Sometimes the truth hurts. And sometimes the gospel truth hurts. And often it is the preacher’s job to preach the word in its full power and accept the consequences. We can’t become slaves to the numbers. We must preach the gospel and let people come or go as they will. That’s exactly what Jesus did in this Sunday’s reading.
Our practice for staff meeting at St. John’s is to read the gospel lesson for the upcoming Sunday and spend some time together reflecting on it. Yesterday, as we did just that, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. For all of these weeks that we’ve had the same topic (Bread of Life) week in and week out, we haven’t been able to see the real point behind the message. But it finally comes together in this week’s passage.
After spending paragraph after paragraph on this complicated Bread-of-Life image, we see Jesus lay it all on the line: “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Earlier in the week, when I read that line, I heard Jesus saying, “Does this offend you? [Would it help matters] if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” That’s a pastoral response. That’s Jesus trying to find a new way of getting his point across. But yesterday I read something very different: “Does this offend you? [If you think that’s tough,] what if you were to see the Son of Man…” I don’t think Jesus is being pastorally sensitive. I think he’s pushing the truth of his message to its nth degree and allowing the full, radical, challenging nature of the gospel to hit his audience.
And what happens? People leave. And not just any people, but his disciples. Not the twelve whom we usually think of as “disciples,” but John makes it very clear to us that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him.” The gospel was too much for them to handle. They preferred a nice, sweet, comforting message—not the hard-to-grasp, life-transforming message of death-to-self and life-from-above that Jesus came to preach.
So what are we preaching? Are we hiding behind some pastorally sensitive images? Are we watering down the truth of the gospel because we’re afraid of losing disciples? The gospel has to stand for itself. We are called to preach it in its full, prophetic power. What is the “third rail” of the Christian message that no one wants to touch? Because that’s exactly where we’re supposed to be.