Jesus' Journey and Ours: Reflections on John 6:56-59
August 26, 2012
I attended a communion service recently. This particular week people were bringing nonperishable food items and medical supplies forward for "Christmas in July" to restock local food pantry and shelter supplies. Here they came, one with a box of macaroni, another with a box of Band-aids, to place before the altar before kneeling at the railing to receive communion. It reminded me that our lives are a journey in which, as we give of ourselves, we receive from God. As we filed toward the front, a small child, maybe three years old and judged too young to commune by his mother, was seated on her lap in the second row. A question popped into his eager young mind, and being a child, he had the good sense to shout it out. "Mommy, where are all the people going?" "Shhh," she said. But he would not be shushed. "Where are all the people going?" he demanded, even more loudly. She clamped her hand over his mouth, but not before he cried out "I want to go too!"
Several years ago, one March afternoon, I sat at the bedside of a dying colleague. He was in the advanced stages of liver cancer. I had brought him communion. I sat with him and his wife in the back bedroom of their ranch house. The room had the high windows that you crank open, situated close to the ceiling, the kind that you can hear more out of than you can see. His eyes were closed and all was silent in the room except for the sound of my own voice as I began the Words of Institution: "On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread . . ." As I paused, suddenly several sounds, one after another, interrupted the silence. There was the screech of a school bus stopping outside. A bird's wings whirred as it flew by the window. The clock in the hallway began to chime the quarter hour. A stream of sunshine, bright enough to cut the dust, flowed through the little window, lighting up our hands holding the elements together. Finally, there was the sound of children laughing. My colleague opened his eyes, looked up at me, smiled and said, "Life goes on."
These stories share something in common. In both the church scene and the deathbed scene, people are going somewhere. In one, they are going to the altar and in the second, someone is moving to the edge of the Jordan to cross to the next life. In the journey of life and the journey of death we are nourished with the body and the blood of Christ.
In our scripture passage this week, Jesus has pointed to his body and blood as nourishment for eternal life. His opponents are threatened by this claim, and his disciples also struggle with it. "When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'" (Jn. 6:60). "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (Jn. 6:66).
The question arises that if we are no longer going about with him, then where are we going? If I'm not on a journey, like the Christmas in July communion procession, in which I am nourished by God so that I may give to others, then what am I doing?
Peter realizes that, while Jesus' message and way are not easy, that's all he's got. Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" A "Yes, but" is implied in Simon Peter's plaintive response: "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" (Jn. 6:67-69).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.