The Incomprehensibility of Jesus. (A sermon on John 6:56-69)

The person who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will also live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not the kind that your ancestors ate. They died, but the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard this, they said, “This is a difficult statement. Who can accept it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you saw the Son of Man going up to the place where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who do not believe.” For from the beginning Jesus knew those who wouldn’t believe, as well as the one who would betray him. So he said, “That’s why I told you that no one can come to me unless it be granted him by the Father.”

As a result, many of his disciples turned back and no longer associated with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to leave, too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. Besides, we have believed and remain convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
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I’m told that there are three kinds of people in this world – people who can count and people who can’t!
In truth, I am loathe to start any sermon with the declaration that there are only two or three types of people in the world, as I tend to think that there are all sorts of people in this world and that any attempt to simplify that is most probably an over-simplification.
Even so, I recognise that Jesus Himself was apt to make distinctions of this sort, and indeed in today’s Gospel reading it seems that people do fall into two simple categories – those who eat the flesh of Jesus and those who don’t!
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood”, says Jesus, “you have no life in you. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him to life on the last day.” (John 6:53-54)
It seems indeed that there are just two types of people in the world – people who eat Jesus and those who don’t, which translates into Catholics and Protestants according to one of my online friends, who keeps trying to encourage me that there is still time for me to cross over to the side of truth! I keep telling him that it’s a bit late for me to become a celibate when I have four kids but …
No, most of us gave up on dividing the world into Catholics and Protestants years ago. We discovered that these were not the only two types of people in the world but in fact that there are all sorts of people who are far easier to vilify and alienate than our brothers and sisters in the faith!
Even so, Jesus says, “The one who eats my flesh & drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will also live because of me.”
And it is a divisive statement, and it does seem to divide us into two groups, even if it is not clear here how we are to identify that group that feeds on the flesh and blood of Jesus, short of seeing them engage in outright cannibalism
Yes, it has always been a distasteful dialogue, and we’ve been dealing with it for four weeks now here in church, and I admit that when I first looked up the reading for this week I did wince a little, thinking, ‘I thought we’d got past this!’
And I suspect that some of you too, when you heard the Gospel read today, likewise thought, ‘I’ve heard enough of this!’ And so perhaps it comes as no surprise when we find that this was exactly how the crowd that originally heard Jesus responded. “This is a hard saying”, they said. “Who can hear it?”
They found Jesus pretentious. They found him distasteful. They found Him incomprehensible. In the end they just found Him to be too much hard work. They had had enough, and so they turned to go home!
And Jesus, who had had ample opportunity to pacify His audience by explaining Himself – Jesus, who had had plenty of time to say, “guys! I was only speaking in metaphors when I spoke about drinking my blood. Don’t go away. I don’t mean to offend anybody unnecessarily” – instead says,”Does this offend you? What if you saw the Son of Man going up to the place where he was before?” In every way He seems to just want to make things worse!
And so “many of his disciples turned back and no longer associated with him” (John 6:66), and Jesus doesn’t seem to care. Indeed, His only question to His twelve remaining disciples is, “are you leaving too?”
If we didn’t know better, we might assume that it was because He was tired. If you’ve followed the story, you’ll remember that Jesus had been attempting to get away from the crowds and find some space for Himself for some time!
If we didn’t know better, we might think that this was the issue. But we do know better, for, as Jesus Himself explained to the twelve, this issue was not so much that He was tired of dialoguing with people, but more so that he recognised that further dialogue was useless, as most of those listening to Him simply did not have the capacity to grasp what He was talking about!
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. That’s why I told you that no one can come to me unless it be granted him by the Father” (John 6 vss. 63,65).
It wasn’t because Jesus didn’t want them to understand, and it wasn’t because the crowd didn’twant to understand Jesus. It was because they were speaking two different languages. Jesus spoke words that were ‘spirit’ and ‘life’ while His listeners could only understand things in ‘the flesh’.
I’m sure that each of us has experienced the frustration of trying to communicate with someone whose natural language is not our own.
I was down at Binacrombi earlier this week and tried desperately to communicate about some of the highlights of the property to a woman who was visiting us there from mainland China.
And I did my best to bring back to memory all the Chinese I had learnt when I studied the language for a year at Sydney University (back in 1982 to be exact), but with so many subsequent hits to the head, I didn’t do too well.
And I was tempted to initiate a conversation about losing my car-keys, as that was one of the few practised dialogues that I still have locked in my memory, but unfortunately it is a dialogue that is not applicable to every situation (especially situations where you haven’t lost your car-keys).
And so eventually I gave up on trying to communicate, as in all such cases we eventually recognise that our ability to dialogue has reached its limits, as indeed, in the case of Jesus’ dialogue, we see the crowd in their frustration repeatedly demanding that Jesus ‘speak English’while Jesus maintains that the words they need to hear are in a language that they do not understand!
And it’s hard because, as Jesus points out, you aren’t taught the language of the Spirit at school or even at University!
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And all of them will be taught by God.’ Everyone who has listened to the Father and has learned anything comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)
So this is the catch – that we have to be tutored by God to speak the language of the Spirit and hence we will never truly understand Jesus or be able to come to Him unless God Himself takes the initiative and draws us to Him!
And that may sound all a little unfair and all a little hard to understand too. Yet it is entirely true to our experience. For as we move forward in faith we do all find, I think, that God opens new categories of awareness within us, such that we are able to grasp things we just could not perceive at all earlier on.
I suspect that for all of us this is part of our experience of reading the Bible – that though (for many of us) we read the whole thing through from cover to cover years ago and yet, each time we read it over again with more mature eyes, we see things that we somehow overlooked before, and we become aware of new truths that had somehow eluded us earlier on.
And not only in reading the Bible but in so many areas of life, God open our eyes and our ears to hear and see things that were once both invisible and incomprehensible to us.
I’ve been quite amazed by the reaction I’ve had to the teleconferences that I’ve put together over the last few months. One we did with my friend, Brother Andy, was, I think, particularly significant, as this man shared his story of long-term struggle with himself, with the church and, ultimately, with God.
And I learnt a lot that night from Brother Andy, and one of our other brothers in the online community (from the North-West of the USA) found listening to Andy almost life-changing, and yet I have spoken to others who heard what Andy had to say that night and got nothing out of it at all!
And there’s no point arguing with such persons, is there? If they can’t see it, we can’t make them see it, can we? It’s like trying to argue with me about how great classical music is. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see it! It bores me to tears! And I accept that there’s something there that is worthwhile, but I can’t see it!
There is beauty in classical music. I accept that. For the most part though it is invisible to me. I accept that there are likewise deep truths embedded in much of today’s modern art. Again though, for the most part, I am blind to it.
And when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, I accept that there is still much that the Lord has to show me that I am not yet able to see, and things He has to tell me that I am not yet ready to hear. Indeed, my fluency in the language of the Spirit, at this stage, is probably still even worse than my Chinese. Indeed, my fluency is such that I still don’t pretend to fully grasp this passage!
“The person who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will also live because of me.”
“These are hard words”, the crowd say, “who can hear them?!” The crowd leaves. Jesus turns to the twelve and says, “Are you leaving too?” Peter says, “Lord, where else are we to go”, and there seems to be resignation in his voice, but then he adds, “You have the words of eternal life!”
And so indeed it turns out that there are just two types of people on view in this story, but it’s not, I think, the division we initially anticipated.
There are those who feed on Jesus and those who don’t, but we can’t identify them in this story. There are those who are taught by God and those who are unteachable, but we can’t be sure exactly who they are either.
The two types of people we can see in the Gospel story are those who leave and those who stay. And it’s not clear that those who stay really understand a lot more of what Jesus was saying than those who left, but they saw enough in Jesus, such that they wanted to stick it out with Jesus for the long haul.
And that’s us, I think!
We haven’t necessarily grasped it all, and we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we’re still here, and we’ve decided to stay!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2009.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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