Perhaps like me you`ve heard people say, “You should never go back”. What they`re usually referring to are those times when they`ve perhaps gone back to see old colleagues at a former place of work or maybe visited somewhere they used to live.
And whilst in many respects it was all very jolly and nice… they discovered that underneath it all was a sense that it wasn`t really a very good idea because the truth is a chapter has closed and it`s time for us all to move on.
But some of us keep trying to go back. For example, whilst retirement for some people comes as a blessed relief and without being nasty we really wouldn`t dream of visiting work colleagues again…. some people do. Some people find it quite difficult to let go and to face their new chapter. I recall that when I was Assistant to a University Chaplain we would often have Students repeatedly coming back after they had graduated. It was lovely to see them but what was going on underneath was a struggle to move on. It`s almost as if they couldn`t quite work out where they belonged anymore.
Now what I`m wanting to suggest this morning is that faith can sometimes feel a bit like this….. And I want to make the point that this isn`t actually such a bad thing. Faith is, to some extent, about realising you can`t go back… even if what lies ahead looks a bit daunting. I get the impression that many of us are so accustomed to thinking of faith as rather like a safe vantage point or a place of security that it comes as something of a surprise when we see that the invitation which Jesus gave to his first disciples was actually, “Come and see” (John 1.39) . In other words it can be difficult to see that faith is better understood in much more open ended and what we might call `adventurous` terms and I think this is what our Gospel reading lays before us this morning. From a personal point of view, these few verses in John`s Gospel (John 6.56-69) are among the first that caught my attention when in my late teens I began to take my first conscious steps in faith.
We picked up the story today where Jesus and his movement are gathering momentum. The crowds are enthralled; he`s seemingly riding the crest of a wave in terms of popularity… they want to `come and make him king`; (John 6.15) they want to put him at the head of their revolutionary movement. But the conflict we hear about is because Jesus was having one of it. Yes, he was talking about kingship… we will see him before Pilate challenging the supposed rulers of this world but John makes it clear that Jesus`s actual enthronement will be on a cross. Not what everyone was expecting… to say the least.
But this is why, basically we`ve reached the point where this huge congregation of followers have had enough. Jesus no longer meets with their approval; he isn`t fulfilling their expectations and he`s saying some frankly outrageous things. “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” they said (John 6.60). And off they go; and so Jesus turns to the twelve to ask if they’ve booked their tickets as well.
Now, I think this passage caught my attention because it described my own experience of what it felt like coming to know Jesus a little but at the same time realising there would be moments; perhaps many of them where I would have to renew my sense of where we`d got to. Many relationships; often marriages go through this kind of thing. It`s a sort of re-negotiation and for a while it`s a bit unnerving. It feels a bit like having butterflies in your stomach. You can`t go back… to the way things used to be and to living by all your old assumptions. You can only go forward but it all seems a bit strange and unfamiliar.
St. John gives us another example of this at the end of his Gospel (John 21.3). After the resurrection for some reason St. Peter still doesn`t quite get it and he says to his pals, “Well, I`m off fishing”. Essentially Peter is attempting to go back; to the way things used to be… to the life he had before he met Jesus and to immerse himself in what he thought he knew and of course all that night he caught nothing. St. John is inviting us to imagine Peter `the Big Fisherman` sitting there in the bottom of his boat with head in his hands and saying, “I can`t even do this anymore”…. Again there was no going back. And as I say, there in our Gospel this morning is the same Peter expressing this same sense that there is no going back. ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68)
In other words, Peter had discovered that there is something so attractive, indeed compelling about being in the company of Jesus that once he opens your eyes (and this is why so many of his healing miracles are among blind people) you`re never quite the same again…. there can be no turning back. But going forward, well that`s a bit scary.
So, where this passage helps us, I think is in getting our bearings. It gives us a picture of what faith can sometimes feel like or perhaps to put it better; it illustrates what it feels like to be in the presence of Jesus. Firstly, notice the passion and the pathos in Peter`s words, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68) There is far more going on here for instance, than intellectual assent to some kind of religious dogma. No, the disciples have reached a point in their relationship with Jesus where it was clear that their assumptions about him were all wrong… If nothing else they had come to realise that there was more to Jesus than pleasing the crowds…. and they were now going to know him in a different way.
But we need to grasp the point that again this is heart and soul stuff. And realising that Peter and the twelve are wrestling in this deeply personal way; trying to make sense of what it means to be in Jesus`s company and remain loyal to him allows us I think to be much more aware and perhaps generous towards ourselves and others where `coming to faith` is concerned. Sometimes it`s just difficult. Yes, Christ is drawing us into life but this is often a long and painful process; of leaving behind old assumptions and habits of life. This passage tells us of those perhaps more memorable moments on the journey where as I say things come to a head. All we know is we can`t go back… and going forward looks pretty scary. I wonder what significant moments you might be able to think of?
Then, secondly, this passage always reinforces my sense of caution about assuming that I`ve really understood what Jesus is on about and what he asks of me. I hope it reinforces a sense of humility. Put it this way, if the experience of the first disciples was that every so often Jesus would bring them up short in this way then maybe I have to go through this as well; maybe the `butterflies in the stomach` are a good sign? When I find myself clinging on to a Jesus who is deeply attractive but at the same time is so utterly uncompromising maybe I`m in good company?
You see, like the crowds I often want to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6.60) There are a good many things I wish Jesus hadn`t said and I would willingly side with anyone who thinks the same. But faith often means occupying that space where you know we won`t let you off the hook. So I wonder, what about you? What do you wish he hadn`t said? That might be a good place to begin your prayer.
And then notice that friendship with Jesus is clearly open-ended. Those crowds were quite free to go, as were the twelve; and so are we. We`re not told about how Jesus felt about all those folk walking away but I`ve sometimes wondered how often Jesus sat at the end of the day and reflected on whether he`d been too hard; too unbending with people… like the rich young ruler for instance. I wonder if he ever thought, “I`ve lost another one”? Maybe it grieved him?
But this seems to be the nature of it. It`s here that we come to see that faith is best described as being like a relationship. He has touched us… drawn us closer to himself… but there will always come the crisis points where we`re reminded that he is not a reflection of ourselves; of our own will and desire.
When his word strikes home and paints for us a different view of the world and the life to which we are called the instinct, like the Israelites rescued from Egypt, is that we long to back to the familiar… and the ways it used to be. And when we find ourselves thinking: “He means what he says….” It`s always tempting to say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6.60) No one in their right minds would for example, forgive, love or serve to that degree… But deep down inside you know he`s right. So this, I think is what faith sometimes feels like. You realise that He`s touched you. You know he`s right. You can`t go back… the way forward is a bit scary. But where else are you going to go?