56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
60 Many of his disciples who heard this said, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?”
61 Jesus knew that the disciples were grumbling about this and he said to them,“Does this offend you? 62 What if you were to see the Human One going up where he was before? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. 65 He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Father enables them to do so.” 66 At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.
67 Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”
When I was a junior in high school, my family and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. I had been there before, but this time I was older and understood more of the history and the significance of the memorials and the stories and people behind them. As we approached the Vietnam War memorial, there was a stand selling silver bracelets. My mom explained to me that these bracelets contained the name of someone who had gone “M.I.A.,” or “missing in action.” The bracelets had the name of the person, what branch of the military they were in, the day that they had gone missing, and where. They also came with a picture of the person, along with a brief biography. I was fascinated and drawn to this idea. So much so that I bought one, found his name on the wall, and ended up wearing the bracelet on my wrist every single day throughout the rest of high school and into college. I wore it as a reminder of the person it represented, and perhaps a hope that he was found, although I don’t believe he ever was. Looking back at the years I wore it, I also realize that perhaps it represents all of those who are lost in one way or another, whether by death or war, disease, or those who are simply lost and seeking a better way- those lost to drugs, alcohol, abuse, or loneliness, or just simply…lost…or “missing in action.” Some, perhaps, on purpose, who have chosen to walk away for one reason or another.
In today’s text, Jesus is dealing with several cases of disciples who have gone MIA or who are threatening to go MIA after hearing his challenging words and teachings. Some had had enough, and some stuck around to see what else he was going to say and do. The teaching in question this time concerns the statement from Jesus that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood is truly with him and is a follower of Jesus. But this was one of many controversial teachings that offended many along the way. In fact, the whole chapter of John’s gospel that we get a glimpse into today is a fascinating summary of Jesus’ ministry. He teaches the multitudes; he feeds the multitude with five barley loaves and two fish, yet challenges them to dig deeper than just receiving physical nourishment. He walks on water and thus becomes known to the disciples as one who casts out fear. He describes himself as the Bread of Life. He identifies his own purposes with those of the Father. He suggests that his own flesh and blood will become the source of life for others. This is heavy stuff. Upon hearing this latest teaching, many turn away and no longer follow him.
Who knows how long these persons had followed Jesus. It could have been from the very beginning, for a few days or a few months. But it seems to me that they were curious, yet not committed. They entertained the thought of following Jesus, but upon finding out what Jesus was really all about, they gave up and left. Upon hearing something that offended or challenged them, they decided he was no longer worth their time. Upon realizing that Jesus did not fit what they wanted or had in mind, they decided to move on to something else. They went “M.I.A.”
Where did they go I wonder? What happened to these disciples who turned away? Back to their rabbi? Back to their profession? Their families? Back to a life of righteous living? To a different religious leader who suited their own ideas or agendas? What would happen if we each decided, upon hearing a challenging teaching of Jesus, that we would walk away and no longer follow him? What sort of life do you imagine you’d live if you were to turn away and no longer follow Jesus? Today’s challenging story begs the question: will we choose to ignore the tough stuff of faith, the Bible, the church, or life in general, or walk away from it altogether? Or will we choose to stay, hear it out, and wrestle with it amongst ourselves? Will we stay or go “M.I.A.”?
Perhaps many Christians (or the church in general) is already in danger of going “M.I.A” because we have walked away from the real Jesus, who in fact, does give us a challenging message. Too often we have made the stories and teachings of Jesus boring, or we make them to fit our particular beliefs. For too long we have made Jesus into our own image and have put him into the boxes we like, to fit our ideas, our agendas, our wants and desires. For too long we have made Jesus docile and meek. We have made the stories of Jesus tame and without controversy- but Jesus was anything but tame, meek, and noncontroversial. For example, let’s take a look at some of these images that come up if you were to google “Jesus.” (some of the ones I showed are posted here)
Note about the last photo: a colleague of mine recently showed this to a children’s Sunday school class, and most of the kids said that this was a picture of a bad person. They didn’t want to believe that this was actually a more historically accurate image of what Jesus may have looked like. Many of these images portray Jesus as looking like one of us, or looking gentle, calm, non-controversial. And there were times when he was all of these things, but we tend to forget the Jesus that angered the religious authorities and challenged the status quo to the point where his teachings led to his death on a cross.
We “do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes. We like to generalize the words of Jesus and transform his life into a one-size-fits-all model that can apply to all of humanity.” (https://sojo.net/articles/social-justice-christian-tradition-not-liberal-agenda) When in reality, throughout the New Testament Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for. We must get back to the Jesus of the gospels: the one that offended people with his radical ideas, speech, and actions- the one that people actually turned away from and refused to follow any longer.
And then we must ask ourselves the same question that Jesus asked of those first disciples: “Do you also want to leave? Or do you have the guts to stick around?” Will we be M.I.A. or will we stick with Jesus who calls us not into complacent discipleship, but active discipleship! Will we be committed to not just showing up to church on Sunday, but to digging deeper into our faith? Not just saying we love God, but actively showing that love to other persons? Not just saying we love that person even though we disagree with them or do not understand them, but seeking a deeper understanding of the person’s story or opinion? Not ignoring someone who is different, but hearing their story? Will we be committed to the church and not walking away, even when we disagree with something or someone?
When so many decided to walk away from Jesus because they were offended, Jesus asked the twelve, including his betrayer: “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67). It’s a great question to ask ourselves. What would happen if we walked away from something or someone every time we were challenged or offended? There would be no growth, no wrestling with new ideas, no strength to be gained, no possibility for transformation or deeper relationships and understanding.
Just this past week, I was asked to come and speak to a group at Meridian St. United Methodist about the chapter I wrote in the book, Becoming a Disciple. A lot of people in the group had questions regarding my personal faith journey from Judaism to Christianity. As part of my story, I also shared with them that a huge hurdle I had to overcome was the fact that my first introduction to a Christian community was one where women were not permitted to speak, teach, or have a voice. I was challenged and deeply offended by this, having been raised in a family where I was taught that women could do anything they set their minds to. But I still felt called to dig deeper into what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, challenging the teaching and idea that, to be a Christian woman, I would not be permitted to have a voice or engage in community leadership.
So I had a choice to make. I could walk away, or I could choose to dig deeper, ask questions, and face these teachings that offended me. I had several people, mostly men, approach me after my time with the group study, and told me how remarkable it was that I stuck with the Christian faith and the church as a whole after my first exposure being a narrow minded view of women in leadership. Many women would have walked away, and I know that many young women in that church now no longer attend or are involved in Christianity at all, and to that, I say that the church has failed them. But because I chose to wrestle with it, to deal with the tough stuff, I stand before you today on the other side of it all. I pray that others were able to do the same.
As followers of Jesus, we will continue to hear things that challenge and offend us, whether it’s something that we read in the Bible, something that someone says to us, a teaching we hear at church or elsewhere, or something that is brought to our attention. As followers of Jesus, we must be willing to see Jesus for who he really is and what he was really about, and be willing to confront the things that make us uncomfortable about what it means to follow him- not the Jesus that we grew up seeking- the meek, docile, and noncontroversial one, but the one that is not afraid to stir us up and challenges us to confront the harsh realities of faith and this world.
The question remains: do we wish to go away? Have we had enough? Have we been with Jesus long enough to know that he requires giving out of our abundance to the poor? That he calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him? That he offers peace and forgiveness, rather than revenge, bitterness, or anger? That a journey with Jesus is inevitably going to bring us to a cross- an unwelcome place of death and resurrection? What happened to those who walked away from Jesus? There is no record that he tried to get them to stay. So we are left with these three options: the go-awayers (M.I.A.), the betrayers, and the stayers (Homiletics). Which one will you be?
Peter, of course, is ready to give his answer. He sees no other option and says, “Lord, where would we go?” Another important question. If we were to walk away and go M.I.A., where would we go? If we are not ready to face the reality of the Jesus we are given, then we must look at our options. We can go back to creating the Jesus that most looks like us, fits our agendas, and is the one that we’ve been handed all of our lives. Or we can accept him for who he is as the one who gives us challenging teachings that so often we are not ready to hear. We can accept him for the compassion he gives to the sinner, the healing he gives to those whom we would never touch, and for the words that rub us the wrong way, along with those that are like honey on our lips.
But hear this: if we walk away now, we would walk away from the thing that offers more hope than we could ever imagine. If we walk away now, we would give up the person who offers answers more meaningful than anyone or anything else. If we walk away now, we would miss out on opportunities for life-giving transformation, deeper meaning, and a call to live into the challenges that life throws our way. We miss out on the opportunity to claim who Jesus is for ourselves, and as Peter proclaims, “You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.” Friends, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, and we should stick with him. We have nowhere else to go. Let’s not go M.I.A. Let’s stay. And let’s get to work. Amen.