Choosing the bread of life

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Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 & John 6:56-69
(26-8-12)

Two readings today about choosing to follow God. In the Old Testament reading Joshua questions Israel about whether they really want to commit themselves to God with all that entails. In the Gospel reading Jesus questions the disciples about whether they want to carry on following Him or turn away like everyone else has?

Throughout the summer holidays we have been working our way through John chapter 6 which is all about Jesus explaining He is the bread of life. You may well be forgiven if you automatically think that Jesus’ was here referring to His body being broken as He describes at the Last Supper. But He isn’t as this is nearly 3 years before the Last Supper. He’s talking about He Himself being all that a follower needs to live. A follower cannot live without being fed and nurtured by Christ.

He must be all important, our number one. This is the question Joshua poses to the people of Israel. Similarly Jesus is saying that He should be all we seek, desire, consume. Joshua was choosing who would follow and become the people of God - the 12 tribes. Jesus, as God incarnate, is choosing the same, and this is where, in John’s Gospel He is choosing His followers, the 12 disciples. (and, yes, the 12 disciples are representative of the 12 tribes of Israel).

This choosing, becoming part of God’s family, people who actually, literally LIVE WHOLLY for God is I think, rather at odds with how the church conducts itself today in rather a profound way. Let me explain.

Back to the beginning of John chapter 6, the bread of life discourse begins with the feeding of the 5000. The following week showed many people continuing to follow Jesus because they wanted to see Him doing amazing miracles. He pointed out to them that they should be following Him because He was the true bread of life. Not the physical kind that fed our bodies but the spiritual food we need to feed our whole selves, body mind and spirit. This led to much moaning and grumbling from the disgruntled crowds who wanted to see more and more spectacular miracles. Consequently the number of those following Jesus dwindled.

I’m fairly sure Ely diocese would have something say if, in the space of a few weeks, I managed to reduce a church of 5000 down to 12. Do you see what I mean about it being at odds with how the church expects us to conduct ourselves?

What produced this dramatic loss of 1000s of people? Jesus’ demands that God’s people be wholeheartedly His people. Similarly, Joshua when speaking to Israel lays out the same ‘all or nothing’ ideal for what it means to serve God. These demanding calls made upon us by God are not popular. Many are called but few to follow. Jesus’ demanding teaching results in the whittling down of 5000 to 12.

I wonder where you might place yourself within this? If you are someone who leaps out of bed on a Sunday morning full of pure joy at the prospect of coming to worship your creator then all is well. Your soul is saved, you are at peace with God and yourself.

But the rest of us mere mortals will be wondering how we can be counted as a follower of Christ? Some will be considering that perhaps they could give Christ quite a big chunk of their life. A few maybe contemplating how they MIGHT give Him all of their life, how they might try harder? Some will be beating themselves up about how they just can’t put Christ above everything else. Many thinking of the ways they fail, that they will never get there and may as well give up.

If you do feel like that then it is good news. You have correctly understood what Jesus asks of us and know you haven’t got it right. A life submitted to Him. It is a BIG ask and in all truthfulness not easy to do because at heart we are self-centred people. Living in the place between what He calls us to and what really is, is uncomfortable. It can seem impossible to be a genuine disciple of Jesus. Impossible to follow Him exclusively, love Him above all others, and serve Him devotedly. So is discipleship only for ‘special’ people and the likes of many of us are not one of this elite? No! Can we ever live up to the image of being a ‘good’ disciple? Yes!

Let’s look at what can give ordinary people like us hope by looking at the disciples that Jesus’ demanding teaching had whittled down to 12. The fact is Jesus didn’t actually pick perfect models of super-Christians and they really were people just like us. A mixed-up bunch who most certainly didn’t look like the sort to change the world.

This is all the stranger because they weren’t picked carelessly. Jesus spent a night in prayer before handpicking them. These were who he wanted. In today’s competitive employment market companies often hire agencies to put prospective employees through various character tests. If Jesus had done this with the 12 He would probably have been told something like this:

Mostly the people you’ve chosen lack the background, education and vocational aptitude for the goals you want to achieve. They have no idea of working as a Team and we recommend you continue looking for people with a proven record of managerial experience and ability.

Simon Peter is outspoken and his impetuosity makes him emotionally unstable. Andrew has no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, are too concerned with their own status to show any company loyalty. Thomas’ questioning attitude would tend to undermine morale. Matthew has a record of disloyalty and fraud. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus have radical tendencies and both score high on the manic-depressive scale.

Only one of your chosen candidates shows any great potential. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. An able and resourceful man with a keen business mind, and contacts in high places. We recommend you place Judas Iscariot in a managerial position.

Perhaps you are beginning to feel that there are possibilities about this committing to Jesus business? Maybe you are in with a chance after all? There is, refreshingly, one characteristic that these 12 men Jesus chose have in common. It’s not related to being clever or talented, it might even seem insignificant: its ‘teachability”. And if you know that the word ‘disciple’ actual means ‘learner’ that makes sense! It’s an openness to learn. It’s being humble enough to accept one doesn’t know it all. It’s about wanting to follow, to learn, grow and develop.

That’s why Jesus didn’t choose high-flying big-shots who knew they were right. He chose practical and capable men who were open to learning new ways. Not arrogantly thinking their way was the only way and they didn’t need to change. His invite to them, and us, is one to come open to learning, and being changed in the process. And the way they learnt was by being with Him. We still need to do that today because God is still looking for teachable people. Not perfect people, teachable people.

Like the 12 tribes we need to be prepared put all our eggs into one basket. How teachable do you think you are? Has God challenged you this year? Have you learnt anything as we have sought this year to become energized by our faith and try to listen to God?

Following Jesus can be hard, it can be risky, it should challenge us. And if we don’t feel we’ve learnt or been challenged it means we’ve stagnated.

We know that Peter and John learned a lot. By the time Jesus had returned to heaven Peter was preaching publicly and both of them were healing and performing miracles. They were imprisoned, punished and beaten but not defeated. They wrote books that have become best sellers.

When Jesus first called them they were ordinary uneducated men. But following Jesus, spending time with Him, meant they learnt to do incredible things. God is still looking for teachable people today. Teachable, not perfect, people. When we hear His call perhaps rather than ask “am I able to follow Jesus completely” we should ask “am I willing to follow Jesus completely?”

We’re all human. Sometimes we fail in our commitment. What Jesus is interested in is not our ability but our willingness to follow Him with our whole heart.

The church should be looking to grow in numbers. Jesus Himself commanded us to go out and make disciples, so we must. But nowhere did Jesus say go out and do this by watering down the message and commands of God which clearly states: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and mind. My prayer is that we can all say, as Joshua did, ‘as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’.

To finish let’s see how you think you rate against the story of old Ben Putinoff. Morally, he was a good man. He didn’t lie, curse, drink or beat his wife. He paid his tax and his bills and gave his left-over bits of money to the church he faithfully attended. He never opposed anything that was good. Eventually old Ben Putinoff died and stood before God. He was surprised when he heard God say, ’Ben you are charged with trying to close the church. Are you guilty or not guilty? 'Not guilty,' pleaded Ben Putintoff. 'I didn’t do anything!' 'Guilty as charged,' God ruled, explaining: 'Ben you have confessed to the most effective way ever devised of closing the church, the kingdom of God. You didn’t do a thing. You didn’t follow Christ whole-heartedly. You didn’t visit the sick, nor encourage the weak. You didn’t feed the hungry or welcome strangers among you. You didn’t care for the well-being of those in your community of faith by praying for or with them. You didn’t reach out to the lost with the Gospel.' 'But God,' Ben pleaded, 'I intended to do all those things, but I was too busy making a living and enjoying myself, my family, my friends, my way of life. I have just been putting it off.'

Don’t put off committing your life to Christ. Remember two things from the end of our Gospel passage. Jesus says (v65) ‘no-one can come unless the Father enables him’. Meaning we cannot do it alone only with the help of God. Then the words of Peter once he realizes he must, and can only, follow Christ, says where else could we go ‘You have the words of eternal life’. Believe and know that Christ is God. Turn and follow Him with all your heart, soul and mind. Amen.