Read John 6:56-71
Why do go to Church? What brings you to a weekly worship service when there are so many other things to do on Sunday? Doesn't sleeping in, reading the Sunday paper at a leisurely pace, sharing a relaxing brunch, or watching an exciting NFL game sound so much better than Sunday worship? Here’s another question to consider: Why do people leave the Church and decide to attend another congregation, or stop going altogether? Does one church fulfill someone’s personal need better than another congregation? Is it the people in the church, or the church building, or the pastor that draws you here? Or perhaps, is there a deeper need that makes you decide how you just might spend Sunday morning? Does self identifying as “Christian” somehow mean that you have to live out your faith in a church community? And if you do self-identify as Christian, does your faith have a core belief to it? Does it matter if you are fundamentalist or liberal? And of course the biggest question of all; does Jesus have anything to do with any of this?
Lots of people have asked me, and continue to ask me what it means to be a progressive Christian. First and foremost their question comes with an assumption. That assumption is that progressive Christianity means liberal Christianity. When I probe a bit further how they might define liberal, they often say…”Well, you believe that homosexuality, abortion and secular humanism are okay in the church.” As if being gay, struggling with the government making health care decisions, and believing that science isn’t incompatible with faith is what defines me. Believe me, I am much, much more than that. And sometimes I have to have my own “tough talk” to clarify misconceptions about myself and my ministry. So when I speak about being a progressive Christian, this simple statement sums it up nicely.
“Progressive Christianity is a broad tradition, encompassing all forms of Christianity which honestly acknowledges that being a Christian is not merely about preserving things from the past, but innovating, revising, reforming, and creatively engaging with the present as well.”
And so you may have noticed over the past six weeks during our sermon series, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, we’ve been shaking up our worship a bit. First we started with a blank slate on the first Sunday of the series. No color stage lights, a stripped down worship environment. It was a blank slate for us to engage a conversation about looking at Jesus through fresh eyes. Slowly we added a colorful, yet quite confusing stage lighting scheme. I’m sure some of you thought what the heck? I want the stage to look symmetrical and simple. Don’t mess with my sense of familiar! Well, that was exactly the purpose all along. To mess with your sense of familiarity. Next we started switching up our order of worship. We move announcements to the very beginning of the service. Oh my goodness, you would have thought the ceiling just caved in! Then we totally threw out our structure with music Sunday last week. Wasn’t that awesome! But we overhauled the order of worship experience too so that you might focus on the content and not the context. And now we’ve got this awesome acoustic worship experience, with a casual and relaxed vibe. We’ve focused on the real reason for worship…and that is to make God, the reason we are here, the center of our experience.
Now I know that some of you don’t like these changes. Many of you have told me so. And so I ask you in return. What is it about changing and adapting that you are so resistant to? Why is it so hard to embrace change? Jesus has much to say about living life in this way. And our scripture today is one of Jesus’ toughest talks.
In my sermon two weeks ago I touched on a worldview that was prevalent in Jesus’ time and culture. For thousands of years, Jewish and Christian theologians pictured God as being up there—above the reality of our daily lives. God lived in the distance—just beyond earth and sky. You remember Bette Midler’s popular song from the last decade? God is watching us, from a distance. Until recently the perception that the earth was flat and God lived beyond the sky seemed logical. In the ancient world when you looked up into the night sky you would have seen stars moving across the galaxy. The sun would rise in the east and set in the west. The moon would appear different sizes and shapes. But everyone believed that the earth was flat and everything beyond it changed and evolved around it. How could it be any other way? Ancient people called it heaven, and whenever they looked for indisputable truth—their gaze went up. In some cultures the sun, moon and stars were gods. And Jewish and early Christian culture had to compete with those religious experiences—and in many ways adapted to it. There are very ancient stories of creation that supercede the stories found in our bible, and guess what, they aren’t that different. When the cultural worldview was entirely defined by what was up and what was down, everything had to fit within that worldview. That’s all that people knew and experienced for themselves.
But what happens when undisputable truth gets challenged? It’s happened to many scientists and philosophers all throughout history. Did you know that the great mathematician and astronomy, Galileo Galilei was imprisoned by the Catholic church in 1633 for arguing against a literal interpretation of scripture when it contradicted facts about the physical world proven by science? Galileo died nine years after being sent to prison, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the Vatican admitted that the church was wrong in its theological interpretations. Galileo challenged the old cultural paradigm of his day and was persecuted and imprisoned for it. And we wonder why people don’t go to church. But it’s that same criticism of the church that we see Jesus waging against the religious institution of his day in our scripture this morning—Jesus once again challenges the undisputable truth that existed in his time and culture. And he does it in a shocking way.
Last week we considered the moment when Jesus told the crowd that his flesh was the bread God sent from heaven. He also said that anyone who ate of his flesh and drank his blood would live forever. And in today’s scripture we find the disciples dropping their mouths open in disbelief. "This word is hard. Who is able to hear it?" Their comment and rhetorical questions indicated they couldn’t follow Jesus any longer. Jesus spoke words that so scandalized his Jewish audience that those words brought shame upon followers who associated with Jesus. So, not only did the words of Jesus cause division and scandal—following Jesus brought scandal and shame. His message of God’s grace and love for all people was offensive to the religious elite. His way of confronting the powers of his day with non-violence, love and sacrifice was a scandal that many could not follow. And in the end, only those disciples that had total commitment and total loyalty to him would remain. Only those that had faith in what Jesus was doing would hang with him until the end. Because their faith involved trust.
Those followers who fell away only did so because they did not trust Jesus. Their reasons for joining the Christian community could have been for temporal reasons. The prayer and fellowship they experienced in the group brought temporary relief from a personal problem or excitement from spiritual ecstasy. Or their fellowship in the community brought honor or certain social advantages. When prayer did not bring spiritual relief, when the spiritual "high" was gone, when fellowship did not satisfy one's social agenda, when social pressure against fellowship became so great, leaving became a viable and desired option. Given a choice, those that wanted to leave would leave. For all the reasons people gave for leaving the community, those who stayed remained because of Jesus.
In the face of controversy, why should you remain faithful? Even those who reject Christ and his Church are called to return by means we may never know. Perhaps it’s our own actions that will eventually bring seekers to Christ and to the wholeness that a Christian life can bring. Do you know of someone who has left the Church? What sort of relationship do you have with that person? How can you help them return?
People come and go in our lives. Some come into your life as blessings; others come in your life as lessons. We all have experienced that in our own lives, and in this church. And we will experience it in the future. But loyalty and persistence, and the willingness to dialogue instead of debate must mark the character of our community. We must foster these virtues in our own families as well in order to build solid family relationships and solid friendships. Take a moment to reflect on your relationship with the church, with each other, and with Christ. How do you show trust and spiritual maturity in your Christian life? I believe it starts with one easy step—learn to engage in honest dialogue with each other. When you encounter hostility and confrontation in your life, which you certainly will, how will you transform conflict into communication?
Jesus faced the same challenge. Was he willing to engage the disciples who would not follow his teachings? Jesus said it was a gift from God to understand and follow him. God gives each of us this gift—and it is called communion. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Let’s celebrate and emulate a God who is still speaking. Amen!
(Excerpts from Larry Broding’s sermon, “Reasons for leaving, reasons for staying” – www.word-sunday.com)