them the relative security of food, water, and shelter.
Today, after yesterday’s miraculous feeding, Jesus chooses to feed the soul rather than the belly, and so we get the Bread of Life Discourse. This short teaching by Jesus is less than 900 words. It probably took him less than 10 minutes to preach it, and in that time, he managed to finish the miraculous shrinking of his ministry from more than five thousand to a grand total of twelve. That is some unprecedented contraction. Every step along the way, the crowd has asked questions, and for every question, Jesus had a more pointed and difficult response. By the time this fifth passage from John 6 opens, Jesus is commanding the crowd that is still gathered to chew on his flesh like a cow chewing its cud and to wash it down with a cup full of blood so that they might live forever.
Yesterday, they were eating their fill in the wilderness. Today, in the Synagogue in Capernaum they are being asked to gnaw on their teacher. Not on his teaching, mind you, but to actually munch down on Jesus. “This teaching is difficult,” they say, which doesn’t seem like an outlandish reaction to the direction Jesus’ teaching has taken over the last ten minutes. “Who can accept it?” Already Jesus has lost most of his followers. Yesterday, it was a crowd of five thousand. Here, all that is left are his disciples, his most faithful students, who had followed him for close of a year now. Whether this group consists of 70 or a couple of hundred, it is already much smaller than the enamored and hungry crowd that approached Jesus on the hillside twenty-four hours ago.
This teaching from Jesus is difficult. He is asking for their full faith. He’s hoping that after more than twelve months together, they might be willing to follow Jesus no matter the cost, to risk hunger and thirst, to risk personal danger, to risk family embarrassment, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is pressing in the hopes of figuring out just how far his disciples are willing to go for the bread that gives life. It turns out that for many of them, they just aren’t willing to go quite that far. What we don’t know is what actually scandalized these would-be disciples. Was it the eat my flesh stuff or the running away from being crowned king bit? Were they disgusted by the imagery of bone and blood, or were they afraid they had hitched their wagon to a loser? Whatever it was, they begin to grumble, just as their ancestors had in the wilderness when God gave them manna – the bread of heaven.
Just like their ancestors, these disciples were unable to trust fully in what God had in store for them. Lost in the wilderness, their ancestors cried out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die? Wouldn’t it have been better to die in Egypt? Oh, that we could return to the fresh produce, meat, and wine that Egypt had to offer.” Ultimately, they didn’t have much of a choice but to continue to move forward. Returning to Egypt would have meant certain death, but for the disciples of Jesus who are having trouble trusting in the promises of God, turning back seems easy. Most of them would have been from Capernaum and the surrounding areas. Their families would be glad to have them back. Whatever they had lost to follow Jesus, they could have picked most of it right back up again. And so most of them leave. They walk away from the gift of eternal life for the relative safety of the here and now.
From five thousand followers to twelve in 24 hours is no way to run a ministry. The church growth consultants would certainly recommend that Jesus choose a different path, and yet, the story ends with a note of promise. Jesus turns to the twelve who are left and challenges them, “Do you want to turn back too?” Among them are Judas, who will betray Jesus to the Temple authorities; Peter, who will deny Jesus three times on the night of his arrest; Thomas, who will go missing for more than a week after the crucifixion; and at least eight others who will flee from the scene when the going gets tough. Yet, this rather inauspicious group will, one day, take the message of the Kingdom forward. Despite the challenges that are to come, it is this occasionally faithful remnant who will abide with Jesus, confident that the word Jesus brings is eternal life.
“Where else could we go?” Peter wonders. No one else in the world was offering eternal life like Jesus was. From this remaining group of twelve, some two thousand years later, 2.3 billion people now call on the name of Jesus, the Holy One of God, for the bread that brings eternal life. As we wrap up our five-week tour through this challenging teaching, I’m grateful for this final word of hope. It won’t sell a continuing education event, but there is much to learn from the scandalizing message of Jesus in John 6, and I give thanks for five weeks to gnaw on the Bread of Life. Amen.