Heading for the Exits
This text leads me to reflect on the various ways I have driven people out of the parishes I have served. I remember the wealthy man who enthusiastically embraced the congregation I served as a refreshing alternative to the place he had worshiped previously. He was effusive in his praise of my ministry and the life of the congregation. I should have heard the alarm bells ringing right away, but the echoing expansion of my ego drowned out all other noise.
It was all going so well until we began a capital campaign shortly after he had officially joined the congregation. I put his name on the list of potential leadership givers. It was not good judgment on my part – that much is certain. But it was also clear that I had committed the unpardonable sin. I had asked for money. If he had left any faster, there would have been burn marks on the carpet in my office.
I think about the folks who had never recovered from the leaving of a beloved previous pastor. I had the nerve to change a few things that were significant symbols of that pastor’s tenure. Once again, I certainly could have exercised better judgment and greater patience. But the deed was done. I was an uncaring interloper. And a neighboring congregation was the beneficiary of my demanding style of pastoral ministry.
There were the folks who didn’t want to share their worship life with inmates and ex-offenders. And there were the folks who despised traditional worship styles or contemporary worship styles or mixed worship styles. There were the folks who held me personally responsible for the 2009 ELCA policy decision on human sexuality (which I wholeheartedly support but did not impose on anyone – in hindsight, not a productive stance).
This doesn’t count the folks who didn’t care for my voice or my haircut or my clothes or my hobbies. Nor does it count the folks who had clearly legitimate reasons for being hurt by my ministry choices and errors. To those folks I confess my sin and pray for forgiveness. They had good reasons to leave, I’m sad to report.
The funny part to me is that I am, for the most part, a people pleaser. I want to make everyone happy. I want everyone to like me. It bothers me to the point of losing sleep if I think someone is irritated with me or thinks poorly of me. Enough of this sort of low-level rejection can lead me into depression if I’m not mindful of my internal processes. The last thing I want to do is to offend anyone or chase them out of the church.
I have some trouble imagining what it would be like to make some really hard demands and watch the majority of folks heading for the exits. I know people who can do this, and I am astonished. When the conflict is in the name of a good cause, I admire their courage. When the conflict is over something I see as not all that important, I question their judgment. But I don’t try to imagine myself doing it. That wouldn’t happen.
So, I find this last part of the Bread of Life Discourse mind-boggling and a bit disheartening. It started out so well. Thousands are fed. The adoring crowds want to make Jesus their king. They chase him across the Galilee to get more of him, his bread, and his teaching. We go from that to Jesus wondering if anyone at all will stick with him at all — and we don’t even get out of chapter 6.
Welcome to life in the Church.
Many of his disciples find the whole Bread of Life teaching unbearably difficult. “Who in the world is able to listen to such stuff?” they wonder. They grumble at what seems like a “bait and switch” scheme that Jesus has foisted on them. And how does Jesus respond? “Friends, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
He raised the stakes to an infinite degree. You think this is hard? “What if you were to see the Son of Man as he ascends to where he was at the first? The Spirit is the one who makes alive, the flesh does not provide any benefit. The words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.” (John 6:62-63, my translation).
Thanks, Jesus. That clears it up. Not.
Mention of the Spirit should take us, as Karoline Lewis reminds us, both backward and forward. That mention should take us backward to the midnight interview with Nicodemus in chapter 3. There we learned that it’s not enough to appreciate Jesus as an interesting teacher and stimulating conversationalist. Instead, what is required is to be born from above. This means that putting one’s trust in Jesus as the source of God’s Abundant Life requires an entirely new view of the cosmos.
That new worldview cannot be manufactured from the resources of life as we know it now. That’s what Jesus means by “flesh” in this verse. That new worldview must come from God as the first and primary gift of the Holy Spirit. Without that gift, we may see Jesus ascending to the Father. But we won’t know what it means. “The Spirit is the one who makes alive,” Jesus asserts.
We must also look forward to chapter 20. Jesus breathes the Spirit, the breath of life, into the disciples after the Resurrection. This is the gift that makes them the Church. In this incident, we are taken back to the second Creation account in Genesis. God forms the human being and breathes into the human’s nostrils the breath of life. Jesus comes, among other things, to restore that gift of life which has been taken from us by the powers of sin, death, and the devil.
We experience the ways in which the writer of John’s gospel uses the same word to mean different things – often within the same paragraph or so. On the one hand, the Bread of Life Discourse is a revelation of the depth of the Incarnation, of what it means to say that the Word has become flesh and dwells among us. The flesh is the bearer of the presence of God among us, full of grace and truth.
But on its own, the flesh is not of any use. That’s what Jesus means in verse 63. It’s not that Jesus has suddenly become a metaphysical dualist here. It’s not that the flesh is bad. But the understanding of the Cosmos from the beginning is that it becomes what it is created to be when it is filled with and enlivened by the Spirit of the Living God. Jesus is the embodiment of the design and destiny of all Creation — flesh filled with and enlivened by the Living Word.
The flesh, therefore, cannot come to this insight, understanding, and experience by itself. I cannot muster up what it takes, on my own, to put my trust in life and in death in God through Jesus. That comes, first of all, through the power of the Spirit making me alive in Christ. Jesus tells his disciples that this has been the content of his “words” (bits of speech, not the Logos). Those fleshy words themselves can be and are a vehicle for Spirit and Life. Hang on to that when we get to Peter’s confession in verse 69.
That’s the deal. That’s how this works, Jesus says. And the crowds begin to head for the exits.
“The outcome of this,” the narrator reports, “was that many of his disciples abandoned the following after bit and no longer were walking around with him” (John 6:66 my translation). There’s a distinction here between Jesus’ “disciples” and the “twelve,” the inner ring of those who followed after him. Many of those in the “middle ring” of the system had had enough. It was too hard.
I have heard the question in every call committee interview. “Pastor,” asks an earnest questioner, “what’s your vision for making our church grow?” I often had very satisfactory answers for that question and made everyone happy (surprise, surprise). But both the question and the answer seem to run at cross purposes with the witness of the Christian scriptures. The closer we get to the truth of Jesus, the smaller the adoring crowds become.
Please understand that I don’t think “smallness” is a guaranteed sign of pastoral or congregational faithfulness. No, I’m quite capable to making congregations smaller without taking any heroic or controversial stands. I have had colleagues who took their ability to shrink congregations as a badge of honor – sorting out the riffraff. That’s just self-serving baloney. I’m not suggesting that we should confuse incompetence with courage.
On the other hand, we live in a culture that continues to worship at the altars of progress and success. Churches have persuaded themselves to make all sorts of things into virtues if the result is numerical growth.
I think of the “homogeneous unit principle” touted by the Church Growth Movement. The more alike people were, according to this principle, the more likely that the congregation would grow numerically. In hindsight, I see that this was just white supremacist camouflage for keeping our worship hour the most segregated space in American society. And in the end, it didn’t produce the promised numerical growth anyway.
And I think of those who require pastors to keep (liberal) politics out of the pulpit. “After all, Pastor,” they say, “we don’t want to offend anyone and have them leave. We need everyone we can get.” That’s just wrong, based on current statistics. The place where we might expect to hear anything but liberal politics in the pulpit, the Southern Baptist Convention, has experienced a precipitous drop in attendance and membership recently. Keeping white people comfortable, happy, and bigoted doesn’t guarantee that their butts will stay in the pews.
“This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?” Jesus says. Yes, Jesus, it does. As a result, many of us over the last forty years have (in practice, if not officially) “abandoned the following after bit and [are] no longer are walking around with him.”
So, now what?
Resources and Reference
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Matera, Frank J. “Christ in the Theologies of Paul and John: A Study in the Diverse Unity of New Testament Theology.” Theological Studies 67 (2006): pp. 237-256. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/67/67.2/67.2.1.pdf.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.