There was a story on Jeremy Kyle about a family with problems. Dad had walked out on the family 14 years ago. He was an alcoholic and he took heroin. He had taken no part in bringing up his daughter and his son for many years. They were giving him one last chance – get clean of the addictions or he wouldn’t see his children any more, ever.
A doctor came on the programme and told the man about his poor state of health: his joints were painful, his lungs were in a bad way, he found it difficult to breathe. If he didn’t give up the booze and the heroin he was going to die.
Jeremy Kyle gave him the chance to attend a rehab centre for 28 days. All he had to do is get into the waiting car. It was the best chance he was going to get. But the man refused. He wasn’t ready for it. The family pleaded with him. But the man refused. He didn’t want to change his life. The beer and the heroin were more important to him than his family. He recognised the truth about his own health, and the family being at the point where there was no turning back, but it wasn’t going to make any difference to him. He got the truth, but he just could not choose life.
It’s about hearing the truth, recognising the truth when it’s in front of you and accepting it, and then being prepared to act on the truth.
The way John tells the story, Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the living bread, about how he is the bread that comes from heaven, and how when you eat this bread, you will have eternal life.
The people who were listening found that really difficult. It sounded almost like cannibalism, like you have to eat Jesus. And we say it every week in the Eucharistic prayer, and I will say it again in a few minutes: This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. They couldn’t get their heads round it. So they were muttering away in the background, saying it was all too much, and he’d gone too far this time.
And Jesus tries to explain it some more. He tells them that he is talking about spiritual things and they need to understand it spiritually. They need to feed on him spiritually, take their life from him.
It was beyond them. Despite all that they had seen, how 5 loaves and 2 fishes had become enough food to feed 5,000, despite all that they had heard him say, they didn’t get it. And some of his followers turned away and left him. They saw that there was truth there – but they couldn’t quite grasp it – but they just could not stick with Jesus and choose life. They would have put it in their own words: Jesus? Dodgy fella! He was weird! When he started talking about eating the living bread from heaven, which was himself – it was a step too far. So they went away, and they didn’t have a clue about how they were missing out.
It’s like the story of the sower told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, where the sower sows seed in all different kinds of soil and some seeds sprout but fail to thrive, while some seeds grow well and produce a great harvest. And Jesus says that it was like people and faith – sometimes the seeds of faith would sprout but wouldn’t last long, while for other people the seeds of faith would take root and be truly fruitful.
People followed Jesus because they liked the stories that he told, and were amazed at the miracles and were happy to take the free food, but when it became challenging and they really had to make a commitment, that was enough, and they were off. Like the man on Jeremy Kyle, they couldn’t go all the way and make a commitment to change, even if that was the way to real life.
The story from the Old Testament, from Joshua, is about making a commitment. The 12 tribes of Israel have crossed over into the promised land and have conquered the inhabitants and claimed their tribal territories. Joshua challenges them about their faith: are they going to follow the Lord their God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, or will they take on the gods of the lands they have adopted. And the people of Israel make a commitment to God, the living God, and they promise to serve him.
There are times in our lives when we have to choose once again where we put our faith and trust. And this was a moment when the whole nation was challenged to choose. That’s why Confirmation is important in the Anglican order, when we choose for ourselves to follow Jesus. But there are other times in our lives, when circumstances bring us to a point when we can either turn away or choose again to be the people of Jesus. For some people, it is a bereavement or an illness or some other tragedy or disappointment and they just feel abandoned by God. I met a man recently who told me he lost his faith when his wife died.
So in John’s story, Jesus is left with the 12 disciples. A lot of the followers have gone. So he turns to the 12 and asks them: are you going too? And there’s that moment, that quiet moment when things could go either way, the moment when you make a choice. So when Jesus asks you: are you going too? What do you say?
In the Gospel, it’s Peter who answers. Of course it’s Peter. Peter is the one who jumps in first with both feet, but his heart is in the right place. “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.”
That’s a powerful prayer of commitment to follow Jesus!
You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.