[Given on the Sunday, August 23, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]
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 6.67-69 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior.
Our Gospel reading this morning ends a chapter-long lesson wherein Jesus instructs his would-be disciples that he is the “Bread of Heaven” – given, blessed, and broken for the sake of the entire world. As a result many chose to walk away, to not follow Christ, because his teaching is too difficult for them to handle.
Context matters in the Johannine Gospel, because in this gospel account we are given one side of a family-feud wherein the Jewish community who believed in Jesus as the Messiah are writing against the Jewish community who did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah and, as a result of the difference in theology, had expelled the Jesus-followers from the synagogue. This scene depicts a schism, a break in the community between those who accepted the teaching and those who do not. The point here is clear – following the Lord is a challenging experience.
The challenge implicit in following the Lord is made clear in our baptismal liturgy where we are told that we are being baptized into the death of Christ. This challenge is repeated each Sunday when, before God’s altar, we remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and partake in the broken body and the shed blood, replaying that sacrifice over and over again. The sacramental nature of the Church makes clear that following the Lord is a challenging experience.
It’s one thing to be welcomed into relationship to Christ. It is another thing altogether to make the conscious choice to follow the Lord. It’s one thing to be a fan. It’s something else to be a follower. The good news is that our choice always follows God’s Prevenient Grace – grace that precedes our actions and is a result of God’s love alone. The grace of God invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and then persuades us to give our lives away. That process looks differently for different people, but the end result is the same – The Lord overthrows the temples of our souls with the light of his countenance and the intoxication of his love and claims them for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The process of Christian discipleship is the journey wherein we are claimed by Christ and spend the rest of our lives becoming what we were made in the brooding waters of Holy Baptism.
This Gospel encounter between Jesus and the would-be disciples separated those who were satisfied hearing and learning from Jesus from those who had no other choice but to follow Jesus. Jesus had many fans, but few followers. He had many folk who were willing to feast on the miraculous bread by the seashore, but not many who were willing to partake in this flesh and blood and thereby share in his ministry. Beloved in Christ, there is a difference between being a fan and being a follower.
German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that
Had [Jesus] merely been a prophet or a teacher he would not have needed followers, but only pupils and hearers. But since he is the incarnate Son of God who came in human flesh, he needs a community of followers who participate not merely in his teaching, but also in his Body.
And what is the earthly body of Christ now but his Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, that he leaves behind to be his hands, his feet, his eyes, and ears in the world.
We hear so often that we are the Body of Christ, but I wonder how well we understand the implications of that statement. Writing on the process of “Becoming the Beloved,” pastor and mystic Henri Nouwen suggests that Christians, the Body of Christ, are “called to become bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken, and given.”
If those words “taken, blessed, broken, and given” sound familiar to you, they should. That is what we do each time we remember Christ upon the altar. We remember the night he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. By partaking in this holiest of meals, his disciples became extensions of his body. The same is true for us – to eat share in the Body of Christ is to become the Body of Christ. It is a meal of mission that strengthens us for the journey begun in baptism.
That’s why eating the bread and drinking the wine were so essential to following Christ – he knew that he was going to suffer and die and that those whom he left behind would need to continue in his Body – a body that would be broken and resurrected over and over again for the sake of the world.
In many ways the would-be disciples were right – this teaching is difficult, and yet, in the words of Simon Peter, these are “the words of eternal life.”
God, who has gathered community from the beginning of time for the sake of the world, has gathered those communities to be agents of salvation for the world. When God took Abraham from Mesopotamia and created of him a great nation, he did so in order that the Children of Abraham would his agents of salvation in the world. When God gathered a disparate tribe of emancipated slaves and made them a people at the foot of Mt. Sinai by giving them Torah, the Law, he did so in order that they would practice a way of life centered around God that would be an example of God’s salvation in the world. And when God incarnate, Jesus Christ, gathered 12 disciples, he did so in order that the love he taught would bring salvation to the world. Jesus being Jesus took community organizing to another level. He wasn’t merely gathering a community. He was creating a body.
This Gospel is a missional call for us who have been made new in the waters of baptism and sustained by the body and blood of Christ to be the Body of Christ in the world. In the words of St. Augustine, “You are the body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken; you are to be blessed, broken, and given; that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of the Eternal love. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” This is nothing less than an incarnational challenge. This is a missional call to grow up into the full stature of Christ, to do what Jesus did – to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives and recovered of sight to the blind, to set a liberty those who are oppressed, and to boldly proclaim, against a narrative of scarcity and injustice, that the Commonwealth of Heaven rolls on the relentless waves of inevitability.
A commonwealth that…
…supplants racism and hate with communion and understanding,
…heals broken hearts with boundless love,
…banishes fear with the light of hope,
…destroys poverty and hunger with abundance and connection.
When we begin to understand that we are ambassadors of the Commonwealth of God, the instruments of God’s peace, that we are individual members of the mystical Body of Christ, the mechanism through which God brings salvation to the world…
When we begin to understand that God’s Prevenient Grace chooses us and that we have been chosen by God in baptism for this mission moment, we can respond like Simon Peter who said, when other chose to walk way, “where else can we go?”
We have been chosen by God in love. All that is left is for each us to choose Jesus again and again and again because when we are confronted by such great love, the only right answer is “yes.” Completely. Fully. Yes.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship, 267.
 Henri J.M. Nouwen. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, 48-49.
 John 6.68