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The 14th Sunday after Pentecost; John 6:56-69

I’m a sucker for “list” books. Just a random selection from my bookshelves; “The Big Questions: Philosophy”, “The Big Questions: Mathematics”, and “The Big Questions: God”. Also “50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know” and “50 Mathematics Ideas You Really Need to Know.” Then, “30-Second Quantum Theory: The 50 most though-provoking quantum concepts each explained in half a minute”. Two rather comprehensive ones, “The Official Rules” and “The Official Explanations”. And a few dozen more I won’t bore you with. They are all fun, because you only need to read a few pages to get a complete argument, or some provocative ideas.

But there are only so many books like those. Thus, imagine my delight when I discovered, a web-site with all conceivable lists; such as “Top 10 Things You Can’t Know”, “Top 10 Fascinating Funerals”, or “10 People You Should Know but Don’t”. The website is dynamic, that is, people submit lists to it, and after adjudication, they are posted, so every day there is new material. For a list junkie, it’s a far superior way to waste time than even Facebook!

When I looked at lists of people, including religious people, the topics were predictable; “Top 10 Best of , , “, etc. And also “Top 10 Worst of “, including incidentally a “Top 10 People Who Give Christianity a Bad Name”, not one of whom you would want in a pew next to you!

As I looked through these lists of the good, the bad, and the plain nuts, an idea struck me that connected with today’s Gospel reading – ah, finally you say! No matter what, as you read about the people involved, they had all stood for something they strongly believed, whether that was something good, bad, evil, or just crazy. And many of them stood up for their beliefs despite great opposition, many suffered, and some died. But there were no lists like “Top 10 Christians Who were Kind of Lukewarm about Their Faith”. History remembers those who accomplished things, who stood for ideas, who were willing to be at least inconvenienced for what they believed, whether or not that was mainstream orthodox, or beyond borderline crazy. As a generalization, history does not remember the lukewarm, uncommitted, or those who gave up at the first sign of trouble.

Today’s Gospel passage from John is about choosing sides, and it is about the cost of choosing sides. It is a historical fact that Christianity came into being because God in Christ paid a high price – death – on a cross. While it doesn’t necessarily follow, it is nevertheless true that we cannot be Christian, truly Christian, without some cost to ourselves.

Jesus is finishing the long “bread of life” sermon that fills the 6th chapter of John. In this sermon he has indicated that the only way to God is through him, and he has used such graphic terms as eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He has indicated that he will give his life for the world, that his flesh will be broken and his blood will be poured out, so that all might have eternal life. It has finally sunk into some of those listening that following Jesus is not simply listening to sermons on a mount, watching miracles happening, or being fed by mysteriously multiplied loaves and fishes; it involves real sacrifice. And in John’s Gospel, as in the other three, every time our Lord tries to talk about the price he will have to pay in suffering and even death, those around him refuse to listen.

Any illusions we might have that the relationship of our Lord to his followers was all sweetness and light are quickly dispelled by this passage. Suddenly, it is a moment of deep crisis for everyone. People are forced to take sides, to remain with Jesus, following him they know not where, or withdrawing.

“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they complain. The complaint is not isolated to this first generation of followers of Jesus. Christian history shows that very few men and women are comfortable with the cost of Christian witness. For every martyr willing to suffer or die in witness to the faith, there are hundreds, even thousands, who stand by, or quietly withdraw. And yet, in every generation, there are those inspired souls who have listened and heard the cost of Christian witness, and nevertheless have carried on, and paid a high price for the faith. Some, in every generation including our own, have paid with their lives. It’s those people that make it into history books, and lists!

If you read the history of the martyrs, from the first century on down to our own, you find an interesting parallel with world history. We remember the names of those who decided to stay with Christ, and paid for that decision dearly – we call them saints! Often, we remember those who persecuted them. But what of those who withdrew, those who quietly stood by, those who denied the Lord by silence. Mostly, they have been forgotten, their names are unknown, they have slipped into the cracks of history.

What is the lesson in this for us? It is that we too must decide how we are willing to follow Jesus, and how much of a price we are willing to pay. Just how each of us responds to the sacrifice our Lord made for us is a mystery for each of our own Christian understanding. Certainly, we are all called to sacrificial living, but that call is made in many different ways. Our lives are called to be different because we follow Christ, but just what that difference is must develop for each of us in our own mind and conscience. Certainly, some men and women have lived and continue to live their Christian witness in dangerous and costly circumstances. But such is not for all of us. Some men and women live their Christian lives in simple service and witness. But, again, such is not for all of us. Christ calls each of us as an individual, and only we can hear his voice. And only we can decide how we will respond.

“Many of his disciples turned back, and no longer went about with him,” reports John. (And just to prove my point, what were their names? What lists do they appear in? Where are the books about them?) That too has happened in every generation of Christians, including our own. However Christ’s call comes to us, whatever that call demands from us, you and I, alone, have to decide what we will do. What will it mean for us to respond to our Lord and his work in a costly, sacrificial way, or even just in a way that might become a minor inconvenience to us? Will we pay the price, high or low, or will we draw back from paying any price at all? Many do the latter.

After many of his followers had turned back, Jesus turned to the twelve, and asked them a question which he also asks us. “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter replies for all the twelve with a magnificent statement of faith, a statement which we might compare to our own faithfulness. “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.” Are we, each of us, prepared to make that confession, and decide that nothing and no one else can give us the kind of spiritual strength that we receive from our Lord?

Pray that we can!

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.