Today we finally come to the end of our protracted readings of the 6th chapter of John. It’s been a long six weeks, at least for me as your preacher! This all began with the feeding of the 5,000 and led into Jesus calling himself the Bread of Life and stating whoever “eats me” will live forever. In this discourse he’s run up against the crowd who doesn’t seem to understand but asks questions nonetheless, the Jewish authorities who push back, and today we hear of a third group: “many of his disciples.”
Jesus’ language is provocative and even offensive in challenging long held taboos within the Jewish religious system. He really means this “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” stuff! He’s not kidding around! Ewww! People are now very disturbed by him. Now, his many of his disciples can’t take it anymore. “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus then ups the ante with reference to the Son of Man ascending to where he was before and tells them that some of them do not believe … and so they turn away and leave. They bail out. Now Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them, “Do you want to leave too?” And Peter replies, “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.”
This contrast between the disciples who bailed out and the ones who stayed has intrigued me this week. What makes the difference? I don’t think it was that the twelve had more faith. Let’s face it, when the chips will come down later and this all becomes a matter of life and death at the cross, even these twelve will bail out. But why did they not take offense and walk away when the teaching became difficult?
I think part of the difference lies in the spiritual state of these two groups of believers. One element is the spiritual gift of humility – that recognition that I have limits, my knowledge is imperfect, and there’s always something new to experience and learn so that I might grow. If we get to a place where the teachings and life of Jesus seem easy or that “we got this,” then we are not experiencing humility at all. If we take these teachings seriously, they are hard! They will ask us to give up all kinds of things, even deeply held beliefs. If one lacks humility, there is nothing to be learned and challenging teachings become something offensive to which we will rebel and leave.
Another characteristic of the group which stayed is persistence or perseverance. There is a gift of persevering and persistence they seem to have. This doesn’t mean they won’t fail (they most certainly will), but in the words we say at the AA meetings, they “keep comin’ back” because “it works if you work it.” They know their faith is an action not a possession and they need to work that faith to make it real. This requires persistence, especially when things get hard and there is a temptation to quit.
Humility and perseverance are the foundations of growth in the Spirit and living the Christian life. They are the foundations for living a life marked by falling and failing, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, reconciling and healing. They are the spiritual gifts which mark the difference between the followers of Jesus and those who are fans. Fans of Jesus are content to sit on the sidelines and applaud but when the going gets tough and their faith makes demands, they bail out. Followers make sacrifices, persevere and pray with humility knowing they don’t have it all together. Followers know deep down there is nowhere else to go – that Jesus has the words of eternal life.
What the lives of Jimmy Carter, Phyllis Tickle, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu reflect are those Christian virtues of perseverance and humility. Each of them faced, or are facing, hard truths of life and death – the same hard realities we face too. But their consistent practice of faith – not just lip service but really practicing it within community – carried them to that place where they could face the end of their days with gentleness and confidence is the promises made by Jesus Christ. They are followers of Jesus, not just fans. This isn’t something super human and beyond us. The virtues of humility and perseverance are available to you and to me and help us to become true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, may we become what we receive and be imbued with humility and perseverance to run the race set before us as faithful followers of Christ.