“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” During this season of Pentecost we have been hearing the stories of miracles that Jesus performed and the crowds who followed him, who found him when he evaded them, who forced him to walk across the Sea of Galilee to get away from them. Now we reach a turning point. The crowds had already thinned out, now the disciples choose whether to continue or not.
Jesus expected his followers to not only care for the needs of the poor and the sick and the hungry, but he asked them to also follow a path of spirituality. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever. … It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Jesus was living as God in the world and setting an example for his disciples. In this passage, John depicts him trying to explain what they must do to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.
The disciples who remain have adventures ahead of them and Jesus wanted them to be well equipped to take them on. This bread from heaven that provides eternal life is something Jesus’ followers didn’t understand but Peter is willing to have faith that understanding will come later when he says, “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.”
The disciples were willing to continue to follow Jesus, to have Jesus in control of their lives. They were willing to take his words and example into their very being and live as he lived. I have been considering over the last few weeks if we ask ourselves often enough--or even at all--if we ask ourselves if Jesus is too radical for us. What Jesus asks of us might shift our focus to the streets instead of sitting in our pews and going home to Sunday dinner.
And, sometimes, I think being in the pews can be challenging. New music, new liturgy, new people--sometimes the old people challenge us. Changing the building, painting the walls, moving the furniture challenges us. And, here, we see fewer people sitting in the pews and it reminds us of the people we have lost to death and poor health. Yet there is much joy and generosity here still. We are looking more outside the doors and considering who is living out there. We are concerned for the poor and the sick and the hungry and trying to do what we can to meet their needs. Maybe Jesus isn’t too radical for us.
I was looking at an old sermon from 12 years ago today and in it I related something Velma Cozzuto had written. She talked about how as Christians we could either wait until we had died and gone to glory to live out our adventures with Jesus because then we will have all eternity to do so. Or, we could let him have the handlebars on our bicycles and live the adventure now. If Peter had owned a bicycle, that was exactly what he was offering to do. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Peter was willing to turn over control to Jesus and ride along with him. Peter had no more idea than we do how to be Christ in the world. Yet he took Jesus’ words and actions into his heart and did the best he could.
Bicycles bring up a mental image for me: I was looking out over the River City encampment a while back and it seemed to be full of bicycles. Bicycles being repaired, bicycles ridden, bicycles parked and bicycle parts. The poor in Grays Harbor do a lot of walking and bike riding. This homeless population has a deep need for bikes so they can get around. Some of them have fashioned trailers to pull behind their bikes. Having control of a bike gives one a sense of freedom within this community. Bikes get stolen, borrowed, repainted, and found again. I often hear, “Don’t touch my bike.” I often hear, “Here, you can use my bike.”
Velma’s adventurous bicycle ride with Christ at the handlebars made me think of the often adventurous lives of those who live without homes. Jesus has been sending us out to the homeless, though I often walk there and sometimes in a time crunch I drive there. It isn’t a place I would have thought of going on my own, though I have long been concerned for those living without shelter and those living with inadequate shelter. I even served decades ago on a coalition for the homeless of the Eastside in King County. I wonder if anyone on that board ever went out and talked to the people who lived in tents in the woods in Bellevue and Kirkland--I know I didn’t.
But I have talked to the homeless in Aberdeen and they are interesting people--just as interesting as each of you is. They care about people, are cynical about people, think some people are lazy or crazy or useless, and they value giving to one another. They want to help one another. And, in many ways, they are more willing to forgive faults and mistakes than we are--hey, maybe they know this Jesus guy, too. Actually, there is no maybe about it--most of them do know Jesus quite well. Jesus is how they have maintained their sanity, their dignity, and their ability to love. When you are reduced to nothing over and over, I guess it is easier to follow this radical Jesus and go where he leads.
The River City encampment will be moving to Hoquiam First Presbyterian Church on the 31st--bicycles, tents, shower, and all. There is a meeting there on the 27th where the community can air their concerns--I plan to attend. Your prayers are needed for this community. These faithful Presbyterians are willing to give Jesus control of those handlebars and see where he takes them.
“Because of this many disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” What would cause us to turn away and stop following Jesus? What DOES cause us to turn away and stop following Jesus? Is Jesus too radical for us? Are we willing to eat the bread? Are we willing to accept the life-giving Spirit? Are we willing to follow no matter where we are lead? Are we willing to “…believe and know that [Jesus is] the Holy One of God,” even if we don’t fully understand what that means? Let’s continue to meet here so we can sustain that relationship with Jesus and with one another but let us not forget all the work there is to do when worship has ended and the service begins.