When the Going Gets Tough…

Kevin Gasser

8/23/09

John 6:56-69

56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

 

            I was walking into the hospital the other day and I met a man who was walking in the same directions.  The man said in a loud voice, “Where are you going today?”  I responded, also in a loud voice, saying, “I’m going to see a friend.  They just had a baby.”

            As we continued to walk along together he looked at me briefly and repeated himself, “I said, Where are you going today?”  So I repeated myself, “I’m going to see a friend.  They just had a baby.”

            As I yelled out that last line I looked over at him and I noticed that he had one of those Bluetooth earpieces in.  He was talking to someone on the telephone.

            Where are you going today?  That’s a good question for many of us Christians to be asking ourselves.  Are we moving in the right direction or are we moving in the wrong direction?  Are we moving closer to Christ or further away? 

            In our scripture for this morning, Jesus gives some difficult teaching to his followers and many of them choose to stop being his followers and to go back home.  And today I would like to look at two reasons why people sometimes stop following Christ, though I admit that there are many more reasons than I have listed here.  The reasons that I want to look at are 1. because of a misunderstanding and 2. because of the expectations of Jesus.  We will start by looking at the misunderstandings.

Misunderstandings

            Our scripture for this morning begins with Jesus inviting those that have been following him to eat his flesh and drink of his blood.  Doing so will allow the eater/drinker to truly live.

            Eating flesh and drinking blood sounds weird to me and I hope that it sounds weird to you also.  If there is anyone here that doesn’t have a problem with eating human flesh and drinking human blood please let me know.  Because if that is the case, I believe that we should institute a mandatory ingredient labeling for all foods at carry-in meals. 

This should sound weird to us.  Eating human flesh and drinking human blood is not acceptable in our society, nor was it acceptable in Jesus’ day.  And if we think that this action is a bit of a taboo today, try putting yourself in the sandals of the first century Jews hearing Jesus’ words live and in person.

            Jews didn’t eat other people.  We call that cannibalism.  Now as far as I know there are no laws in the Torah forbidding cannibalism, but I am pretty sure that it was looked down upon.  And I’m not going to take a lot of time to discuss why eating other people is a bad thing.  I guess that I am just assuming that we can all agree that eating other people is not a good habit to get into.  However, why was it wrong for the Jews to drink blood?  Who doesn’t like a good bit of blood pudding every now and then, right?  Well there is a law in the Old Testament against drinking blood; any kind of blood.  Leviticus 17 clearly instructs that the Israelites and any alien living among them must abstain from the drinking of blood. 

Blood was considered the life source of an animal and of humans.  I have heard it said that because blood was considered the life source of an animal and of humans that certain pagan groups would drink animal blood as a way to gain strength before a battle or competition.  It was like you were consuming the life of the animal and that you would gain the strength of the animal from whom that blood came.  The person that I heard this from (Shane Hipps) likened the drinking of blood before battle in the pagan world to having a Red Bull energy drink.  The caffeine, the sugar, the millions of other ingredients that surely are good for you which I can’t even pronounce give you energy to do things that you normally couldn’t do.  The television commercial would even have you believe that Red Bull will allow you to break the laws of gravity and fly. 

So this is the mindset of the pagans surrounding the Israelites in the Old Testament.  The mystical power of drinking blood was to give them the strength to defeat their enemies.  And God’s people were to abstain from doing the things that the pagans did.  This seems to be consistent with a lot of the purity laws of the Old Testament in that the diet and daily lives of those that are a part of God’s covenanted group sets them aside as clearly different from the rest of the world around them.

            So now we have Jesus coming in to this group of Jews in the synagogue and telling them that whoever eats of his flesh and drinks his blood shall abide in him and he in them.  Imagine hearing this for the first time.  How confusing this must have been.  This man that they thought just might be the Messiah, the one that they have been waiting on for all of these years is coming in to their synagogue and telling them to do something that they all knew very well was against the Jewish Law.  To eat of his body and drink of his blood would be breaking the Torah.

            With this in mind, verse 60 really doesn’t surprise me.  It says, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’”  And then in verse 66 we find out that many of the disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

            The disciples listed here were not the twelve disciples but the multitudes of followers that had been chasing after Jesus for some time.  Now let’s just look at the headings in your Bible for this chapter real quick.  These would have been the same people that were a part of the feeding of the 5,000.  These followers probably heard stories about how Jesus had walked on water in order to cross over the Sea of Galilee.  These were the same people that saw Jesus heal the sick and perform other signs (v. 2).  And now, after all that they had seen and heard, they were turning back.  They were giving up on following Jesus

            Obviously Jesus was not instructing people to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood.  This was a metaphor.  In fact if we read through the New Testament to Acts 15 we find the Council at Jerusalem where the early church decides that Gentiles do not need to undergo circumcision but that they should, “abstain from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”  Blood drinking was clearly not advocated by the early church and I think it is clear to us that Jesus was not advocating it, either.

            So the people left Jesus.  Verse 66 says many people turned back.  And it seems to me that they turned back because of a misunderstanding.  They were expecting something and they heard something else all together so they gave up and went home.  A misunderstanding of Jesus can be a cause for why some people stop following Jesus.

            Following Jesus is hard.  Just understanding Jesus is hard sometimes.  And I think the fact that Jesus rarely gave a straight answer only makes thing more difficult.  Jesus used parables, metaphors, hyperbole, similes, and allegories.  And I think that was brilliant!  By speaking and teaching in such a way Jesus was able to reach people in ways that he probably wouldn’t have been able to had he just handed out a list of things to do and not do.  So I am thankful for the way that Jesus taught, but I also realize that it leaves a lot of things up to interpretation and that not everyone is going to interpret them the same.

            In our pastors’ lunch this week I heard a story about a Mennonite pastor that was working on a degree at a seminary in the south.  This seminary was in a rural, mountain area with a large number of small churches that couldn’t support a pastor.  So often times seminary students would get some practice and a little money by going around these small, southern, mountain churches and preaching on a Sunday morning. 

            One Sunday, this Mennonite pastor-in-training went into the home of one of these mountain folks and they had prominently displayed on the wall of their home a picture of Stonewall Jackson and one of Jefferson Davis.  The pastor asked the home owner about these pictures and the man said, “I firmly believe that we were doing the will of God by succeeding from the Union in the Civil War.  The only reason we lost is because we were not being faithful.”  So they prayed harder and more fervently.  They repented for their mistakes and they sought after God’s forgiveness so that they could once again rise up and leave the Union.

            I’m sorry, but that is bad theology.  That is a huge misunderstanding of the Gospel and continuing on with this misunderstanding may lead to people losing their faith in God all together.  I hear people saying that God wants us to fight and kill these people and to fight and kill those people.  I hear people saying that God wants to give us a bigger house and a fancy car.  God wants to bless us with money beyond our wildest dreams and if we only pray hard enough we will never get sick, our grandmothers will never get cancer, our families will never split apart, women will never have miscarriages, children will never die, nobody will go hungry.  That is just wrong.  The first followers of Jesus Christ were instructed to lay down all of their possessions and follow Christ.  The first followers of Jesus Christ were told to expect persecution and they were killed for their faith.

            I believe that our theology is vital to the longevity of our faith.  When we have these misunderstandings about God, that God wants us to have riches beyond our wildest dreams and that we will always be healthy, and then that doesn’t happen, what will happen to our faith?  Down the toilet it goes.

            Yeah, I see someone driving a Lexus through the city of Staunton and I see a Jesus fish on the back of their Lexus and I might ask them, “Did Jesus give you that Lexus?” 

            Yes, Jesus gave it to me.

            Well then, I want Jesus, too!

            John Piper says that this is not the Gospel, that is idolatry.  That is elevating the gift over the giver.  Yes, God may heal us when we are sick, God may provide us with vast amounts of wealth, but God doesn’t promise this to everyone.  So what happens to my faith when I don’t get that Lexus or when my crops die, my grandmother gets cancer, or I get cancer?  Those things rock the foundation of your faith and your faith will fall like a house built on the sand.  All because of a misunderstanding.

The High Expectations of Jesus

Many other people leave Jesus for other reasons as well.  After delivering his sermon on the mount, I am sure that a lot of people turned back and said forget this.  When Jesus meets up with the Rich Young Ruler and Jesus instructs him to sell all of his possessions and follow him, the young man turns around and heads back to his riches because he wasn’t ready to give it all up to follow Jesus.  In Luke 9 we find the story of three would-be followers of Jesus.  The first one comes up to Jesus and says that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes.  Jesus replies to him that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but that he has nowhere to lay his head.  To the next person Jesus gives a direct invitation to follow him.  And Jesus replies with a seemingly heartless and impossible response, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  The third would-be follower makes a seemingly reasonable request: Let me say goodbye to my family back home and I will follow you.  And Jesus says “Nobody that puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

            Jesus requires absolute priority in our lives.  You can’t put money, social responsibilities, even family before him.  If you do you are not fit for the kingdom.  The point is that it is tough following Jesus.  And he wants you to follow him.  Don’t doubt that for a second.  Jesus is described as a shepherd that leaves the 99 other sheep to find a single lost sheep, as a woman that searches diligently for a lost coin, and as a father that rejoices at the lost son that finally returns.  You might hear these stories of how Jesus made being his disciple so difficult and think “Well he doesn’t really want us to follow him then.”  But that is not true.  Jesus wants you as a laborer in his fields, a laborer for the kingdom of God.  But he isn’t going to force you to do anything you aren’t willing to do.  And he isn’t about to compromise his expectations of all of those that would call themselves Christians.

            But they don’t tell you this when you first become a Christian, do they?  This might seem like an attack on some people, but I feel a little bit uneasy about the way we try to sell Christianity sometimes.  We go around preaching grace and forgiveness.  We tell people that there is nothing that they need to do to get into heaven except pray a little prayer and then you are in.  Then once someone prays that prayer and starts coming to church we pull out this great-big list of things that a Christians can and cannot do.  It’s the old bait and switch routine where we dangle something attractive in front of someone and then once they commit to it we switch it with another product.

            I’m not saying that salvation is by anything other than grace.  But being a Christian is not easy.  Jesus didn’t sugar coat anything when he invited people to follow him.  Jesus says in Matthew 16 that whoever wants to save their life must lose it.  Jesus isn’t just an add-on to what you are currently doing.  Jesus wants your entire life.

            You have probably all heard the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  That means that if times take a turn for the worst, you will power through them.  But it seems to suggest that when things get tough, you will up and leave, you get going.  If you are in a difficult marriage, does this mean that if you are tough you will get out of that marriage, to get going in a new direction?  If you have a hard time relating to someone at work, maybe you have some differing opinions on politics, sports teams, or whatever else, does this mean that you get going and find a different job.  That’s probably not what this saying was originally meant to mean.  But I am going to throw a new suggestion at you.  How about, “When the going gets tough, the faithful stick it out.”  If you are a strong follower of Jesus, you don’t run when things get tough, you work through it.  You ask the difficult questions, you seek counsel from others.  You read your Bible, you pray and you have others pray for you.  But you don’t quit.

            In our scripture this morning, after the multitudes that have been following Jesus, the same ones that have seen him feed the 5,000, heal the sick, perform miracles, and maybe even walk on water, turn around and head back to their homes, Jesus addresses his twelve core disciples.  He asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?”

            Peter, always quick with an answer, replies, “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.”

            Think of all of those would-be followers of Christ.  Think of the many disciples that chose to not follow Jesus because of a misunderstanding when his teachings got a little too difficult to understand.  Think of those that couldn’t accept Jesus’ teachings because they put their money, their family, their expectations before following Christ.  When the going got tough for them, they got going alright.  They got the heck out of there.  But the twelve disciples didn’t get going.  They stuck with Jesus.

            Friends, there will be times when we stumble.  There will be times when we don’t understand what Jesus wants of us and there will be times when we do understand, yet we fail to do the things that are asked of us.  My suggestion to you today is to stick it out.  Because when the going gets tough, the faithful stick it out.

            When you stop and think about the first Easter day and you realize that people don’t just come back to life, don’t lose your faith.  Stick with it.  When you are challenged to give 10% of your income to those in need, to spend time with the “least of these”, the tax collectors and the sinners, don’t give up.  Stick with it.  When the things that you had hoped for, like riches and fame don’t come your way, don’t give up.  Stick with it.  Stick with your faith; stick with Jesus.  For, like Peter, we too have come to believe and know that He is the Holy One from God.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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