Sunday, October 16, 2022
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

By Rev.  Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Reading: John 6:48-69


Good morning, friends. This is my sixth Sunday preaching here, and each week I’ve meant to say what I’m preaching on from the Bible and why. I figure the gospel of John is as good a place to start our life together as any. It’s the great gospel of light and shadow, truth and then . . . deeper truth. I love it. We’ll be studying John until Advent and then we’ll shift into more traditional seasonal texts. I’ve also meant to tell you the best reaction I had from a friend to my taking this job at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. He said, “Oh good, you’re a real Canadian now that you have a job at Eaton’s!” And sure enough I pledge allegiance to the king on Halloween and join y’all as a Canadian citizen. This is part of my effort to smuggle in the word “y’all” throughout the true north strong and free.

I’ve preached so far through some of the most famous passages in John: water to wine, washing of feet. More of that to come. But today’s passage is not a famous passage. It’s a dispute between Jesus and his own people. He has just fed 5,000 with a few loaves and now he’s discussing this with his fellow Jews. They all know what it means when someone can miraculously provide bread. Any such feeding is a story about manna: the bread God fed the people in the wilderness for 40 years. Israel is looking forward to a new prophet like Moses, a new bread provider, someone who can lead and free the people. So, is Jesus that someone? You can bet the occupying Roman authorities took notice. If Jesus can feed thousands from nothing, he can sure muster an army of liberation.

In Protestant churches the last 100 or so years we have concentrated on the wrong question. The wrong question is, “Do miracles happen?” More liberal liberals said, “Nah, it’s spiritual.” More conservative churches said, “Sure, sometimes.” Wrong question. The Bible assumes miracles happen. The question is: “What do they mean?” Demons can do miracles. Folks in other religions or none experience miracles. So, given Jesus has done this miracle, specifically feeding, who is he?

Jesus knows the question is whether he can provide manna. And he answers in an even more mysterious way. He says, “I am manna.” In fact, Jesus says, he’s even better than the manna of old, because the ancestors ate that manna, and all died. “I am the bread of life,” he says. ‘Eat this bread and never die.’ Then he ups the ante. “Eat my flesh, drink my blood. If you don’t, you have no part with me.” Uh, okay, we weren’t talking about eating you, were we? There are laws against cannibalism, not just in Judaism but everywhere. You can hear their confusion. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”

This would have been an excellent moment for Jesus to put on the brakes. Say, ‘Hey, I’m using what’s called a metaphor here people. Everyone calm down, nobody’s eating anybody. I don’t mean flesh I mean a little bit of bread. I don’t mean blood I mean a little sip of wine, sorry, grape juice.’ He doesn’t do that. He hears the debate: is this the manna giver? Confuses matters: I’m the manna. Confuses matters more: Eat my flesh. This is not how you teach to be understood. For example, I’m new here, and if I figure someone isn’t tracking with me, I shift gears. And not just me either. Christianity, the last 100 years or so, has done well when we’ve been clear. There is good in that.

A friend of mine started life with the Unitarians, went to the Baptists, and then tacked to the Anglicans. She said the Baptists were nuts politically, but they gave her access to scripture. How? They taught her the basics! They said ‘well, here’s the New Testament, it’s the last quarter in the back. Here’s the Old Testament, it’s before Jesus. Here’s how to find any passage.’ We rarely or never do this in more mainline churches—we assume everyone already knows this (reality check: we don’t). But see what it did? It gave her access to God’s own word. Billy Graham was so successful because he made conversion clear. Do this, pray that, and you will be saved.

The problem is Jesus is often strikingly unclear. He must be reading a book called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People because he’s sending them away in droves. Scripture says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” You would too if someone told you to eat their flesh and then didn’t play the metaphor card. I don’t mean it’s complicated. Faith is simple. But it’s a mystery. The more you know about it, the more you don’t know.

Graham Green’s book The Power and the Glory is one of the great novels of Christian faith. Its main character is the whisky priest—he’s a Catholic priest and an alcoholic. He’s shadowed by a communist government official who’s trying to get rid of the Catholic Church in Mexico to help the oppressed poor. And the priest says at one point this new government of yours might work. It might help the poor and get rid of corruption. But he says ‘even though I’m a whisky priest, I put God in people’s mouths and in 1000 years, I bet your government will be a blip of a memory. But there’ll still be some bad priest like me putting God in hungry people’s mouths.’

And none of that is a metaphor.

Someone wise said the real miracle in Jesus’ life is he had twelve close friends after the age of 30. We live in a crushingly lonely age. And it’s strange, but I gotta tell you: we, the church, are the solution to our city’s loneliness. You can’t go for coffee here without meeting half a dozen people. But while our neighbours are deeply lonely, we’re all also wary of entanglements or social obligation. We’re like this on community. We want it and we fear it.

Many of us have strong opinions about what ails the church. Where are the young people? What’s our future? And because we’re afraid, we fight. In the 1990s the debate was over music style: guitars or organs. More recently it’s been over inclusion: who’s in, who’s out, who can lead, who can’t. Conservatives say liberals gave up on strong faith. Liberals say conservatives are out of touch. I just wonder sometimes if our problem isn’t actually Jesus of Nazareth. You want to follow this guy? He’s infuriating. You beg for a clear answer, and you get more parables. All you want is for him to talk straight and he gives you a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Many churches have done well making worship as much like a shopping mall as they can: user-friendly, plenty of parking, great choices and comfortable music and seating. Our building would keep us from going entirely consumeristic that way. But even more, Jesus keeps us from being a successful consumer enterprise. He’s too mystifying. In the black church one thing they say to preachers like me who are getting too obscure is, “make it plain.” Preacher, talk to us straight. If we really listen to Jesus, we’ll be saying that all the time.

I spend a lot of time in this sanctuary, usually when no one else is around. And I pray God will fill it. Now, you gotta be careful with this sort of prayer. Every preacher wants their church full—it’s good for our careers! And churches build ambitiously, bigger than they need. This building has rarely had all 1200 people that fire code allows, except for, say, Billy Bishop’s wedding or Lady Eaton’s funeral. And anyway, crowds aren’t the goal. We could put a banner on St. Clair Avenue promising free beer and the building will be full, I promise. No, I pray it’d be full of Jesus in here. That we’d be like him. And sure that the seats would fill too. But in church, deepening discipleship matters more than attendance. Billy Graham used to say sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. So, I pray we all be full to overflowing with Jesus.

But growth in numbers is certainly not what happens in this story.

Jesus looks around at his dwindling congregation . . . and he whines a little. Grumbles. Sulks. And asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” I mean, they all left.

Peter’s response is precious: “Lord, to whom would we go?” I mean, we don’t have many options! The others, who had options, already left. Those who stay have no other invites. They’re stuck with Jesus. He’s stuck with them. What a perfect image of the church. Jesus baffles us all, we object, he infuriates us more, many leave, and only those with nothing better to do stick around.

That’s us, church. It’s not a flattering portrait.

And so my title. “Losers.” Philosopher Alain de Botton calls this word our culture’s most derogatory epithet. Loser. I remember an NFL coach being asked how good his former quarterback was and saying, “Just good enough to get you beat.” Loser. Most of us have had to walk into a lunchroom or social situation sometime and had nowhere to sit or otherwise deposit ourselves. We might as well have had that big L tattooed on our forehead. My kids notice that every popular portrayal of secondary school has kids thrown into lockers, beaten up, mistreated. They ask, ‘was it like that in the 80s?’ Nothing so exciting as that, I say. Most of us just felt like losers, ignored, without the getting beat up part. That would require being noticed.

More seriously now, I tend to assume in a church this big that everyone feels like an outsider. Long timers feel pushed aside by newer people. Newer people feel voiceless in the structure. Lots feel unrecognized or unthanked. Here’s the trick. Everyone feels like an outsider. If you will, the only insiders are outsiders! Jesus just keeps turning our definitions inside-out, upside-down. So, if you feel out, perfect, you’re in!

Churches tend to do really well when we’re on the margins of societies. The New Testament was written either by people in jail, or just out of jail, or on the way to jail. So, the less time you spend in jail, the less sense it makes. My favourite reason for why mainline denominations decline is that we lose interest in prison ministry. If we’re crazy enough about Jesus to go talk about him to people in prison, the church will grow. If we’re not, it won’t, and it shouldn’t. This is true around the world too. The church in Korea grew like crazy in the early 20th century. Why? Because Japanese colonizers didn’t like the church. To join the church in Korea was to stick it to your Japanese enemy. Now the church in Korea is wealthy and powerful. So, it’s declining. Similar story in South Sudan. The church grew when Omar Al-Bashir was terrorizing the south. There are two Anglicans in South Sudan now for every one in the United States with no sign this is slowing down, because South Sudan is still so desperately poor. The church tends to do well when we’re on the edges of things. When we’re at the centre, crowning kings and doling out status, we get corrupt fast, everyone does. We lose the way of Jesus. So, you see now why Jesus doesn’t march on Jerusalem or Rome at the head of a well-fed army. Instead, he culls his group down by talking nonsense until he can count them on two hands.

Only its not nonsense. This is the only true sense there is. He is the bread of life. Manna, not just the manna-giver. And this bread is his flesh. The wine is his blood. Broken. Poured out. You don’t understand that? Good. I don’t either. Just eat. And drink. And adore.

St. Augustine, north African church father, said the Lord’s Supper works backwards from ordinary food. Normally we eat, digest, and food becomes part of our body. But with the Lord’s Supper we eat, and it digests us, and transfigures us into the body of Christ. And we can’t understand that. Jesus is so baffling. Infuriating. He’s trying to make clear we can’t get our heads around God. Our hearts, maybe. Our heads, no. And now you know why else we struggle as mainline Protestants so much. We’re a heady group. Lots of texts and words. We sit in rows, like school, for lectures, things are predictable in here, linear, orderly. People with degrees. Churches that are growing are Pentecostal, with wild unpredictability. Or calisthenic: kneel, stand, sit, cross yourself. It’s easier to get our whole bodies into Christian discipleship than just our heads. A professor friend of mine was asked by a colleague at the university, “Explain God to me.”

He said, “Oh I can’t do that. You’re far too corrupt. But kneel here with me and repeat after me: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” If the rest of your body worships, your head, part of that body, eventually follows. To borrow an example from another religion, when Malcolm X was in prison his brother converted to Islam and he wrote: ‘Malcolm! Don’t eat pork. I’ll explain later.’ Faith is a matter of training our bodies. And the best way to do that is to hold out your hands like a beggar, and then eat his flesh and drink his blood. Wait, don’t you mean it’s a symbol? Sure, it’s a symbol, but it’s also way more. It is eternal life.

There’s an image I love for Jesus that maybe you’ve seen. I’ve got one in my office. It’s a pelican. Ancient Romans thought mother pelicans fed their young by tearing off bits of their own flesh. It’s bad biology, but mothers tell me it feels true in their lives. Christ, our mother pelican feeds us with her own flesh, and we live. Just a symbol? Sure. And a wedding ring is just a hunk of metal. A flag is just a piece of fabric. We live our lives by symbols, they’re more important than food or drink or oxygen. No symbol is just a symbol. They’re everything. Every pelican does mean Jesus. So does everything else in creation.

There are some advantages to being a loser. If you’re already a loser . . . you have nothing left to lose. You can take risks. One of our kids’ blessed public school teachers told him he should do something he fails at every day. Because if you’re not failing, you’re not challenging yourself hard enough. And you learn more from failure than success. There are more advantages. Churches should have contests for the most impressive failure of the year because then we’d be taking risks big enough to fail. I gotta say, Jesus is the biggest loser there’s ever been. Promised messiah, God in our flesh, and he winds up executed. Some of our stories say he goes to hell itself. Not only that, but he tells us to follow him. Take up a cross like his. Descend as low as he does. Going up and up to success looks like the way to life. It’s not. Going down to death and hell looks like failure. It’s not. It is life unending. That way not this.

I mentioned media about secondary school before. Series like Stranger Things are redeeming the whole idea of being a loser—all the losers band together . . . and save the universe. That’s a story we all want: from nerds to heroes. But it takes real friendship, which is precious, fragile, hard to find. And there is no real friendship without failure and forgiveness. In church we sort of major in friendships among nerds, spiced with forgiveness. What else are the disciples? What else is Jesus, but a nerd who saves the world with a few loser friends?

In my morning prayers there’s a statement of faith from this passage. When it's time to say what we believe, the words are these: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Lord, we got no other options. We’re losers after all. All we got is one another and you’re stuck with us. Now, back to saving the world.

There’s a famous prayer among churches that grow. But it’s a bold one, I’m not sure we’re ready for it. Do you think we are? Okay. You’ve been warned. I’ve known churches that started praying this prayer and then stopped. Because it worked. And they couldn’t handle it. Are you ready for it? Here goes: Lord, send us the people no one else wants. Now, be careful. If you pray that God will do it. It’ll happen. And we’ll have nothing but the sorts of people Jesus keeps surrounding himself with, baffled as we are about eating flesh and drinking blood. This teaching is difficult. Who can understand it? No one. But this maddening, infuriating loser . . . is the only way to life. Amen.