“Messy Spirituality… Unbelievable Teachings” – John 6:51-69
Introduction – deck chairs
There is a Peanuts cartoon (by Charles Schulz) that starts with Lucy at her ten-cent psychology booth, where Charlie Brown has stopped for advice about life.
She says, “Life, Charlie Brown, is like a deck chair. Have you ever been on a cruise ship? Passengers open up these canvass deck chairs so they can sit in the sun. Some people place their chairs in the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Other people face their chairs forward… they want to see where they’re going. On the cruise ship of life, Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?”
Looking befuddled, Charlie replies, “I’ve never been able to get one unfolded…”
On the cruise ship of spirituality, and maybe especially Christianity, which way is your deck chair facing? Despite the surplus of instructors, pastors, teachers, and gurus out there eager to explain God’s plan for the placement of your deck chair, do you sometimes feel like you can’t even unfold it? When you open up your Bible… anywhere… do you get that befuddled Charlie Brown look on your face? When you listen to a sermon, does it go over your head, or in one ear and out the other? When you try to pray, do words refuse to come to your mouth, or even to your heart? When you’re supposed to be singing, does your mind travel elsewhere – to planned afternoon activities, to a previous conversation, or to a person that you can’t stop thinking about?
1. Messy Spirituality
You know, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. I went to Sunday School when I was a kid. Then I went to confirmation classes. Although I would say that my parents made me go, it was good, and I started memorizing Bible verses and getting to know God through His interactions with people in the Bible. In high school and youth group, my faith became my own. I wanted to know God better so I took part in youth group Bible Studies. I studied to be a teacher, but that didn’t seem to be enough… I wanted to serve God more fully, saying thanks for His overflowing grace. I went back to school, studying to be a pastor. I didn’t want to be a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther. For the last 37 years, I have been content to be a parish pastor in relatively small to medium sized congregations. I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life. But I haven’t exactly been a superstar follower. Sometimes I’m a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of follower. I haven’t been a model father. I have failed in various ways in my marriage. I have said and done things that have hurt people in my churches. The recent developments in Canada have uncovered some of my own prejudices. My prayer life has not exactly sped along in overdrive… more like mediocre meandering. And I will stop short before telling you about the sins that continually heckle and torment me. Sometimes, far from facing the front or the back of the Christianity cruise ship, I have struggled to unfold my chair.
I kind of guess that some of you, maybe a lot of you, well, probably ALL of you can relate to what I have just said. And that is to say that following Jesus, spirituality, is a messy kind of business – always has been, always will be. Think about it… “spiritual” is a word that is commonly used by Christians to describe people who pray all day long, who read their Bibles faithfully, who never get angry or rattled, who possess special powers, and who have the inside track to God. “Spirituality” is a word that reminds us of “saints” who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and isolated themselves in cloisters. So… is there a spirituality for us common, ordinary, broken, screwed-up people who couldn’t be Godly if our lives depended on it?
2. The Bible’s “messy spirituality” people
The answer is “YES” and it’s found in the Bible as we read about imperfect, nonreligious people, who, in the end, reveal to us that ANYONE can be spiritual.
After the flood waters receded, Noah triumphantly left the ark and… got drunk, and got naked – not exactly a model man of God. But he had found favour in the eyes of the Lord. He was spiritual.
Jacob was a liar, a trickster, a deceiver, but God changed his name to Israel and made him the ancestor of God’s covenant people. He was spiritual.
While he was king, David committed both adultery and murder. He is described as a man after God’s own heart. Not many of us would describe him in that way. Not many of us would hold him up as someone to be imitated. But David was spiritual. Read the Psalms and you’ll find out.
When we turn to the New Testament, we read about Zacchaeus, that cheating tax collector who one day invited Jesus over for dinner, changed his tune, gave away half his possessions, and became a faith-full and spiritual son of Abraham.
Paul had it in for those faith-less Israelites who followed that Jesus guy. He was threatening them, and arresting them, and taking them to prison… until he personally met that risen Jesus guy and became the outspoken great missionary of Jesus to southeast Europe. No one can argue that Paul wasn’t spiritual.
But for every one of those people and for dozens more in the Old Testament and the New Testament, spirituality was messy.
3. Hard teachings…
a. in the Bible
I think that every bona fide, Bible-believing, Christ-following person who wants to know God better and to live a Godly life still has trouble with certain things about God in the Bible and about the Christian faith. What are some of the hardest teachings of Christianity for you to accept? I have been leading a small group of people who are reading through the Bible from front to back, and one of the things some of those people struggle with the most is how God, in the Old Testament, calls for the mass destruction of various people groups all so that the Israelites can settle the Promised Land.
Maybe you have a hard time with that unbelievable 6-day creation account from the Bible, when the scientific evidence “proves” the Big Bang creation and evolution alternative. Did a flood really cover the entire earth? Did Jonah really survive inside a whale for 3 days? How could Mary have still been a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Is there truly life after death – sounds too good to be true!
b. of Jesus
There were people who had a tough time with what Jesus was saying. Most of those people were the pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews. Jesus was saying that blatant sinners – using today’s terminology “those with messy spirituality” – would enter the Kingdom of God before those apparently holy and righteous religious people. Those same religious people had a tough time with what Jesus was doing – healing people on the Sabbath, not following the ritual laws of cleaning, and hanging around with those messy people – prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers. But the religious people weren’t the only ones who were challenged by Jesus. In Mark 10, Jesus said to a rich man who inquired about discipleship: “Sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, and follow me.” That rich man walked away from Jesus with a sad and downcast face, because he couldn’t accept Jesus’ tough teaching.
Now, in John 6, we find that some other people walked away from Jesus because they had a tough time with what He was teaching. The chapter started with Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. Actually, the crowd was likely 4 or 5 times that many, because the 5,000 were just the men. That miracle led to a long section of Jesus teaching. It started with, “I am the bread of life,” continued with “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” and included the messy, offensive statement, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”
So, be honest… is that one of the teachings of Jesus that you find hard to swallow? When we think about that in the context of Holy Communion, our doubting minds can’t fathom Jesus’ flesh in the bread and Jesus’ blood in the wine. Our imaginative minds are quite naturally drawn to pictures of cannibals boiling a missionary in a big vat of water. If you find that teaching challenging, you are in good company. As we read in John 6, many of Jesus’ disciples considered it a hard saying, and many of them no longer followed Jesus. (Now, just to clarify, it wasn’t Jesus’ twelve disciples that left, but some other people from the larger crowd that hung around Him.) This teaching of Jesus was a deal-breaker for them.
You know what a deal-breaker is… it’s when a young man is thinking about proposing to a young woman but then he hears that she doesn’t want to have children – that’s a deal-breaker for him, and he breaks off the relationship entirely; it’s when your boss at work asks you to turn a blind eye to the promotion he is planning to give his undeserving son-in-law – that’s a deal-breaker, and you quit your job.
For these wanna-be disciples in John 6, eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood was a discipleship deal-breaker. They allowed reason to overtake faith; they permitted human thought to outdo divine words; they chose logic over mystery. And let me tell you that while it is not wise to turn off our brains entirely when it comes to believing, we do need to give mystery a place in our relationship with God. After all, we can’t even see God, so He, Himself, is mysterious. The Triune God is a mystery. The virgin birth of Jesus is a mystery. The forgiveness and new life in Baptism is a mystery. If we take away all the mystery, we couldn’t really call it a Christian FAITH!
So, we have the detractors with their logical, doubting, deal-breaking, messy spirituality response: “This is a hard teaching… who can swallow it?”
4. Peter’s response
a. Sometimes messy, sometimes spot-on
Then, in contrast, we hear Peter’s response. Not to say that Peter’s spirituality wasn’t messy at other times – When Peter had to be convinced to go out fishing one morning, and then Jesus had enabled him and his fishing buddies to catch a boat-load of fish, Peter admitted, “Lord, I’m a sinful man.” When Peter was befuddled at Jesus’ transfiguration appearance with Moses and Elijah, and didn’t know what to say, he managed to say, “I’ll build three tents so you can all stay here.” When, at the last supper, Jesus predicted that all His disciples would abandon Him, Peter piped up, “I’ll never deny you, I’ll die with you.” But at other times, Peter’s understanding was spot-on – When asked who the disciples thought Jesus was, Peter boldly declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and when an apparent phantom walking on the water identified himself as Jesus, it was Peter who courageously said, “Lord, tell me to come to you on the water.”
On this occasion, when the detractors turned away from Jesus, Peter’s response was again solid. Jesus first asked, “So, have you Twelve had enough, too? Was that teaching too difficult for you? Are you done with me, are you leaving?”
Peter replied with the word, “Lord.” Right off the bat that indicated a relationship, a trusted relationship with this unique man that he had followed already for a year or two. Peter could have called Jesus “Rabbi,” and the disciples had used that term before, for Jesus was their teacher. But Peter called Him “Lord” to indicate Jesus’ divinity and authority, and Peter’s trust in Him.
c. “To whom?”
Then Peter says, “to whom shall we go?” That’s like saying that no one compares to Jesus. There is no other rabbi, no other prophet, no other religious leader of any kind that carries the authority and strength that Jesus carries. When the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, part of their victory song proclaimed, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Psalm 115 and Isaiah 40 also declare the greatness of God, saying that gods of silver and gold made by human hands pale in comparison to the true God who made the heavens and the earth, and who rules the world with power and justice. In the same way, Peter is saying that there is no other religious authority that he would even consider listening to and following. And why is that?
d. “Words of eternal life”
Peter understands that Jesus has the “words of eternal life.” Jesus had just finished saying the same thing: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” He had said that to Nicodemus in their night-time conversation: “Whoever believes in the Son of Man has eternal life.” He would say something similar to Martha a few months later, after her brother Lazarus had died, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will live.” Jesus’ words were not just about superficial conversation – the weather, Olympic results, and the latest pandemic numbers. Jesus’ words had meat to them: “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever,” and “Whoever drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” and “My flesh is true food, my blood is true drink,” and “Whoever believes has everlasting life,” and “Whoever comes to me will neither hunger, nor thirst.” On a couple of notable occasions, Jesus’ words forgave the sins of individuals that He encountered. In order to back up the forgiveness part, Jesus did something, put His money where His mouth was, He put His body behind what His mouth said. Jesus died, He sacrificed His body and spilled His blood so that YOU would BE forgiven of all your sins, and so that the “eternal life” words would be backed up by deeds. Peter knew that Jesus had those words of eternal life and he would soon see that Jesus also lived out the actions of eternal life.
e. “You are the Holy One of God”
Next, Peter said “we have believed and we know that you are the Holy One of God.” Oh, yes, in our messy spirituality there are some hard things to comprehend, but we believe… we acknowledge the mystery, and we believe… sometimes, like the dad who was called upon to believe that Jesus would heal his son, we say: “I believe, help my unbelief!” “We know that you are the Holy One of God.” – that was similar to Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and it was similar to Thomas’ post-Easter confession, “My Lord and my God.” No matter how hard the teaching, no matter how challenging to understand it all, no matter how messy our own spirituality is, that’s the main thing… to keep Jesus as the undisputed Lord and Saviour and center of your life.
5. Keep Jesus as your Lord and Saviour
That’s what John 6 points to today. You see, Peter – like Noah, and Jacob, and David, and Zacchaeus, and Paul, and like you and me – Peter had a messy, confused, sinful spirituality. But that day he got it right. Jesus, the incomparable Holy One of God has the words of eternal life. My spirituality is up and down, here and there, sometimes confused, sometimes uncertain, always messy in its own way. Yours might be, too. But the main thing is to keep Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of your life, because in that simple truth anyone can be spiritual, and everyone can be saved.
Jesus accepts people who have a messy spirituality, who don’t have it all together, who don’t believe every last word that He said. Don’t let any of those things cause you to turn back from following Him. Come, follow the incomparable Jesus, come, be his disciple, for He has the words of eternal life and He gives the reality of eternal life. Amen.