August 26, 2018
This is the fifth and final gospel reading from the sixth chapter of John, about Jesus as the bread of life. It’s been a long meditation by John on what it means to be a disciple: to follow Jesus, to live and grow in him, to feed on him, to find life and depth and meaning in him.
John tells it as a series of soliloquies by Jesus about who he is, interspersed by questions and objections from the people listening to him. Some people are baffled, some are argumentative, some are offended and walk away. And now at this point Jesus turns to the twelve closest disciples of his, and asks them, “Do you want to leave too?”
It’s a poignant question. He’s been trying to teach them and explain his mission and his relationship with God, and they’ve been following closely up to now. But the mood of the crowd is changing, and the authorities are beginning to say Jesus is trouble and needs to be silenced. So Jesus gives the twelve disciples the opportunity to leave.
I think many of us here today, if we’re honest, have thought at times about giving up on faith or church or God or Jesus and walking away. There’s often a tipping point or a last straw that breaks us. A friend of mine who was raised Roman Catholic has struggled with its attitude towards women, and been in a love-hate relationship with the Church all her life, going to mass from time to time but never being comfortable. But when Pope Francis earlier this year announced that he would not be apologizing for the abuse that took place in Canada’s residential schools staffed by the Roman Catholic Church, that was the last straw for her, and she gave up completely and left for good.
I’ve known many individuals who have given up on God and left the church after a tragedy, when their prayers weren’t answered and a loved one died, for example. The God they believed in didn’t come through for them, so they couldn’t believe anymore.
In my own journey as a young woman facing sexism in the Church of England that refused to allow women to be ordained, I found the exclusive maleness of Jesus, the twelve disciples, and most of the leadership of the Church, as well as the mainly masculine images and language for God, to be overwhelming and repellant, and I walked away from it in search of a feminine face I could identify with.
Sometimes it’s something much more mundane that makes people give up and walk away: a conflict in the congregation, boring services, lack of children’s ministry, inaccessible steps….
So Jesus’ question to his disciples is a relevant one: “Do you want to leave too?”
Peter answers for himself and for the others: “Who else would we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We’ve come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Who else would we go to?
Well, there are plenty of contenders, plenty of leaders wanting us to follow:
Follow me, and you’ll only have to pay a buck a beer.
Follow me and we’ll build a wall to keep out the people we don’t like.
Follow me and we’ll teach people who God hates.
Follow me and put your trust only in consumerism and materialism.
But these leaders don’t speak words that are life-giving.
Peter recognized that Jesus did.
Even though he couldn’t always understand what Jesus was getting at, even though he let Jesus down, even though he would suffer for following Jesus, Peter knew that Jesus spoke and lived a message of love that was life-giving, extravagant, inclusive, sacrificial. Peter was coming to realize that in Jesus he was seeing the face of God.
We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about what strains our faith or makes us want to give up and walk away. We need to be tender and patient with each other. We need to listen well, and give people space and support to find their way through the dark times. Because sometimes we have to walk away before we can come to a deeper, more resilient faith. Sometimes we have to walk away from the God we no longer believe in, in order to find the One who believes in us.
But in it all, there’s an invitation.
This is how it’s worded in a prayer from the Iona Community that we sometimes use before communion:
“Come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been to this sacrament often and you who have not; you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who feel you have failed. Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.”