In one congregation where I preached, we would do a children’s sermon before the worship service, where all the children would gather up on the stage and I would talk to them about something that was going on in their lives. One Sunday, right after Christmas, they were gathered on the stage and I asked what they had received for Christmas gifts. One precocious little boy raised his hand and said, “I got a hatchet for Christmas, and my mom got new furniture!”
I imagine it was a little boy something like him, who when their Bible class teacher asked who knocked down the walls of Jericho, said, “I don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t me!”
Our passage this morning is one of those stories that makes walls come down in our lives, and it is Jesus who does it.
Last week, we talked about Jesus feeding the 15,000 out on a mountainside near the Sea of Galilee, and how immediately afterwards the crowds were so taken by Jesus’ power and authority they said, “Let’s make him our king!” But Jesus knew they only did it with selfish motives.
It was about that same time that John the Baptist was beheaded, and the disciples returned from a successful mission trip where they had healed the sick and cast out demons. That, coupled with the ambition of the disciples and their still undeveloped understanding of who Jesus was and what his purpose was, led Jesus to retreat to the mountain to pray. Have you ever had one of those days? Jesus had them often, and we will see frequent mentions in the Gospels of Jesus going up on a mountain or out in the wilderness to pray alone.
As Jesus goes up to the mountain, his disciples head down to the lake. Their intention is to go to the other side of the lake to Capernaum, but by this time it is late in the evening, it is dark and a storm has blown in. They are rowing against a headwind and making slow progress. John says, “When they had rowed three or three and half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified.”
As much as they have come to expect the unexpected from Jesus, even this is more than they can imagine. They are tired from the long day, exhausted from the rowing and suddenly they see Jesus walking on the water. The other Gospels tell us they thought they were seeing a ghost. And they were terrified.
Jesus shouts out over the wind and the rain, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”
Now, there are some instances where our English translations don’t communicate everything that is going on or being said, and this is one of them. Though the NT is written in Greek, Jesus and his disciples spoke Hebrew. Here Jesus speaks one word. John’s Greek translation of it is “ego eimi” – “I am”, but the word he actually spoke was the Hebrew “Yahweh” – “I AM”. Jesus isn’t just identifying himself, he is making a statement. It is a statement we will hear seven more times in John’s Gospel.
In just a few verses after this, in 6:45, Jesus will say “I am the bread of life.” In 8:12, he will say “I am the light of the world.” In 10:7, he will say, “I am the door.” In 10:11, he will say, “I am the good shepherd.” In 11:25, he will say, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And in 15:5, “I am the vine.”
[Picture – Moses at burning bush] And each time he speaks this word, “Yahweh” he is repeating a word that was spoken centuries earlier when Moses was kneeling before a burning bush in the wilderness, and asked “Who shall I say sent me?” and God replied, “Tell them, I AM sent you.” That was God’s self-designation: In Hebrew “Yahweh” “I AM.” And so every time Jesus says, “I am” the Jews would immediately be reminded of the power and the glory of God. And they would either nod their heads in agreement or clench their jaws in anger that Jesus would so openly make this claim to be the I AM.
So perfectly, so uniquely is Jesus the “I am” that whether you are in need of sustenance, guidance, protection, vision, or entrance, Jesus is completely and wholly whom you should seek.
Back out on the lake, the disciples are terrified, not of the storm, but of Jesus who has appeared like a ghost in the night, walking on the water. He tells them to quit being afraid. What Jesus is telling them is to quit being afraid of what they have already succumbed to in fear. When Jesus is with you, there isn’t anything you should be afraid of. All those things that hold you in the grip of fear, Jesus says, they have no power.
In fact, the thing people fear most is death, and the Hebrews writer says that Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb 2:15) If Jesus came to take away your fear of death, what else can there possibly be that we could fear that Jesus can’t overcome?
When Mark tells the story, he says that they were afraid because their hearts were hardened because they had already forgotten the miracle of the loaves. (In fact, they probably had one of the baskets of leftover bread in the boat with them!) Isn’t that just like us? On Sunday we sing that Jesus is Lord, and on Monday we’re worried about something at work. We take our eyes off of Jesus and the storm overwhelms us.
Finally, they take him on to the boat, and John says, “Immediately they were to the other shore” – not that he encouraged them to row harder and they finally made it across the lake, but that he rescued them – their deliverance was immediate.
The next morning, the crowds are on the other side of the lake and they wake up hungry: “Where’s Jesus? Breakfast sure would be nice!” But he’s nowhere to be found. They saw the one boat with the disciples launch without Jesus, but they can’t find him, so they get into the other boats and head out in search of him.
When they find him in Capernaum, Jesus flatly tells them their motives are wrong and their hearts aren’t right: “I tell you the truth, 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. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (Jn 6:26-27)
He tells them what the prophets had been saying to the people for centuries: You’re looking for life in the wrong places. You’re hungry, but you’re gorging yourself on junk food. Listen to Isaiah:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” (Isaiah 55:1-3)
These are the people who, a day earlier had seen him feed thousands with a little boy’s sack lunch, and thought it would be nice to have someone feed them all the time.
But like the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar, when Jesus offered her living water, she was willing to settle with not having to come to the well to draw water, when he was really offering her eternal life. These folks would settle for a constant supply of ready-made bread, when Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:32-35)
When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he is telling them, and us, that he is the only source of real life – eternal life. Even the manna in the wilderness – as amazing and miraculous as that was, wasn’t the source of real life – their ancestors ate the manna but they still all died in the wilderness. But Jesus is the real bread – life giving bread. What Jesus offers them isn’t a 24 hour a day bakery, but eternal life.
As you can imagine, Jesus has just stepped on their self-righteous toes, and they squeal in indignation: They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)
Jesus won’t leave well enough alone, he takes it one step further: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51-56)
He insulted them before, now he scandalizes them. To talk of eating flesh and drinking blood was more than they could take. Even his followers say, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Let’s not minimize the scandal of what he has said. Yes, some misunderstood him. When he said, “You must each my flesh and drink my blood” some may have thought he was espousing cannibalism, and it may be that some were turned off by that.
But what Jesus was really saying, and I believe most heard and understood what he was saying: “If you are going to be my followers, you must be consumed by life in me. My life becomes your life. You cannot live without me and you must live in a daily, intimate relationship with me if you are to have eternal life.”
That, to many of us, is even more offensive and off-putting than the thought of cannibalism. We want to follow Jesus, but we want it on our terms. We want to have Jesus around when it’s convenient, but leave him at the church building when it isn’t. We want to live our lives as we want, without answering to anybody, even Jesus. And the idea that we cannot have eternal life without being absolutely, completely, radically consumed by Jesus is more than we ever bargained for, and we want no part of it.
This same moment of offense came in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 14: Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:25-27,33)
I assure you, if you think talk of cannibalism was offensive, talk of hating your family and being crucified and giving away everything you owned in order to follow Jesus was even more so.
When we remove the scandalousness of the cross, we have watered down the gospel. Jesus never sugarcoated the demands of following him. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, it costs you everything. If you want eternal life, you must let go of this life and be consumed by life in him.
And most of us will never go for that. I’ve always said, it’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, but the things I do understand. And it’s all too clear that Jesus demanded everything from his followers.
And it is at this point in John’s Gospel that we read: From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66)
And if you think it’s just the hangers on and the half-hearted Christians who are challenged, read what Jesus says next: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:67)
Jesus asked the question because I think he saw the hesitancy in their eyes. I don’t care who you are, to become a true follower of Jesus is a big decision and one not lightly made. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus, it will still cost you everything, and you must still deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow him. If you want eternal life, you must still “eat his flesh and drink his blood” because he is the bread of life.
You already know their answer. Peter spoke for the group when he said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
That’s really the only conclusion that you and I can come to: “Lord, to whom else could we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Not until I am convinced that Jesus is the only one who really has what I need, will I walk away from everything else to follow him with all my heart, life, soul and strength. If I think that there is something else out there that might have what I really want, someone else that might fill my needs better than Jesus, I will always hold back.
Being a follower of Jesus is an all-in proposition. It means that when you go under the water in baptism, you have died to yourself and you are leaving it all in the grave to come up a new person, ready to follow Jesus completely.
I can’t think of anything more intimidating… or more liberating than that decision. It is the most important decision you will ever make.