From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
No Fooling Around
Several years ago, a large, inclusive congregation felt moved to sponsor a church shepherded by and devoted to GLBT believers. Two uncommonly talented, visionary women—spiritual and life partners—answered the call to lead the flock. After several months of fieldwork, during which two to three dozen core members met in their home, they opened the doors of a lovely, spacious sanctuary. A modest attendance of 50 or so came to the first service. Within a week’s time, though, word of a new “gay church” led by two dynamic women spread through the community. The next Sunday’s service was packed wall-to-wall. Yet as worship continued, a totally inappropriate “cruisy” atmosphere coalesced, leaving no doubt many had come seeking more than a refuge of faith.
When time came for one of the ministers to deliver the sermon, she surprised everyone by departing from the bulletin’s text. In fact, she left Scripture altogether and based her message on Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” She gently laid out the church’s vision and mission. “This sanctuary is not and will never be a site for socializing,” she told her audience. “It’s a base station for spiritual development and social change.” Then she shocked everyone. Instead of welcoming new members to the church, she asked those seeking anything beyond Christian growth to leave. And she waited. They trickled out slowly at first, then more quickly, leaving less than 100 behind. Today, every seat is filled with believers of every ethnicity, class, and orientation. Its reputation is well known in the GLBT community as well as the local, predominately straight community it sits in. When it comes to following Jesus and serving others, these people don’t fool around.
As unorthodox as the minister’s actions seem, she was well within her pastoral rights and had Scriptural precedent for thinning the herd. In John 6, Jesus does a very similar thing. He’s preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, where a large crowd of would-be disciples has gathered in hopes he’ll repeat His miracle of multiplying a few loaves of bread to feed them all. Jesus challenges them on this: “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (v26-27) They ask how they can receive this bread, thinking it’s a special kind of wonder bread they can physically taste and digest.
Hearing that Jesus is referring to Himself as the Bread of Life sent from God, encouraging them to abandon their natural desires and satisfy their spiritual hunger, they start to grumble. They came to eat, not to swallow a lot of abstract principles. “This is hard teaching,” they complain. “Who can accept it?” (v60) Jesus doesn’t soften His stance. “Does this offend you?” He asks. (v61) “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” John tells us Jesus knew who in the crowd didn’t believe and would turn away. He essentially invites them to leave, saying in verse 65, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” With that, they file out in droves. After they leave, Jesus asks His core group, the original 12, “Do you want to go too?” Speaking for the rest, Peter answers, “Where could we go? You have the words of eternal life.” They get it. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no fooling around.
Many, many people respond to discipleship’s appeal without knowing or acknowledging it demands tremendous self-discipline and scrutiny. It denies natural appetites to satisfy spiritual hunger. Unfortunately, natural desires often account for why some decide to follow Christ. They’re not looking for life-changing truth or miracles that nurture their spirits. They rally around Jesus for loaves and fishes to feed personality-driven cravings. They flock to Him for quick, easy answers to long-term, difficult problems. They mistake sanctuaries for social clubs and use involvement in ministry as a means to validate their power and popularity. They give to get. And then, when their personal agendas and God’s plan collide, they start grumbling and eventually move on. As true believers, we’ll see this happen over and over. After they leave, it’s important to reaffirm our reasons for staying with Jesus, because herd mentality can be remarkably persuasive. It often takes great courage to tell friends who say, “Let’s go,” “No thank you. I’m going to stick around.”
We stay because Jesus has the words of eternal life. Other teachers and philosophies have merit, yet He is our Bread of Life. He feeds our beings’ hunger to know God, to live in renewed relationship with Him, and to fulfill His purpose for creating us as we are. No other teacher equals Jesus, simply because none ever died to defeat death and redeem our right to everlasting life. Nowhere else do we find greater emphasis on God’s unconditional love and acceptance, or greater evidence of their reality, than we see in Christ. People will come and go. Some will flirt with faith for years, returning and leaving repeatedly. Widespread hardship and popular trends will bloat the ranks and once the truth of discipleship’s demands become apparent, the tide will recede. But if we’re following Jesus out of authentic spiritual hunger, we’ll remain behind after they leave. He is our Bread. His truth sustains us. His words speak life to our souls.
Others may leave in droves, but if we’re truly hungry for the Bread of Life, we’ll stay.
(Tomorrow: Timeless Treasure, Temporal Clay)