Sunday Week 21 Year B

The story so far … We started this series with the feeding of the five thousand and a crowd so impressed that Jesus has to run away so they won’t try and make him a rebel King on the spot. But the crowd find him the next day and Jesus challenges them that they aren’t interested in the sign he has given them but only in the chance to get fed. OK they say so what’s this sign going to be? It is a sign already given, says Jesus, bread that satisfies more than your bellies, living bread fresh from heaven, that will give life a new vitality which cannot be taken away — not even by death. The crowd replies in one voice — Give us some! Yes, give us some of that! And then Jesus ruins it all by claiming that he, himself, is the living bread. Uproar! He feeds the flames. You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood. At which point departs the crowd angry, disappointed, disillusioned, … hungry.
But his disciples remain disappointed, disillusioned, and—today—murmuring: “These are hard words … you’d have to be mad to swallow them.” To which Jesus asks, “Am I a scandal to you? Am I a stumbling block?” And says, John, because of this many of his disciples turned back and stopped walking with him. The crowd has thinned out … Jesus turns to the Twelve: “What about you? Are you also going to leave me?”
A story that started out with signs and wonders comes down to this: to him. Not miracles, not signs, not food, not even doctrine — but to a question … who are you going to walk your days with? Who are you going to choose as your God?
It’s the same question Joshua poses to the Israelites: “decide today whom you will serve.” Who will be your God?
The Israelites as Joshua describes them are gung-ho for God. Adonai is our God. And John writes that Peter speaks for the Twelve when he says “Lord, Adonai, where else could we go? We trust you.”
Is that the way the story ends? Imagine how the TV would do this scene with close-up and long shot. With Jesus a semi-tragic figure, abandoned by so many at the peak of his success, left by his most of his followers, so that just the faithful few cluster around him in the space emptied by so many departures. And the Twelve, some sort of heroes, staying with him, accepting their fate with him, because they alone trust him. Is that the way the story ends?
Not quite. John has his doubts. For a start there’s something fishy about the words Peter uses to express faith in Jesus. “You are the Holy One of God,” he says. That’s a phrase found no where else in John’s gospel and in the other gospels only ever in the mouths of demons. Recognition isn’t everything. Even the devil can declare his faith in Jesus. All the black and white is grey.
Look at the Twelve who remain with Jesus or at least say they will. Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and ten others who will run away. What do we make of that? Of their promise, of their trust?
Only this: for centuries, for millenia, the choice is offered to human beings freely: who will you choose to walk with? who will be your God? The choice is offered freely without compulsion. Just the offer of something unimaginable, better than belief, stronger than wine, firmer than flesh, deeper than life. “Do you want it?” is the question.
But if the question is freely offered the answer is freely received. The Yes is taken a face value, taken in good faith—even if we are betrayers, deniers or plain cowards. And that is our salvation. That we so often speak words which are better than our lives. We are constantly urged to choose well who to take after, who to walk with and our answers are sometimes better than we are. But God believes us when perhaps we don’t believe ourselves.
We say “Yes Lord we believe,” and we are believed. We say “Yes Lord we trust,” and we are trusted. “Yes Lord we have faith,” and God has faith in us. And God’s faith in us gives us the space to go beyond betrayal, denial and cowardice into the land of life and living. We might trust Jesus more with our lips than our hearts but he trusts us with his life and that trust opens up a world where we can become witnesses, faithful witnesses, beloved disciples, heroic friends.