In Run with the Horses, The Quest for Life at Its Best, Eugene Peterson tells of how he saw a family of birds teaching their young to fly. Three young swallows were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake.
Peterson writes “one adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch – pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water four feet below, the wings started working, and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one.
“The third was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment, his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent was without sentiment. He pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the poor chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. The grip was released, and the inexperienced wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not – that it would fly – that there was no danger in making it do what it was perfectly designed to do.
“Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action, and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully.”
Run With the Horses, Eugene Peterson, InterVarsity Press
In today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of John, the time has arrived for Jesus’ disciples to trust what they had born to do: live with faith in Jesus. This moment of truth has arrived for Jesus’ disciples because Jesus has made two radical claims that are pushing them to the edge of faith in Jesus.
Radical Claim #1: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:56-57)
At the heart of this radical claim is the foundational principle of the Christian faith – life as God intends is made possible by Jesus. When Jesus’ disciples live in relationship with Jesus, they are living in relationship with God. This is why Jesus claimed that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood. He wanted them to understand that life that is found in Jesus is life that is found in God.
In the Koine Greek in which the Gospel of John was written is the word used to describe life that is found in God and made possible through Jesus. That word is Zao. Zao is more than physical life. Zao is the culmination of life as God intended from the beginning. Zao is the word used in the beginning verses of John’s Gospel to describe life as seen through the light of Jesus.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)
Radical Claim #1 got his disciples to talking as it pushed them to the edge of faith in Jesus, “This teaching is difficult who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
It was radical claim #2 that sent Jesus’ disciples running away from him. Radical Claim #2 is found in John 6;63-65:
“It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” But among you there are some who do not believe. For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” (John 6:63-65)
Why did Jesus’ disciples leave when they heard Jesus’ radical claims? Perhaps they left Jesus because they were beginning to understand that Jesus’ teaching about spirit and life was requiring more than they wanted to give. Perhaps they were beginning to realize that Jesus was serious about Zao. Who knows all the reasons? The point was that like the swallow chicks being shoved to the end of the branch, Jesus was pushing his disciples to the edge of faith, the edge of life lived in the light, to life lived in Jesus.
Jesus’ disciples had reached the moment that Karl Rahner, in his book The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Christian Spirituality¸ describes when he writes that he is “convinced that a human being’s historical life moves in freedom toward a point of decision … “
pp.3-4, The Practice of Faith, Karl Rahner, Crossroad Publishing
To paraphrase Rahner’s thoughts, at some point in life you have to decide if you are going to live what you believe. I believe that at some point in life, Jesus’ disciples face points of decision when we must answer the question of whether we will continue to follow Jesus or to walk away. The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is a point of decision that all of Jesus’ followers face when they decide if they are going to live by what they believe about Jesus.
That is why Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus knew they had reached a point of decision. Hearing Jesus’ question, Simon Peter spoke on behalf of the 12 disciples when he said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The time had arrived for Jesus’ disciples to trust what they had been born to do: to believe in and follow Jesus into life as God intended.
In the 6th chapter of John, the 12 disciples had reached a point of decision. The other disciples had left and Jesus was asking if they also wished to go away with the other disciples. In response, Peter asked the question that was the right answer. “Lord, to whom can we go?”
Doug Dillard was a mentor to me. In a book of his sermons entitled Journeying With God, Doug shared the story of when he heard a German bishop who spoke at an assembly. Doug said the bishop made a deep impression on him, not because of what he said, but because of what Doug heard about him. The bishop had been arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned in the upper story of a large police building in the heart of Berlin. He remained there during the air raids of the last days of the Second World War, knowing that any night might bring his death. But that was not the most depressing thought. What was disheartening was the growing feeling that he was powerless – helpless – to do anything about the evil around him. What the air raid warning sounded each night, his guards would scramble immediately to the safety of their shelters in the basement. He was left alone.
While searchlights poked the dark sky, and the humming of airplane engines grew louder and mingled with the noise of guns and bombs, he would do one thing. He would go clumsily through the darkness to the window of his cell, and although his hands were bound, he would knock down the blackout curtains and look out of the window and up to the stars blinking above.
He said that in the midst of his darkness, with hell breaking loose around him, there dawned the truth: that the fury of the nations is not the final sound in creation, that God’s love and purposes ultimately prevail.
p. 46, Journeying With God, A. C. W. Press, Nashville, TN,
The next time you find yourself facing a 6th chapter of John time in your life, when you have to choose whether you are going to run from Jesus or run to Jesus, remember the life you were born to live, remember to whom you can go in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To Whom Can We Go?
by Pastor Marc Brown
August 22, 2021
Accompanying Scriptures: John 6:56-69
(full online service video below)