Pentecost 12B John 6:56-69
STUMBLING BLOCKS Pentecost 12B John 6:56-69
An incident. I went walking the other day near our house. On Bootlegger Trail. I was walking long, minding my own business, looking out at the water and didn’t notice a large rock on the path. I caught my foot on that rock and stumbled and fell to the ground. Nothing hurt but my pride.
Another incident. One night, while driving back from hiking on Mount Rainier, on a quiet side road, suddenly, a large rock appeared in the middle of the road and my car and tire hit it. I tried to avoid the rock in the middle of the road but I couldn’t. I hit that rock dead on. That rock punctured a hole in my tire. It was flat. What a mess. What a predicament at that moment. I had to fix that tire before I could move on. I also needed to throw that rock off the middle of the road.
A third incident. A favorite hike of mine is up at the Snoqualmie Summit. It is the hike to Snow Lake, the most popular hike in the State of Washington. After the initial 200 steps incline, the path continues perfectly smooth and perfectly level and perfectly soft, with pine needles and soft dirt forming a soft path for one’s feet. But slowly, that path becomes nasty, with sharp rocks and edges on every step of the way to the top. One is very careful when hiking that part of the extremely rocky path or one could fall and twist an ankle or break a leg.
In Biblical times, people walked on dirt paths. That is the way people traveled in those days. Not on primary Roman roads made of rock for their armies, but on dirt paths from this house to that house, from this village to that village. As people in Biblical times walked on their hard, dirt paths, they had plenty of experiences with stumbling on rocks. Especially at night when they were walking without the light of the sun.
Rocks on roads. Rocks on paths. That is what this sermon is all about. There are so many rocks in the road of life and we hit them all the time. Obstacles. Hindrances. Dreadful disasters. Horrific happenings. Terrible tragedies that sometimes cause us to fall flat on our faces…emotionally and spiritually.
Let me explain.
I just came back from Bible camp this past Friday. We had five campfires during our five nights at camp. These campfires are always the best part of Bible Camp. This year, as in the years past, in story after story, we heard young men and women in high school and boys and girls from grade school and middle school share stories about their personal suffering in life: “My mother and father split up,” “my mother is a drug addict,” “my grandpa died,” “my mother threatens me with her own suicide,” “my father is beating up his girlfriend,” “I wanted to commit suicide.” Story after story after story. Pain after pain after pain. The stories went on and on.
These kids had already run into rocks in life that caused them to emotionally stumble and fall. Emotionally, they had been beaten up, bruised up, and battered up. These rocks in life caused them to spiritually stumble and fall. They sometimes fell away from God, no longer believed in God, or were angry at God.
The following are a series of pictures of rocks on paths and roads.
There are pictures of little rocks on the path of life that cause us to stumble and fall.
Little rocks. Such as colds. The flu. Stomach aches. Shortages of money. Bad grades. The car breaks down. The boat blows up. The toilet gets stuck. My cell phone doesn’t work and I need to make this phone call. Little rocks. Pebbles on the paths of life. Everyday there are pebbles on our paths. These little rocks make up mad, irritable and sometimes furious.
But sometimes the rocks in our lives are REALLY big, as big as a house. Dreadful disasters. Horrific happenings. Terrible tragedies.
Nasty illnesses. Pancreatic cancer. A tumor in the brain. Fatal leukemia for a child. Those nasty illness are often stumbling blocks for us. They feel as big as that house in the picture.
Nasty disasters in nature. Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes. Sometimes, we feel deep down inside that God promised to protect people from such natural disasters. Sometime these natural disasters become spiritual stumbling blocks for us.
Nasty wars. People are caught in the battle between warring nations. Living in battle zones. Living and dying in Baghdad. Caught in the battle zone between the Israelis and the Hezbolleh
Nasty starvation. Bloated bellies and the red hair of starvation.
Yes, sometimes the rocks on the road are as big as a house.
There are also emotional rocks that are symbolic of emotional suffering. These emotional rocks can also be as big as a house.
Suicide, especially within the family.
The marriage falls apart and divorce happens.
Infertility. You or your partner or family member can’t get pregnant.
Unemployment. You lost your job, lost your car, lost your house. You are now on food stamps.
Yes, there are all kinds of emotional stumbling blocks on the paths of life. These emotional stumbling blocks often become spiritual stumbling blocks. Sometimes these stumbling blocks feel as big as a house.
Further, sometimes it feels like there has been a mudslide in our lives.
At times, there has been a whole series of disasters which happen consecutively and simultaneously. We think to ourselves, “We don’t want to have another year like what happened this last year.” What a mess this year has been. It has been like mudslide.
And sometimes our road in life is just rocky, much more than other peoples’ lives. “Year after year after year, our life has been filled with rocks strewn in our path. It just isn’t fair.”
The words, “rocky road,” are not describing a favorite ice cream flavor but a series of disasters for our lives.
There are not only physical stumbling blocks and not only emotional stumbling blocks but there are spiritual stumbling blocks. These spiritual stumbling blocks are thought patterns that get in our way of seeing the truth about life and God.
Spiritual stumbling blocks like there is no personal God who is our loving Father.
Spiritual stumbling blocks like God does not care about my life.
Spiritual stumbling blocks that God should protect me and mine from the horrific happenings of life.
Yes, there are often spiritual stumbling blocks in our daily lives.
It is with this mood that we approach the gospel lesson for today. Followers of Jesus, disciples of Jesus, supporters of Jesus were having intellectual and spiritual difficulties with what Jesus was teaching when he said: Whoever would “eat my flesh and drink my blood” would receive life, eternal life, and be raised at the last day of the final judgment.
Let’s look at the gospel text for today. Would you please take out your bulletin and let’s study these words together. We are people of The Book, so let’s look closely at the gospel lesson for today.
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words? These words stuck in the craws of many disciples. These were hard saying, difficult teachings to swallow, especially if taken literally. And many Jews and disciples took Jesus’ teachings literally, that Jesus was actually flesh to be eaten and blood to be drinking.
Circle the words, “eat my flesh.” This is the sixth time that “eating my flesh” is used in John 6. Circle the words, “drink my blood.” It is the fourth time these words appear in this chapter. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” is a theme that is spoken repeatedly by Jesus in this chapter.
Some people outside of Christianity thought that the early Christians were cannibals and were literally eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus Christ. Eating Jesus’ flesh; drinking his blood. Christians were carnivores and cannibals.
57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. Circle the words, “living Father.” This is the only reference in the Bible to the words, “living Father.”
Your God and my God is called “the living Father” by Jesus. You and I have this loving, close and intimate relationship with our heavenly Father.
Jesus lived because of the Father. So also, you and I live because of God our heavenly Father. You and I would not be alive today unless the Lord God, our heavenly Father, gave us life itself.
The word, “Father,” is a primary designation of Jesus about God in the Gospel of John. Some Biblical scholars think that the most original and powerful teaching of Jesus was his teaching that the God who created the universe is our abba, our daddy, our pappa, as close to us as close can be.
For Jesus, the Creator God was not primarily some distant deity, some infinite intelligence, but a loving Father who knows our names and holds us in the palm of his hand.
Jesus also taught that when we eat Jesus, we take his love into us. Christ is alive inside of us because we have taken in Christ into ourselves. When Christ lives in us, we will live.
58 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." The Jews in the Old Testament wilderness ate the manna and died but whoever eats this living bread with live forever.
59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. This teaching occurred at the synagogue in Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" Here, in this Bible verse, we are at the heart of the sermon for today.
Circle the word “difficult.” Meaning, this is a harsh saying. This teaching was difficult for the human mind to comprehend and accept. This teaching went against the grain of human intellectual sensibilities.
Notice that it was Jesus’ disciples who were having the intellectual and spiritual difficulties. At this moment and within this text, it was not “the Jews” who were having difficulties with the thoughts of Jesus. It was his disciples, and many of those had been with Jesus since the beginning of his ministry.
61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them,
Focus on the word, “complaining.” The disciples were complaining or grumbling about this.
"Does this offend you? Focus on the word, “offend.” The word, “offend,” means “intellectual scandal” or “stumbling block” or “hindrance.”
This is the key to this sermon. That is why we have the pictures of big rocks and rocky roads and mudslides. The Greek word, “offend,” means stumbling block.
Various teachings, miracles and stories of Jesus become stumbling blocks for people. People get “tripped up” on this or that teaching of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” offended these “would be” disciples. These thoughts were truly offensive and distasteful for many “wannabe” disciples.
In this sermon, think of stumbling blocks. What are some of the major stumbling blocks in your faith? What teachings of Christ are stumbling blocks for you?
Many years ago, I was teaching a large class of seventy-five Asian refugees a class in beginning Christianity. We were preparing these people for baptism. These refugees were from Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam. With all the language problems, we spent time re-enacting the parables of Jesus. On one particular Saturday morning, we were acting out the parable of the Good Samaritan. We had a person who was a Laotian lying on the floor, pretending he was injured. We had covered him with bandages and ketchup for blood. He was moaning and moaning and moaning. All the members of the class were drawn to his moaning, laughing and smiling as this pantomime was acted out. Then another Laotian came away by, pretending that he was fervently praying, as he ignored the moaning of the person on the ground. Then another Laotian came by, carrying a Bible and reading it intently and thereby ignoring the moaning, injured Laotian on the ground. The crowd of students were laughing and having a good time. Then, from the back of the room, a Vietnamese man came him, stopped by the injured Laotian man on the floor, tended to his needs, comforted him, picked him up, and carried him off to a hospital to be healed. Through an interpreter, I asked the question of the class, “Which person proved to be the neighbor?” The class unanimously pointed to the Vietnamese person.
I then taught, “In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus invited us to love and care for our enemies.”
Later, after the class was all over, Sa Somphet, the Laotian translator, said to me, “Pastor, that is why I cannot be a Christian. I believe in God and I can believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I can believe that Jesus, the Son of God, suffered and died on the cross for my sins. But I cannot believe his teaching, “Love your enemies. I cannot love the Vietnamese after the war were fighting with them just a year ago.”
For Sa Somphet, the primary stumbling block was Jesus’ teaching, "love your enemies." That was too much for Sa, over the top, too much to ask…at that moment. That teaching was definitely a hindrance for Sa, a stumbling blocked that tripped up his relationship to Christ. .
What are your personal stumbling blocks within Christianity and the teachings of Jesus?
There are other stumbling blocks within Christianity.
The truth about the Incarnation is often a stumbling block. The Incarnation, the basic truth that God came to earth in the flesh of a human being to reveal himself to the world, is still offensive for many people today. The fundamental criticism of Christianity is its thesis that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, as a real human being. Most world religions believe that their founder was a great prophet of God but not the incarnation of God here on earth in a human form.
The truth about the crucifixion, the cross and the way of the cross is often a stumbling block. For the Apostle Paul, the fundamental scandal or offense was the cross and crucifixion of Jesus. People in Jesus’ day and even today want the Messiah to be a hero, an inspiration, a “bigger than life person” who does miracles and gives peace to everyone. People in those days and in these days don’t want a Messiah who suffers, is humiliated, weak and dies on a cross.
What is the biggest stumbling block for many Christians today? Human suffering. That’s what I heard from the kids at Bible Camp during our campfires each night. In my life as a pastor and human being, the greatest and most persistent stumbling block is the presence of suffering in one’s own life, suffering in the life of one’s family and friends, and suffering around the globe. People often spit out the words, “How can a good and loving God allow such awful suffering?” These feelings are often stumbling blocks. Diseases, accidents, disasters of nature, war, starvation, unemployment. The list goes on endlessly. These become rocks on our roads of life and these rocks cause us to stumble and fall. Some Christians actually believe that God is to protect us from the rocks and difficulties of life.
Different people have different stumbling blocks about the Faith, Jesus Christ and the Church.
In this particular passage in John 6, the stumbling block was their interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about Holy Communion, that a Christian literally and physically eats Jesus’ flesh and blood and takes Jesus’ flesh and blood into himself/herself. That was “over the top,” or “way too much” or “beyond our rational sensitivities” for certain followers of Christ who took this teaching literally.
62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? Jesus then says: “If you think the ideas about eating my body and drinking my blood are offensive, then listen to my next thoughts: “I will ascend to God where I was before, before time and before the world began.” Jesus seems to be referring to his coming Ascension where Jesus will ascend back to the heart and mind of God. Jesus also seems to be referring to his belief that he existed before time and earth began. Near the word, “ascending,” write in the word, “Ascension.” Near the words, “where he was before,” write in the words, “Pre-existence in heaven.”
Note the phrase, “Son of Man.” In Jewish apocalyptic thought in the times between the Old and New Testament, it was thought that the Son of Man was going to come at the end of history and judge the living from the dead, the good from the bad, the true believers from the non-believers. The role of the Son of Man was to be the future cosmic judge.
Jesus was not only full present when believers were eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. Jesus was also fully present in his ascension up into heaven where he existed before.
In other words, Jesus was teaching that he was/is the Son of God who existed before the world began and will be present at the final judgment.
All of this teaching was a gigantic hindrance for many of the disciples.
63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. That is true. The Spirit of God is the power to convince us to believe. Human reason (flesh) does not convince us to believe. When it comes to believing in Christ, it is the Spirit who convinces us, and not our human reason or our human will.
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. That is one reason that we focus so intently on the words of Jesus. We believe that the words of Jesus are spirit and life. Jesus’ words feed our inner spirit. Jesus’ words nourish life within us and our belief in eternal life.
The words of Jesus ring in our ears: “I am will you always.” “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” “How many times are you to forgive? Seven times? No, seventy times seven.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Again and again, Jesus’ words are spirit and life to us.
Moments later, Simon Peter said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life.”
This ends our Bible study for today.
What have been your primary stumbling blocks? What teachings have gotten in your way in your walk of faith?
Personally, I have had two serious stumbling blocks for me.
I don't stumble when it comes to Jesus' teaching that "God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God."
I don't stumble when Jesus teaches that the greatest two commandments are to love God with all one’s heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as one’s self.
I don't stumble with Jesus' teachings about Holy Communion, that we are to eat, consume, take in the "flesh and blood of Jesus," the real humanity of Jesus, his real love within human form.
But there are stumbling blocks for me, especially in the past. The first stumbling block for me is the Bible's teaching that Jesus is the ONLY Son of God in the flesh. I have to admit that I stumble on that teaching occasionally.
The second stumbling block for me is Jesus' teaching that there is really a personal God, so personal that Jesus calls the Lord God our "living Father." I have to admit that I occasionally stumble on that basic teaching. The thoughts of Sigmund Freud keep creeping into my mind, although I do not want them to. Freud's thoughts? "All this teaching about a deeply personal God as one's loving Father is wishful thinking."
It is one thing to believe in an infinite intelligence who designed the universe. For me personally, you have to be "a dork" not to believe in a divine intelligence who created the intricacies of the universe through the eons of time. But it is quite another matter to believe that this infinite intelligence is my loving heavenly Father who knows my very name and holds me in the palm of his hand.
Sometime, somewhere, somehow, the living, loving heavenly Father who raised Jesus from the dead, mysteriously permeates all my stumbling blocks, chips away at them, crumples them, cracks them, and I wake up, and find that I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, and I also believe in the living, loving personal heavenly Father who created me in the divine image of God, to love as God has loved through the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The living, Spirit filled words of Jesus mysterious permeate my thinking, my loving, my way of living. The Spirit filled words of Jesus begin to crack the giant boulders in front of me.
Stumbling blocks. The living God, our heavenly Father, can and does chip away at, crumble, crack and conquer the stumbling blocks within us.
Do you see that rock in the road? Those rocks on the road? Two of them. A BIG one and a LITTLE one.
As you look at the picture, I guarantee you that a road crew cleaned up that mess on that highway. I guarantee you that.
I guarantee you that a cleaning crew got rid of the little rock in the foreground and the enormous rock in the middle of the photo and all the debris on the roadway itself.
I guarantee you a cleaning crew was stronger than the rocky mess.
Photographers are often present to photograph the mess on the road but not photograph the miracle after it is cleaned up.
I guarantee you that our heavenly Father is stronger than the stumbling blocks in our lives. If that is not true, we wouldn't be here in church this morning.
Also, people in our parish tell me that they would have not made it through their worst terrible tragedy if it had not been for the presence and strength of the living loving God who sustained them through their disaster.
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