Once there was a great teacher by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a real person called "Jesus of Nazareth" because Jesus was his first name and he had grown up in the village of Nazareth. When he became an adult and took on the role of mishal, a wisdom teacher, he made his home in Capernaum, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:13). Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen living in the village. Matthew the tax collector also resided here. Visit Capernaum today and you may still walk through the ruins of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached. The synagogue made of stone is about half the size of our Fellowship Hall, our original sanctuary. Strange and wonderful things happened in the synagogue in Capernaum.
For instance, once when he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day, Jesus was confronted by a man with an unclean spirit, who cried out: 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.' Jesus shut him up: "Quiet! Get out of him!" The unclean spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. (Mark 1:21-27). They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.'
In this same synagogue in Capernaum Jesus gave a teaching that would send some students packing. Jesus told his students: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." Now if this sounds strange to us imagine how weird it must have sounded to his disciples. We are supported by 2000 years of Christian theological about the meaning of the Lord's Supper. We have the Bible and 20/20 hindsight. We know how the story ends. Jesus' disciples had none of these advantages. And some them simply could not believe that this man, Jesus, could be all that he claimed. Things were getting too weird and some of the disciples checked out of the Capernaum hotel and went back to their former lives.
It must have been a terrible disappointment to Jesus when some of his students left. We wonder how his voice sounded when Jesus asked the twelve disciples, "Do you also wish to go away?" The question driving them away is the question that Christians have had to answer for themselves in every generation: "Who is Jesus really?"
In the modern era, Jesus has been understood from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some Christians during the Nazi regime in Germany tried to turn Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, into an Aryan superhero. Karl Barth recognized the danger and wrote The Theological Declaration of Barmen as reminder that the true Christ is the one revealed in scripture and not the one Hitler's henchmen were hustling upon the church. More recently, theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez who labor among the destitute of Latin America have spoken of God's preferential option of the poor and see in Jesus as an ally in the struggle for justice for the poor.
On a more personal level, the essence of the gospel, in the words of Herbert McCabe,
is that if you don't love, you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you.
If you want a quiet life, a life of peace and contentment, then don't follow Jesus. If you want a secure life, a life lived within the margins of safety, then don't follow Jesus.
If you want a life that is all mapped out, a life you can plan and control, then don't follow Jesus.
From a faith perspective, life's ultimate risk is not to risk anything.
"Who is Jesus to me?" In the final analysis this is a personal question. Each of us must answer the question of whom Jesus will be to us.
A student approached a renowned Buddhist teacher, a father like figure, and said he wanted to explore the great mysteries of the faith. The teacher asked the student to tell him about himself while he made them a cup of green tea. The student began telling about himself and the list of his accomplishments and about his spiritual experiences and as he was talking he noticed the teacher pouring the green tea into a cup. The cup was full but the teacher was still pouring tea so the tea was spilling over the tabletop and onto the floor! The student said, "Teacher, the tea, the tea, the cup is full and you are spilling the tea!"
The wise teacher replied, "Yes, the cup is too full to hold any more tea and so you are too full to hold my teaching. There is no more room in your head." And the student left full of the sad understanding that he was too full of himself to harbor any new instruction.
Move beyond your mind. Venture beyond your ego. That is what the Buddhist teacher was saying to the student when he kept pouring the green tea into a cup that was already full. The student's mind was full. There was nothing the teacher could add to it. The only thing left to fill would have been the student's heart. The student did not understand the teacher and walked away. And we can only imagine the joy he left on the table when he walked out the door.
Jesus, the divine-human teacher, challenges us to repent, to metanoi, to move beyond our mind, to engage life with the intelligence of our heart. This is not an invitation to a romantic feeling. It is an invitation to an altered consciousness. A new way of seeing the world. To move with the Spirit into a realm of intuitive knowing, the kind of knowing we sometimes feel in our very bones. The kind of heart knowing that Peter had for Jesus. The kind of knowing that goes beyond the knowing of the mind and enters the realm of the heart.
Garrison Keillor, on his "Writer's Almanac" on National Public Radio reminds us that Father's Day goes back "to a Sunday morning in May of 1909, when a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd was sitting in church in Spokane, Washington, listening to a Mother's Day sermon. She thought of her father who had raised her and her siblings after her mother died in childbirth, and she thought that fathers should get recognition, too. So she asked the minister of the church if he would deliver a sermon honoring fathers on her father's birthday, which was coming up in June, and the minister did. And the tradition of Father's Day caught on, though rather slowly. Mother's Day became an official holiday in 1914; Father's Day, not until 1972. Mother's Day is still the busiest day of the year for florists, restaurants and long distance phone companies. Father's Day is the day on which the most collect phone calls are made. Let's make a collect call to our Father God today. He is sitting with cell phone in hand waiting for His phone to ring with a call from you and from me. And when we do call in God will want to know what our intentions are in regard to our relationship with our Father who art in heaven.
Jesus asked his disciples, "Do you also want to leave?" We hardly know how to answer Jesus. Thankfully, Peter speaks for us, saying to Jesus for us: "Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life." We are with you, Lord. We're not always sure where you are leading us but we are with you. We are not sure what you are trying to do in us but we are with you, Lord. We are not sure what you are trying to do through us but we are with you, Lord. Even so, Lord, stay with us. Abide with us. Show us the way and we will follow you — one day at a time — always living in the now — into a new way of perceiving God, ourselves and the world. Then we will open our minds and open our hearts and open our mouths and join with both Simon Peter and the demon possessed man whom Jesus cured in the synagogue in Capernaum, confessing to Jesus, "We have come to know that you ... are the Holy One of God."
Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on John 6:56-69
at St. John's Presbyterian Church on June 21, 2009