IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 39, September 24 to September 30, 2001

A Sermon on John 6:60-71

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

In John 6:35-59 we looked at the second half of Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse, which focused on the character of the beggar. Remember that we established that God doesn't need us, but it's his good pleasure to have us. Thus, we are beggars for all the grace God will give us. As beggars we are the blind who are led, the hopeless who are given a future, and the lost who are given new life.

In John 6:60-70 we see how the crowds responded to this Bread of Life message that Jesus delivered. Remember, we're dealing with many people who had followed Jesus for quite some time. These people had been enthusiastic about his teaching in the past. They had heard teaching like the Sermon on the Mount, and they had come hungering and thirsting for more. Then they heard Jesus telling them how helpless they were to come to the Father — it wasn't about anything they could do, but about the work of the Father within. This week, we see that there were two responses from this crowd of followers: some deserted Jesus; but the true believers stayed with him even when it got tough.

First of all, notice that deserters grumble but true believers trust. Look at verses 60-61: "On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?' Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this..." The first question we should have is "What is this hard teaching?" Well, it's is everything we've seen in chapter 6: it's the truth that Jesus and Jesus alone is what satisfies; and it's that we don't earn our way into God's good graces, but that God grants them by his good pleasure — our social status, pedigree, heritage, or good works do nothing to enhance our status before God. To use the metaphors we've been exploring, Jesus is the bread of life and we are beggars.

Next, we need to ask, "Why is this a hard teaching?" For the original audience this was a hard teaching because they had already risked a lot to go out to the desert to hear Jesus. It was hard because they were longing for a political messiah who would restore the good fortunes of Israel. It was hard because deep down they liked being special, and they had begun to think that they deserved it. Why is it hard for us today? It is hard because we like control. We have the idea that with enough hard work and elbow grease, God will have to accept me. It is hard because we define "good" as "being nice" rather than as "obeying God's Law." It's easy to be nice — it's difficult to be good.

Notice that they didn't try to refute this hard teaching. They didn't shake their fists and proclaim Jesus a madman. Rather, they grumbled. They muttered and then in verse 66 they turned back — they slunk away, muttering and grumbling, "Well, if he'd just be reasonable..." "Most of what he says is terrific, but he's a little extreme, don't you think?" "If he just learned to be a little more sensitive..." The essence of grumbling is to think that the problem is outside yourself rather than within yourself. Grumbling seeks to put the blame elsewhere, to avoid personal responsibility, and by all means to prevent the question "Is this true?"

In his work The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis envisions hell as a dismal town where people live. They can create houses at a whim, but the people there are so disagreeable that everyone keeps moving farther and farther away. Lewis, in his very British way, tells about one person in hell who wanted to see somebody famous, but all the famous sinners had moved hundreds of miles away from anyone else. So, this person figured out where Napoleon lived and spent months traveling there. When he got there, he found a huge mansion filled with light. And when he peeped in the window, he saw Napoleon marching up and down the halls muttering, "It was Josephine's fault. It was Wellington's fault. It was Lafayette's fault..."

"It can't be me! The problem has to be out there!" We might be able to play that game with other people, but we can't play it with God. The grumblers ultimately desert, but the true believers trust. Look at the second half of Peter's reply in verse 69: "We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." That's enough — all we really can do is believe and know. This believing and knowing opens us to the inward work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit then teaches us how to respond in faith, and he gives us strength. But it begins with that inward action of belief.

While I was in North Carolina, I did some work with an addiction recovery ministry. One of the phrases I heard again and again from these recovering addicts was "Don't give up a minute before the miracle." In other words, when the temptation to use gets so strong that you can't stand it, don't give in and wind up blaming something outside you. Rather, hold on to your faith and let the Spirit transform you. When things look most bleak — when it looks like God has disappeared from all creation — that's when the Spirit is doing the most work on you. Deserters give up and grumble, but true believers trust and let the Holy Spirit do his work.

Not only do deserters grumble and true believers trust, but deserters rely on themselves while true believers rely on Jesus. Look at Jesus' response in verses 61-64. He pinpoints the offense that his hearers took. They were expecting an earthly messiah who would usher in an earthly kingdom, but in verse 63 Jesus refutes that by saying, "The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." Now let me clarify something. At the time of the early church, there was an early heresy called Gnosticism. This heresy preached that everything material is evil and false, and everything spiritual is good. The only way to attain salvation was through a kind of secret knowledge that would free the spirit from the constraints of the body. Some New Age thought tries to turn us once again to that mode of thinking. At first blush, it appears that this passage supports such an approach. But Jesus is not saying that matter is bad; he is not saying that our bodies are inherently evil. Remember the creation story in Genesis: God created everything and pronounced it good. Rather, Jesus is simply saying that physical things are not sufficient for matters of salvation. It is not that the physical is all bad while the spiritual is all good. Rather, it is that creatures are weak, and only the life-giving Spirit of God is strong.

Look closely at verse 63: "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." The Greek word that we translate as "flesh" is sarx. Soma is the Greek word most often translated as "body"; sarx here is translated as flesh. Soma is used more often to refer to the physical body of bones and sinews. However, John tends to use sarx not so much to indicate material things as to indicate those urges that arise from within us that are opposed to the will of God. The "body" is the created physical thing; the "flesh" is that which would place creature above creator.

This distinction is important because the deserter is not just interested in bodily things; he is more interested in putting his own priorities over God's. Many of these people would have been willing to sacrifice their bodies to bring in a political kingdom. But Jesus' priority was to magnify the Father's praise throughout the whole world. In putting his own priorities over those of God, the deserter trusts in himself. In effect, he says, "I know what is needed and necessary..." It doesn't much matter what he says after this point — it might be something that really is necessary, but his spirit is still all wrong. The deserter sees things in terms of issues that need to be resolved rather than in terms of a relationship to which one must be faithful.

There's a great story about the making of the film Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier starred in this movie, and they shared a scene where Hoffman's character had escaped after being tortured by Olivier's character. Olivier came from a school of acting where the actor tapped into his inner resources to create a character. Hoffman's method focused more on trying to create as much of the real feeling as possible. So before the scene, Hoffman ran several miles, then he threw himself down a staircase. Only then was he ready to shoot the scene. When the scene was complete, Olivier turned to Hoffman and said, "That was quite impressive, my boy. But tell me, have you ever tried acting?"

I don't tell that story to disparage Dustin Hoffman as an actor or to call him a deserter. But it does illustrate the tortured lengths we go to when we try to manufacture something that suits our own ends. The deserter tries to manufacture what he thinks is the right outcome; the true believer puts his trust in Jesus. Look at Peter's words again: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life." This is one of the few times Peter speaks without bravado. In chapter 13 he would say, "I will lay down my life for your sake." In Matthew 14 he told Jesus to let him walk on the sea. Peter liked to talk about himself, but he didn't do it here. Here, blessedly, for once, dear old Peter got it right. He humbly put himself in Jesus' hands. Isn't that always the way? When things are going well, we like to talk about what we will do for God. But when everybody is turning away, when things look bleak, the truth is revealed that we can only talk about Jesus having the words of life.

So, deserters grumble while true believers trust. Deserters rely on themselves while true believers rely on Jesus. Finally, deserters start strong, true believers finish strong. Notice that all the people who left were considered "disciples." They followed Jesus, but when things didn't go the way they expected, they left. But the eleven of the twelve remained faithful. These were men who would go on to be martyred for the faith. And then verses 70-71 remind us about Judas. Of the twelve, only he would later desert. This lets us know that deserters don't all desert at the same time. Some wait longer and actually become traitors. All throughout history we see this pattern of starting strong and deserting later. King Saul started well, delivering the Israelites from the Philistines. But he thought that his way of doing things was better than God's so he slipped into insanity and ultimately died with his kingdom in ruins. Joseph Stalin started out studying to be a priest — a good beginning. But he turned from that to become one of the most ruthless dictators history has ever seen. As he lay on his deathbed, he took a great final gasp, raised a clenched fist to heaven, and collapsed. A good start doesn't guarantee a good finish.

But the rest of the twelve finished well: they carried the gospel around the Mediterranean; they witnessed the resurrection; they saw the tongues of fire at Pentecost; they watched as the church grew throughout the Roman Empire; they paid the price of martyrdom for the faith. And as a result, their legacy lives on in the church today. They finished well.

Ultimately, deserters have no resources to draw on but their own. This leaves them bitter, disappointed and frustrated. Listen to this quote from Comedian George Carlin: "I've given up on the whole human race. I think a big, good-sized comet is exactly what this species needs. You know, the poor dinosaurs were walking around eating leaves, and they were completely wiped out. Let the insects have a go. You know, I don't think they'll come up with sneakers with lights in them, or Dust Busters, or Salad Shooters.... I only wish there were some way I could live out on the moon and watch it all on CNN ... I just want to describe the mess. But life is dual. If you scratch a cynic, you'll find a disappointed idealist."1 Do you hear that? He's a grumbler placing all the problems "out there." He says, though tongue in cheek, that he wants to rely solely on himself — it's no wonder he's not finishing strong. But the person of faith trusts and relies on Jesus. And from that trust, the Holy Spirit gives the strength to finish strong. You think about that. Amen.

1. Quoted in the Utne Reader (October 2001), p. 111.