When my husband was younger, he lived in South America for a while. His school organised a class trip while his family was still adjusting to the language, and so his Mum didn’t fully understand the letter that came with the permission slip. She sent him off to school that day in shorts and t-shirt, as usual. It turned out the trip was into the Andes, and he spent the day trudging through the snow in shorts.
It’s important to be properly equipped for the task in hand, and that means knowing exactly what is needed. The psalm we read together this morning [Psalm 139, using Singing the Faith no. 835] tells us that God knows us better than we know ourselves; that he knew each of us before we were born because he knitted us together in the womb. An earlier passage in Paul’s letter to his friends in Ephesus talks about the grace that God gives to each of us, through his Spirit, to fulfil our calling. But sometimes, it’s hard enough to know what God is calling us to do, let alone to recognise the gifts he’s given us for the task.
It seems a little strange, perhaps, that some of the disciples in the reading we heard from John’s Gospel decided that they didn’t want the amazing gifts that Jesus was offering. Sometimes we’re all given gifts we could do without – my mother-in-law once gave me slippers two sizes too small saying ‘I couldn’t remember your exact shoe-size, but I remembered you had abnormally large feet for your height.’ But here, as Peter says, Jesus is offering the words of eternal life! So why do some of them turn back and head home? Well, people were horrified by some of the language that Jesus was using. Our English translation really doesn’t cover how shocking it would have been – the idea of eating human flesh was just such a taboo that to hear Jesus inviting people to eat his body and drink his blood would have been utterly repulsive to most of his listeners. Earlier in the chapter, people had brought their children to hear Jesus speak – you can imagine those same people now hurrying their children away with hands over their ears. But Jesus had to shock people to raise their expectations – they had been setting their sights too low. Those of you who have been around over the last few weeks will know that we’ve been working through chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, which is all about bread. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children with five loaves and two fishes. The people were amazed, and large crowds of them started following Jesus around, wanting more bread and more miracles. There was a very real danger that they would try to make Jesus into some sort of travelling chef. They knew the stories from the Scriptures about the times that God had provided food for his people, some of which we’ve been hearing in recent weeks. They knew that when Elijah fled into the wilderness because Queen Jezebel had threatened to have him killed, God sent an angel with cakes of bread to feed Elijah and to reassure him that in the most desperate times, God would be there. They knew that when their ancestors were led out of slavery in Egypt, they grew hungry and, like so many people, when they got hungry they got grumpy. They knew that when the people complained, God sent bread each morning that covered the ground like dew. So when Jesus fed the 5000, people thought that this was simply the pattern repeating itself – that once again, God was providing bread for his people as a sign of his love and his presence. But Jesus needed to shock the crowds into realising that this wasn’t simply the pattern repeating itself – that he was the fulfilment of that pattern, the ultimate sacrament, God’s way of providing not simply a meal for his people, but eternal life. Through the breaking of Jesus’ body and the shedding of his blood on the cross, God would fling open the door that had been closed by sin and death. But for many people, this was just too much to stomach. They wanted something that would entertain them for a little while and fill their bellies, but not something that would turn their lives upside down. Sometimes, I think there’s a danger that we – or certainly I – might become too much like those frightened disciples. We might prefer to come once a week for some light entertainment and something to eat, but for nothing to change during the rest of the week. It’s our challenge to be more like Peter – Peter who had many faults, but who was brave enough to stay and to commit himself to Jesus when he heard the words of eternal life.
They say that an army marches on its stomach. Before we are called to put on the armour of God, we are fed with Jesus’ body and blood, so that he abides in us, strengthening us and equipping us. Only then are we called to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, to equip us for the mission God has given us. And if that sounds scary, remember this – we know that we’re on the winning side. Usually, it’s awful if someone ruins the ending of a book or a film for you. Some of you may have heard that Mary Berry got in terrible trouble on Wednesday for saying the name of the person who was going to have to leave the Great British Bake-Off tent in a radio interview before the show itself was broadcast. But in this case, it’s incredibly encouraging, when times are tough, that we know the ending of the story. Jesus says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood – those who believe in him – will be raised up on the last day. And whatever you think about the cosmic powers that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians, we know that Jesus told his disciples that he had seen that Satan would fall like lightning from heaven. Sometimes, we need all the strength Jesus can give and the full armour of God just to cope with life’s challenges. But ultimately, by being on God’s side, we know the battle is ours. As they say in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’ll be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.
So, if we open our hearts to God’s Word, if we accept that Jesus’ body was broken for us, then we have Jesus’ promise that he will abide with us. Like the disciples, we have the choice – whether to stay with what is comfortable and familiar, or whether to follow Jesus into the unknown, believing that he will fill us, strengthen us and equip us for the road ahead and knowing that if it’s not yet alright, it’s not the end. Amen.