Saturday, August 25, 2012

Receiving Jesus . . . or pushing him away?

Murmuring, whinging and complaining about the sermon! The majority deciding to leave. You’d think today’s Gospel is a story about modern day Christians and a clergyman with no teaching skills, or who was too rigid and demanding in the way he taught Scripture. 

Of course, there are clergy who turn people away from the Lord. Lots! 

But not just clergy. Lay people do it, too, especially by being hurtful and judgmental towards each other and to those on the edge of church life who come seeking. 

Honestly, one of the most depressing things for me, as a Christian and as a priest, is to think how many more people might be followers of Jesus today if over the years I had managed to be a bit more loving, and a bit more caring.

But the other side of this – as we see in today’s Gospel – is that God does actually give each of us the freedom to push him away, if that’s what we really want to do. We are free to respond to his love, and we are free not to. 

Without that freedom, there cannot really be love. 

The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom made this very point in a sermon back in 1975: 

“[God] created us in an act of love and in this act of love, from the first, he gave himself as an offering to us . . . He gave us freedom, the freedom to accept love and to reject love, to love him in response to his love, or discard his love and . . . to proclaim to him that his love is of no avail to us, that we do not want it, that it is in vain that he has loved us first . . . 

“. . . is [this] not simply because where there is no freedom of love and rejection of love, there is no love? If we gravitated towards one another without any choice, it would be a law of nature; it would not be an act of free gift of oneself and of acceptance of the other. This freedom means love, at least the possibility of love, as it means also the possibility for us to reject God.” 

On another occasion Jesus weeps over those who reject his love. He feels very deeply the pain of their rejection. 

But, as in today’s Gospel, he doesn’t try to stop them leaving. 

We know from from being in John 6 over the the last few weeks that he miraculously feeds well over five thousand people. Their physical hunger is satisfied. But this is meant to be a “sign” of how he would feed and nourish his people with himself as the bread of life. And it foreshadows the Eucharist. 

He says to the people, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall not thirst.” (John 6:35) He also says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” (v. 51) 

He goes on, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

The people murmur and argue: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52) To them, as to some of the authorities in the Empire during early decades of the Church, the teaching of Jesus seems to be the language of cannibalism. 

But Jesus doesn’t soften his language. It's the language, not of cannibalism, but of love. Nor does he water down his teaching. It is the secret of life in all its fulness. In fact, Jesus becomes more emphatic: “. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” (vv. 53-56) 

Look what it says in verse 66: “After this, many of his disciples drew back. . . .” Not just "the mob", but "his disciples"!

The vast majority of them leave. Then Jesus turns to the Twelve, deeply grieved, and asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?” 

Peter speaks up: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 

Peter isn’t perfect. We know that. But his response to Jesus is a response of love and faith. Not just faith in a set of propositions, but faith in the Lord himself. It is a RELATIONSHIP. It is about trust, love and openness to Jesus. 

We are free to respond to his love. We are free to reject his love. We are free to let him draw us to himself from wherever we are. 

We are free to receive him as the Bread of Life. Or we can push him away.


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