At this point in the story, Jesus has become a big deal. These verses we heard today are at the end of chapter 6, but we should remember how the chapter began—with that scene on the hillside, where crowds of people from the nearby villages gathered to see him, to hear him speak.
After a while the afternoon turned to evening and the people were hungry, so Jesus fed the masses with a miracle of bread and fish—thousands of hungry people now full, and happy, and impressed with this teacher. So they stick around, they tag along, they become followers—there for the bread, ready for the next miracle.
Then we have our passage for today, these verses with shocking images, words so outrageous that people shake their heads and walk away. Disappointed. Perhaps wondering if they had misunderstood this teacher from the beginning, when they sat on that hillside, enraptured with his presence, feasting on his miracles. His words, now, were too much for them. They probably thought this Jesus guy was headed in a strange direction, too weird for the lives that they had—what would the neighbors think, when the villagers discovered that they were associated with this bizarre religious leader, when their friends discover that they were some of his followers.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus tells the crowds. (6:56)
“This teaching is difficult,” some of the disciples respond. “Who can accept it?” (6:60)
“Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. (6:61)
The answer is, Yes, many turn out to be offended. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (6:66)
Then Jesus turns to those closest to him, the twelve people who have been with him from the beginning. “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67) And Simon Peter answers, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:68)
The crowds leave as quickly as they arrived, and Jesus is left with his twelve friends—a small group, all of them committed to the movement, with or without miracles of bread.
I don’t have enough money or power to buy friends, to keep people around with handouts. I can’t promise anyone anything, in terms of making a wonderful future for them. I can’t perform miracles. The friends I have, I assume, stick around for other reasons—not for some external good, not for something I can give them, but because we’re friends, because we like each other, because we have a history of sharing life, a relationship that has grown over time, we’ve developed a shared sense of caring for each other. At least that’s why I hope my friends are part of my life.
I think that’s part of what’s going on for Jesus in the story. He needs to know if all of these people are there, with him, for the miracles or for his life—are they with him for the bread or his life? Are they there for the bread along the way or to be part of his life, to eat bread or to be in sync with his life, to give their lives to the movement to which he has given his life—to abide with him, and he with them, in the kingdom of God, the reign of heaven, this life transfigured with eternal life.
Why are we here? That’s the question that this story asks of us, all of us who consider ourselves among the disciples in the story. “Do you also wish to go away?” Why do we do this Christian thing? I think about this every once in a while, for myself, when I scroll through Facebook and get to thinking that most of the friends I grew up with from youth group don’t call themselves Christians anymore. They left church behind years ago. Yet here I am, still a very churchy Christian.
I can’t help but wonder why I’ve stayed in the faith after all these years. I come up with lists of reasons, of blessings and hopes. Sometimes I’m tempted by the thought of my faith as a way I can prove to God that I deserve some good things every once in a while, a blessing or two, crumbs from the table, some leftover bread—to think of God as a cosmic force of karma, a type of Santa Claus who keeps a list of who’s been naughty or nice, a God who rewards the faithful in this life or the next.
As I’ve said before, the so-called prosperity gospel isn’t a modern invention—this belief that God rewards us with blessings, if we can muster enough faith, if we act with enough goodness in the world. Prosperity theology is a perennial Christian impulse—a belief in a God who we think we can manipulate with our prayers, with our actions.
In the fourteenth century, a preacher named Meister Eckhart talked about how we turn God into a cow—we think about God like we would a cow. I like his sermon so much. Here are two lines from it. “People look upon God with the eyes with which they look upon a cow… To love God the way they love a cow, because it gives you milk and cheese. This is how people behave who want to love God because of external wealth or inner comfort… they love their self-interest.”
They don’t really love God, he says; instead, they love their self-interest, they’re motivated by their own interests. To have faith in God because they want milk and cheese. That’s such a great image from Eckhart. To love God out of our self-interest. To worship out of self-interest. To follow Jesus for the bread.
The problem for that line of thinking, Eckhart says, is that we’ve misunderstood God. We suffer from bad theology, bad ideas about God, a God we’ve created a God in our image, a God who needs reasons to do things, like we do, with all of our self-interested reasons and calculations. Instead, Eckhart says, “God loves us without a why.” God loves without a why. God loves us without a reason, without a self-interest, without making calculations.
The gospel, the good news, is that God loves us because God loves us. That’s what we mean when we say that God is love—a love without hesitation, without reservations.
We’re not like that, of course. We’ve got our reasons for things, for why we’re here, at church. Some very good reasons. We have our interests, we’re motivated by self-interest, whether we like it or not. We want to get something out of this life we’ve been given. That’s just how our brains seem to be wired—a deep-seated sense of self-preservation, to look out for ourselves, the care of self and our kin.
Hopefully one reason why we’re here, one reason why we gather as a church is to learn something of God’s love, for worship to open our spirits to the Holy Spirit, for our gathering to open our lives to God’s life.
Church is our intentional exposure to the presence of God, to the Jesus in the story, the Holy One of God, who confronts us with our selfishness and invites us into God’s life, to follow Christ into God’s life of love, a love without reasons, a life of love without beginning or ending, a love who was here before us and will be here after us—God’s eternal life, heavenly life, shared with us as a love that sustains all that is good about this world.
 Meister Eckhart, quoted in Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 60.
 Ibid., 61.