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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/23/2015

Throughout the Bread of Life discourse there has been grumbling and a lack of understanding so why should it end differently? It started with the people asking Jesus for a sign, “What sign are you going to give us?” even though he had just fed 5000 people and you might have thought that would have been sign enough, but no, they wanted more. Then it was “Who does he think he is? We know him, we know his parents; we know where he came from and it certainly wasn’t from heaven?” Then, still stuck in confusion it was, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” to be fair, not an unreasonable question.

Then today, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and that wasn’t an inaccurate assessment of things. The difference in today’s reading though, is that you might say it’s us, not them who grumble and fail to understand. Previously it was those who were opposed to Jesus anyway, looking for ways to get at him; this time it’s those called the disciples, the group with whom we would cast our lot or at least that’s what we’d like to think.

The crowds, large at the beginning, were dwindling: “Many turned back and no longer went about with him,” which makes you think that’s what must have been going on at the time John wrote; the message concerning Jesus as the Messiah must have been facing increasing skepticism and that places us right in the middle of this reading. From Jesus’ time to John’s time to our time it hasn’t changed; the crowds are still dwindling, for different reasons perhaps, but should we be surprised?

This section of John that concludes today started with Jesus feeding 5000 people. If you want to draw a crowd and keep them there, that’s the kind of thing you do and that is what happened and the crowd wanted more. Because of that, despite his effort to have some time away, the crowds followed Jesus but right away he questioned their motives, essentially saying to them, “You’re just here because you’re looking for another free meal,” and he was right. When they found out it wasn’t just a show, that Jesus wasn’t going to pull loaves and fishes out of his hat again, the people weren’t so enthusiastic. There were other ways they could spend their time if Jesus wasn’t going to perform, if there was nothing in it for them. Many turned back and no longer went about with him.

And so it goes, then and now. Things are obviously not exactly the same today as they were back then, but we still live in a “what’s in it for me?” world. While I haven’t done any kind of formal study on it, I have to think that a big reason church attendance continues to dwindle is because, if “what’s in it for me?” is the primary question, for many we don’t have an answer that will satisfy them. In that respect our situation is not all that different from what John describes in the Bread of Life discourse.

If you think about it, why should anyone attend church these days? What’s in it for them? If they ask, “Will it make me rich and prosperous?” you have to say, “Well, there are some churches that might tell you that, but honestly, no; that’s not what Christianity is about.” “Will it make me happy?” “Well, periodically a study comes out that says that people who are part of a faith community are happier and that they’re healthier and live longer…but there’s no guarantee. You know you can use statistics to prove anything.” “Will it be fun? Will I be entertained?” “Again, some churches kind of go for that, they try to make it entertaining, but that’s not really the purpose of worship?”

“Will it answer all my questions and solve all my problems?” “Actually, it might leave you with more questions.” “Will it improve my status in the community?” “That might have been true once, but no, these days no one will judge you negatively if you’re not in church on Sunday morning?”

So now you get a little defensive and say, “But you’ll be part of a caring community of people, committed to helping others, people who will help you if you’re in need,” and they say, “I can be part of a caring group of people committed to helping others when I make donations to my favorite charities which I can do from the comfort of my own home. If I need something I can put out there on Facebook and I have lots of friends who will respond.”

Then you head for whatever strengths your church has, “We have a great choir, or an awesome youth group or our pastor gives great sermons,” and they say “I can listen to great music at home, the last thing my kids need is another activity, they’re already involved in too much, and if I want to listen to your pastor’s sermons, aren’t they all on the website?”

Then they say to you, “Honestly, why do you bother?” and maybe you give a vague answer about the need to focus on something other than yourself, to give thanks for the gifts you’ve been given, it just doesn’t feel right if I’m not there, my week is missing something, and they say, “That’s fine if it works for you…” and that pretty much ends it. You may have had some version of this conversation with someone so you know it’s one you probably can’t win; at best it’s a tie with no overtime or extra innings or shootout to settle it.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God,” and there it is: You have the words of eternal life; you are the Holy One of God.

If it were just based on “what’s in it for me” immediate gratification, many of us wouldn’t be here. For some of us though, even though the crowd may be smaller, for some of us the feeling persists that there is more to this than “what’s in it for me.” With that there is the feeling that Jesus is the Holy One of God, that he has the words of eternal life, life lived in relationship to God, the life that we were created to live. You can’t really explain it rationally which is why the conversation I described is so frustrating, but for some of us the feeling persists that without that relationship with God, life is missing an important dimension, maybe its most important dimension.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t seem all that concerned that many turned back and no longer went about with him. He didn’t say, “Wait, come back; I do have more tricks I can do!” because he wasn’t a magician. The message he proclaimed was what was important. Even more important was his identity as the Holy One of God, the Messiah, this mysterious bread that leads to eternal life. From the beginning he seemed to know that this proclamation would be a tough sell and it was…for him and for those who followed him. But he also knew that there would always be those who would join Simon Peter in saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

That’s us, among others; it doesn’t mean we have everything figured out but I don’t think Simon Peter had it all figured out either. But for him and for us, there’s something; we’re moved by the Spirit to have faith that this relationship is part of fully being who we are intended to be because Jesus does have the words of eternal life; he is the Holy One of God.

This makes our proclamation and our witness even more important. There’s probably nothing we can say that a “what’s in it for me” skeptic won’t have a response to; as I said, we’re not likely to win on those terms. Our best bet is to persist with the message as Jesus did and, as best we can, to live a life that witnesses to the love and forgiveness and acceptance and compassion and sacrifice that Jesus modeled in his own life. Our best bet is to witness that for us, life is more than “what’s in it for me,” to say as Joshua said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

What’s in it for me only gets you so far and I think most people know that; they’re looking for something even if they’re not sure what it is. As we persist in our message and witness, maybe they’ll moved to look again, to try and find out what we have. Maybe they’ll turn back and find that Jesus is waiting for them; Jesus, who is the Holy One of God, who does have the words of eternal life.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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