“Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel.” In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”
I think it's safe to say that we are a people who are used to talking about what’s offensive. Most of us have participated in discussions about whether something is racist, sexist, heterosexist, or classist, among other qualities. I'd also guess that just about all of us have been offended by the words or actions of another. My age group in particular is often criticized for being too prone to offense, with a number of famous comedians deciding to no longer perform on college campuses because they find students too sensitive. The New York Times and The Atlantic have both published pieces with similar worries about college students, one titled “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” the other, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The term “offensive” will, for each of us, naturally hold different associations. Perhaps for you “offensive” sounds overused and overwrought, or perhaps you think we should listen more when people use the term. Either way, we all must figure out what it means for us that so many found Jesus offensive.
The concept that Jesus is offensive has often been used by Christians to justify their own ways of causingoffense. The attitude is that if Jesus is offensive, we have to be offensive also if we really want to preach his name. Perhaps there are some truths to that, but being willing to offend others is often used as code for much more than proclaiming g the good news of Jesus Christ. Speaking the truth in love has often been a cover for outright disrespect that contributes to hostile environments for the marginalized.
Just one example is some of the hateful rhetoric all of us might have seen recently in some Christian blog posts and articles about Caitlyn Jenner, lambasting her and her supporters and refusing to respect her preferred pronouns and name. Meanwhile, transgender women are the most vulnerable population in terms of being victims of anti-LGBTQ homocides, with trans women of color receiving the brunt of the violence. Transgender teens are sometimes thrown out of their homes because of the rejection of their families—rejection sometimes driven by religious convictions. LGBTQ youth, in general, make up somewhere between 20 and 40% of America's homeless youth. Sometimes a willingness to offend manifestsin this way—pushing down already vulnerable people. I am sure many of you can think of more examples. To my mind, this offensiveness seems markedly different in quality than the offensiveness of Jesus. When we take the fact that Jesus can be off-putting as a religious excuse for our prejudices or a reason to overpower others with our beliefs, we are committing abuses that must be avoided.
Does Jesus being offensive—or potentially offensive, then—have any significance for us at all? Especially since, in my experiences of the Episcopal Church, we don't tend to relish an “offensive Christianity” the way some other groups do...though, of course, that doesn't stop bias and prejudice from flourishing within our communities as well. Often times we might pride ourselves on not being like those other churches. I know I am guilty of sometimes priding myself for not being One of Those Christians. Perhaps the fact that, as a church body, we aren't especially inclinedto lean into the concept of Jesus's offensiveness makes this passage even more important.
Jesus offended peopleso much that his disciples felt compelled to leave. We're not talking about random strangers in the crowd, but presumably those who have been following him, been taught by him, and haveleft significant things behind for his sake.
So what is offensive, here, about Jesus? In this passage from John, Jesus is not offensive in a way us religious folks can sometimes be, condemning people for certain behaviors. It’s not even what Jesus is saying about others that necessarily stands out the most. The disciples' focus was most likely drawn to the way Jesus defined himself. They couldn’t take that he would claim to be the Bread of Heaven for them to eat, bread sent from the Father to give eternal life.
This Spring, I saw Sara Miles, author of the spiritual memoir Take This Bread, speak at Yale Divinity School. What captivated me most about her talk was the way she described the Eucharist. She had such a passion for the sacrament, and yet she also described it as something…well…sort of gross. In the beginning pages of her memoir, Miles might be referencing today's Gospel passagewhen shementions the “gory physicality of the language” in which Jesus talks about the people eating his body and drinking his blood. There is a sort of divine messiness to it all that we can easily forget in our weekly routine. Not only was Jesus willing to be human...he was willing to offer up that humanity, his flesh, his blood, everything, and have himself broken for the nourishment of the worldAndwe are called to partake in that. To feast on him. Feast on God. Listen to the words again: Eat my flesh, drink my blood. It wouldn't be out-of-line to call Jesus' images startling, inappropriate, undignified or....yes, even offensive.
There's nothing tidy about the God we worship here today. For some of us, a tidy concept of an aloof God remains more comfortable and sensible than the alternative. But our God will not remain separate from us. Instead, God gets into it, into the world, into flesh, into the tangible, bread and wine, and into us. And in some ways, this is disturbing: to have to believe that we matter, that this all matters, people and flesh and food—that it matters to God and that God is involved. This is a dangerous worldview in that it might make some demands of us.
There's also anotherpotentially offensive aspect to what Jesus says. Jesus casting himself as food, the bread of heaven that grants eternal life, means Jesus is painting himself as essential. And if Jesus is essential, that has consequences. That means we're reliant on him. We're not talking about bread or wine we can just make for ourselves tofeel satisfied. To profess belief in Christ is admitting that we cannot be full on our own, but that fullness comes from outside of us...from God. Our natures will often fight mightily against this sense of dependence.
Maybe all of that offends you. Maybe none of it does. However, I have a feeling that pursuing the life of faith inevitably leads to moments where we feel like we're coming against “a difficult teaching”—another phrase that arises in our Gospel today. Sometimes we are bound to relate more to the disgruntled disciples—the offended ones who are ready to leave—than with Peter. Instead of focusing only on howthe offensiveness of Jesus might relate to our relationship with the world, we might take the time to be more introspective. Jesus very well may offend us too!
Let's look again at the answer we get from Peter. It's not to the question, “Does this offend you?” Instead, we hear the answer to, “Do you also wish to go away?” A very different question.
We could assume that the twelve disciples were nothing like those complaining ones, but that's an assumption that seems rather out-of-linewith the depictions we see of them across the Gospels. They are often just as confused by Jesus as everyone else is. Perhaps a more life-giving assumption might be that some of those twelve disciples—maybe even Peter himself—found Jesus' words about being the bread from heaven just as difficult...though they alsorecognized that those words were offering them something nobody else could and that they were being offered by someone special—the Holy One of God.
So they stayed. And things wouldn't get any easier for them. But they got to be with Jesusand be a part of God's kingdom coming to earth. They got to eat his flesh and drink his blood during the last supper. They got to abide with him.
And we get to do all of that too. We also can follow in Peter's footsteps and stay, despite whatever is off-putting or difficult in the current moment, because Jesus is the Holy one of God. That sounds like an overly simple solution, I know. It doesn't change the fact that seeking after God is difficult....that believing in all these mysterious, wonderful, confusing, and strange things isdifficult...that orienting our lives around Christ instead of other things that might anchor us is difficult as well. We'd be foolish to deny the hardships or complexities of this walkHowever, we can't dwell on the complexities so exclusively that we forget that the choices we have to make are sometimes simple ones—especially in light of God's choice to choose us first and to choose to give love and mercy.
Like the tribes of Israel, we're faced with opportunities to declare who we will worship and serve. In the Joshua text, the people say they “will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” That is a tremendous reason—but a simple one. One of belonging. God is theirs, and God, too, is ours—just as we are God's.
Like the disciples, we can staywith this weird man Jesus who went around comparing himself to manna falling from the sky, who talked about eternal life, and who even today is giving us his body and blood and tells us that he will be with us. Perhaps we'll be saying , “Lord, to whom can we go?” with enthusiasm and shock that Jesus would even suggest we'd ever want to leave...and perhaps sometimes we're left saying it with a shrug and maybe even a hint of resentment:“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I return to these words—“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” This teaching, the Gospel, who Jesus says he is, these are difficult, and we can't minimize the difficulty. After all, Jesus doesn't. Instead of reducing his message, which is an explanation of who he is, he stretches his listeners even furtherby asking them to envision his ascension. Apparently difficult territory, considering the reactions we have recorded.
Butdifficulty does notseparate us from God, just as our sin can't and just as death can't. We can eat this bread from heaven together. We can receive what God is giving—purpose, life, community, forgiveness, God's own self. We can face every complexity, every difficulty, and every question, even if facing doesn't mean the same thing as resolving. We can enter into what is hard, the deep and the honest and the doubtful, while grounding ourselves in the simple truths of God's love. Hear Jesus speak to you the same words that the mystic Julian of Norwich heard spoken to her: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” A difficult, and maybe even offensive, teaching in its own right.