Thursday, August 20, 2015

Does This Offend You?

In John 6, after teaching the crowd that he had come to feed the world with the "bread of life," and clarifying for "the Jews" (John's word for his opponents) that his own flesh was the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world, Jesus met with a large number of his disciples, who were uncomfortable with his strange, seemingly un-Jewish message. They grumbled (often translated "complained") among themselves and said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" And Jesus, perceiving that his disciples were unhappy, said to them in a nice, parentally sarcastic tone, "Oh, I'm sorry. Does that offend you? Deal with it."

Well, he didn't exactly say that, but he came pretty close. "Does this offend you?" What a slaying statement from Jesus! He doesn't say, "Is this hard to understand?" or "Are you confused?" or "Why is this troubling you?" He strips all of that away, gets right to the real issue, and says, "Does this offend you?" Through the wording of his question, he's letting them (and us) know that the real problem--the real thing getting in the way of our belief--isn't a difficult theological teaching but our own selfish sensibilities. Think about it. Anytime someone asks, "Does this offend you?" they aren't looking for an answer. They're essentially saying, "It's your problem; deal with it."

There's a complicated but beautiful exegesis to be made about grumbling. That recalls for us the Israelites during their wandering through the wilderness. "Have you brought us out here to kill us?" the people grumbled against Moses. They demanded a sign, and God through Moses gave them bread from heaven. Now, Jesus has been asked for a sign (John 6:30). He gave them bread in the miracles of the loaves and fish. Still the people aren't getting it. Now even his own disciples won't get it. Perhaps there's an implicit question in their minds and hearts about what sign Jesus will show them to prove his authority to make these other-worldly claims. Regardless, Jesus jumps ahead and tells them what that sign will be: "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"

In other words, Jesus says that the proof you're looking for is even harder to grasp than the message I'm already preaching. There was legend of Moses' ascent into heaven. Elijah, too, is known to have been taken into heaven in God's chariot. Jesus is ranking himself among the greats of his people's religion--even greater, in fact--and even his dedicated followers weren't willing to hang around long enough to see that. As we read in Sunday's gospel, "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." They couldn't hack it. They didn't believe. They were offended. They walked out.

Stop and think about that for a moment: Jesus' message was so hard to hear--so offensive--that his disciples started deserting him. But did he care? "What, does this offend you?...It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." Jesus called them out. He didn't sugar coat his message. He didn't backtrack. He didn't flip-flop. He preached the truth and let the people deal with it. And the truth is that the gospel is offensive.

If people aren't getting up and leaving in the middle of church, then preachers like me aren't doing our job. You don't like it? This offends you? There's the door. If your life and your work and your sermons and your ministry and your relationships are fully immersed in the good news of the gospel, let them walk. As Peter said when asked by Jesus whether the twelve would turn and go, "To whom can we go? [These are] the words of eternal life." If the preacher is really preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, people will walk out, but those who seek the truth and true life will stay.

That isn't a good recipe for building a resume. It isn't a strategy for endearing the church leaders to the preacher and her/his message. But Jesus wasn't very popular with the religious authorities either. That's a painful, costly road to walk, but we walk it behind our savior. Take the gloves off of the gospel. Let the sharp word of Jesus Christ be preached. And leave the doors open so that people can walk out--and so that those who seek the truth can find their way in, too.

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