I once heard the story of a young theological student who had to preach his first sermon in front of his professor and class. He really sweated in putting together a rather nicely constructed sermon that reflected Biblical scholarship – that had a real feel-good balance to it – with good illustrations and a well rounded conclusion. The hour arrived and with fear and trembling he started. His confidence began to grow as he continued because he could see the students nodding in agreement as he made each point. By the time he had finished he was secretly beginning to think he had aced it. He was not quite ready for the Professor’s comment at the end. The Professor turned to the class and asked: “Was there anything in that sermon that would have got Jesus crucified if he had been the one delivering it?”
Perhaps the question should have been rephrased to match Jesus’ question to his disciples in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel. “ Does this offend you?”
Because you see, no matter how we make the Sunday school children and ourselves feel good about a Jesus who cuddles the lambs, suffers the little children to come unto him, heals the sick and comforts the sad, there is also a part of the gospel, which even today, has the potential to be deeply offensive. The gospel is not always seen as good news to all because, as a perceptive 19th Century journalist once put it, the faith of Jesus “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”.
As long as we do the sort of thing that the Olympic spectators do and merely admire the performances of their heroes, Christianity should offend no-one. Unfortunately as soon as it becomes obvious that we are called to be participants not spectators, there is every reason to expect some of us will be highly offended.
Notice too that Jesus is talking to his followers in these terms, not those who would see themselves as critics or unbelievers. Anyone who thinks that believers are unlikely to get the huff with Jesus’ teaching should think back a few short years to the sorts of things that have affected contemporary Church. Every time there is a war or soldiers are called up to serve their country there will be those who are divided about the implications of Jesus teaching on peace. Interfaith dialogue can be a stumbling block. Homosexuality and the blessing of same sex marriages, Middle East politics, the treatment of the poor, treatment of foreigners, mercy killing, abortion and stem cell research are just a few of the topics liable to stir up resentment and if the truth be known it is quite likely that Jesus teaching is the last thing we genuinely want to consult.
Sometimes disputes over fine points of doctrine are so extreme they appear humorous to outsiders.
In the Church of the Holy Rude (which I understand means Holy Cross) in Stirling, Scotland, in the 17th century two of the ministers fell out over some minor teachings relating to their views on the covenant and since both men had followers, the problems were addressed by building a wall down the middle of the Church so that for the next few generations the two dissenting congregations could worship independently from one another. Before we sneer at the way such actions directly contradict the main thrust of Jesus teaching we might also wonder at why so many attempts at Church Union founder on such minor differences in doctrine.
In the wider community there is even more marked rejection of the Jesus way. The other day an acquaintance of mine who has been a tour bus operator in Europe and the United States was looking through a Trivia quiz with me. We came to the question, “ What is significant about Lombard St in San Francisco?” – “The zig-zag nature of the street” I ventured. “ Isn’t it supposed to be the crookedest Street in the world?”
“Second most crooked”. He corrected. “Which is the most crooked?” I wanted to know. “Wall Street” he replied. Good answer in view of the mayhem caused by the dishonest financial operators, yet think of the number who still cling to the notion that the creation of wealth, regardless of the ethical issues, is the main aim of business. I wonder how many of the current investors would be offended by the principles Jesus taught if they thought of his words applying to them.
Much of the industrial military complex at the heart of many advanced nations economies depends for its existence on the notion of dealing to one’s enemies. Imagine if those industrialists manufacturing and selling weapons were forced to take seriously Jesus’ injunctions about turning the other cheek and keeping no score of wrongs. Even the right to bear arms as laid down in the second amendment of the US Constitution loses its point if there is a genuine intention to forgive one’s enemies. In a nation where a good proportion of the population are gun owners we can imagine the outrage if someone was to suggest this does not fit Jesus’ teaching.
And what about Love your neighbour. I am sure that many would be reluctant to accept their neighbours include those stateless refugees in those teeming refugee camps and would be offended to think that their nation needed to liberalise its immigration laws.
Think too of those who consider that their faith is essentially correct, whereas they believe others like the Muslims and Hindus are condemned. If Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan to remind us that the faith labels have to take second place to right actions, those who call themselves Christian may be offended by the implication that, because they may be like the Pharisees Jesus was addressing, consequently even those self-claimed Christians might also need to do some serious soul searching.
Jesus was a master of metaphor and when he asks his followers eat of his body and drink of his blood in effect he asks his followers to become one with himself. Unfortunately for those who prefer to keep their faith in a token form, this may well have caused serious offense. If John is correct that many of Jesus’ disciples at that point walked out on him, it is clear that offense was taken. While it is true that some of these might have been offended at the literal possibilities of Jesus words, for those who understood the metaphor, the other real problem would have been the threat to their comfort zone. It is one thing to recognise words as being wise – it is quite another to be expected to act on those words, and even harder allow them to become part of ourselves. For those who watched Jesus challenging respected Church leadership and confronting a variety of established conventions the thought that they too might be called to place themselves at risk would have been more than a little disturbing.
When John says that some of the disciples found Jesus’ words hard, we note John used the Greek expression scleros logos which, although it means literally hard word, this is only hard in one specific sense. Scleros is not hard in the intellectual sense – it is more in the sense of being physically hard or unyielding.
That Jesus could have followers who suddenly realised following was not for them is also a reminder that when we use words like God or Jesus we do not all mean quite the same thing. A significant number of Christians today as well as some in Jesus’ day thought of Jesus as some ethereal spirit while John clearly believed strongly that God had become genuine flesh and blood through Jesus. Still others today would say Jesus was human and only God in a figurative sense. It may infuriate some believers to suggest that knowing which possibility is correct only matters if we are intending to allow our belief to become part of our being and living.
When Church authorities discuss the significance of communion they often refer to today’s passage from John. The relationship with communion is obviously open to different interpretations and we might note for example that for many in the Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic formal understanding of transubstantiation is that in communion the bread and wine somehow become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. Although some Catholics and members of many other denominations might challenge that interpretation, since Roman Catholicism is the largest of the Christian denominations we cannot disregard the existence of the belief. The Romans in their early persecution of Christians may have been misunderstanding this same belief when they frequently accused Christians of practising cannibalism.
You may have also noticed in this passage John records Jesus making frequent use of the word abide where the meaning is being at home. Abiding in Jesus – in other words being at home in Jesus may require a degree of commitment and attitude towards Jesus that goes far beyond what some would think to be appropriate. At the very least the word abide suggests Jesus is talking of the most intimate involvement between himself and his followers.
Allowing Jesus in to abide even in a metaphorical sense clearly doesn’t lead to perfection. Even the greatest of Church leaders still demonstrated very human faults. Augustine was a very naughty young man. Luther was intolerant of Jews. Calvin was intolerant of those who had a different theology. John Wesley had a very tenuous relationship with his wife (which may had contributed greatly to his willingness to be absent for long periods from home on his preaching journeys). Martin Luther King was a philanderer. And so on through a very long list. Nevertheless the mark of Christianity is for each of these leaders that they were prepared to attempt to walk with Christ even when the way was hard. It was the direction of their respective journeys that caused them to do much good. The challenge then for us may not so much be attaining perfection in Christ as it is to accept his offer to allow his abiding presence to give us direction.