You might have heard the story about the man who was lost in a forest on a dark, cloudy night. He stumbled around, trying to find his way back to a path. Without a flashlight or the light of the moon, he couldn’t see that he had come to the edge of a high cliff. He stepped over the precipice and began to fall. Thankfully, he was able to reach out and grab a branch that protruded from the cliff. He held on with all of his might, knowing that if he let go he would fall to his death. He wasn’t a religious man, until that moment, but cried out “God, if you are out there, please help me!” To his surprise, a voice answered from the sky: “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you. Just let go of the branch.” The man considered that for a moment and then asked, “Is there anyone else up there?!”
That sounds a little like the conversation taking place between Jesus and his followers in John, chapter six. The assigned lectionary readings have lingered for five entire weeks on Jesus’ discourse about the Bread of Life. We’ve checked in twice during August to see how the conversation is going. In the final installment, a large number of followers are offended by something that Jesus said about his body and his blood being real food and real drink. So they start leaving to find someone else to follow. They don’t like what they heard, so they essentially ask “Is there anyone else out there?” And then Jesus asks the twelve the question, “What about you? Do you want to go away, also?” And Peter answers “To whom would we go?”
We’re in the midst of a pretty fascinating political season as presidential candidates keep emerging for consideration on both side of the fence. And people have been heard to say, “Is there anyone else out there?!” Now, you know that I am not going to endorse any political candidates or suggest how you should vote. If I did so, it would not only be inconsiderate of your ability to make up your own mind, but we could lose our church’s tax-exempt status and I don’t want that on my head! I will say, though, that I have been fascinated by one current candidate’s insistence on making statements and using words that are hard to hear as anything other than deeply offensive. Even the popular host of a conservative news network took on this candidate for being so offensive. And yet, his ratings continue to rise. I’m not certain what that means, and it is a little scary to consider why people are OK with such language.
Jesus was seen as a candidate of sorts by the large number of people who followed him around the lake after the feeding of the five thousand. They ate the bread and fish one day, and they heard Jesus’ lengthy discourse about being the bread of life the next. They were looking for a messiah savior to straighten out the political mess they were in and so far Jesus was doing all the right things by kissing babies (holding children on his lap) and handing out free food. But then he crossed a line. He said “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” That was worse than anything any of our current presidential candidates is likely to say, and many of the disciples of Jesus were offended and decided to move on to the next possible Messiah.
Why did he say that anyway? The idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is pretty awful no matter how you look at it. Cannibalism is a major taboo in most societies, and the people who heard Jesus that day knew their Hebrew scriptures specifying that people are to abstain from consuming the blood of any creature, let alone that of a human being. It’s hard to imagine a more offensive concept if the words of Jesus are taken literally.
A few years ago, I led an adult class on the hard sayings of the Bible. John 6 was among them, primarily because the disciples themselves said “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” For most Christians, there is no misunderstanding about what Jesus meant. We have been to Communion, probably in many churches. We don’t even think about actual blood and flesh when we hear those words in a liturgy. We understand that they are symbolic. While there are some Christian denominations that believe that the wine and bread are supernaturally transformed into flesh and blood despite their appearance, most of us don’t see a need to do so. Jesus was speaking about spiritual food and the spiritual life that we participate in when we embrace faith in him. We don’t use blood and flesh language much here, not because we are offended by those words but because we want to emphasize the belief that the sacrament represents life and blessing and abundance.
That does not mean, though, that there are no other hard teachings to grapple with in the gospels. I’m not sure what is more difficult, for example, than “love your enemies and pray for them.” Now that’s offensive, isn’t it? The only really good aspect of having an enemy is the delicious, self-righteous anger we get to stew in. Loving means that we don’t get to do that. I’m surprised the disciples didn’t just pack up their bags in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and go back to fishing. Many of Jesus’ counter-intuitive teachings offend our modern sensibilities just as much as they offended listeners two thousand years ago. Many walked away.
And yet when Peter was given the opportunity to join the crowd of defectors, he asked the question, “To whom can we go?”
The truth is that there are a lot of other places to go and many other voices of wisdom to hear.
Two years ago, Leroy and I left our rental apartment on a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee and drove our tiny car two kilometers down the road past the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. We turned east from the lake and passed the entrance to the Church of the Beatitudes and headed into the rolling green hills of rural Galilee. Eventually, we came to the Crusader-era city of Akko where we found the expansive and beautiful Gardens of Baha’i.
I didn’t know much about the Baha’i faith before visiting their garden, and I still don’t know a whole lot, but I discovered that it began within the Ottmon Empire in the nineteenth century. The teachers of Baha’i stress three things: the unity of God (there is only one God who is the source of all creation), the unity of religion (all religions have the same spiritual source) and the unity of humanity (all people are equal and we must seek unity in their diversity.) I was pretty impressed by what I learned in the Baha’i Garden, and I was reminded that there are many sources of wisdom at our disposal. While I was committed for much of my own life to the belief that we can only know truth about God through faith in Jesus alone, I have come to believe that a more humble if not realistic approach is to consider that God is much larger than any one system of belief and has communicated truth through more through more than one spiritual path.
Our church is loosely affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity which attempts to define and also provide support for those who identify as progressive Christians. The Center provides what it calls the “Eight Points” of Progressive Christianity, and among them are two that I think are relevant to today’s message. The first is this: “We have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.” In other words, the first statement affirms that Jesus is the central figure and focus of our spiritual path. The second of the eight points, though, says this: “We recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.” So when the founder of the Baha’i faith wrote, for example, as we read today, that the gates of the Kingdom are open wide, and that many are present at the table, it is consistent with an open Christian understanding of how God works in many ways among many people. It’s not surprising that Abdu’i-Baha quoted Jesus’ words about Jesus being the Bread of Life just as it should not be surprising for us as followers of Jesus to lift up the wisdom of other faith traditions.
“To whom else can we go?” Peter answered his own question, by saying to Jesus “You have the words of eternal life.” Peter and the remaining followers of Jesus recognized that the message of Jesus was unlike any they had heard from other teachers. They were willing to devote their lives to learning and living out that message.
If we were to insert ourselves into the story, we could ask the question of ourselves, “Do you want to leave also?” Which leads to the question, “If not, why do you want to stay?” I realize that one of the primary reasons I am a Christian is that I was born into a Christian home and the message of Jesus and the experience of being part of the Christian Church is deeply rooted in who I am. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t get to choose whether I continue on that path for the remainder of my life. I keep choosing the way of Jesus. I like Peter’s words: “You have the words of life.” That’s not the same as saying “You have magic words.” Or “No one else’s words have value.” Being a follower of Jesus looks different for me today than it did ten or twenty years ago. I am less concerned about being certain that I have the right beliefs in proper order and more focused on discovering the heart of Jesus’ message and living it out in acts of mercy and justice.
Who is Jesus to you right now? Has your experience and understanding of the one who said “I am the Bread of Life” changed at all over time? Have your questions about the one who said “Follow me” led you to want to turn away? Or have they helped you accept wisdom from the paths of others while still affirming your commitment as a follower of Jesus? This is a place where all can be comfortable with their questions even as we understand as a church body that the framework of our collective faith is rooted in the life and the message of Jesus. At the same time, we’re enriched and exceptionally blessed by those among us who embrace wisdom from other paths and who share that with us.
“To whom else can we go?” It was a rhetorical question from Peter, but it’s still worth pondering. As you follow Jesus, may you find comfort and challenge and hope and words that are life to you. And may you find amazing truth and grace in the rich traditions of others. God is still speaking through the words of Jesus and through the wisdom of all of God’s diverse creation. Amen.