Eating Elephants

Some of the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching and said, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”  Do you agree?

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John 6:56-69

[Fingers in ears, saying loudly,] “LA LA LA LA LA LA, I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!”

Maybe that’s your response when Jesus says:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56)

These words sound like communion to us, and the bread and juice that represent Jesus’ body and blood broken and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ words here do anticipate the Last Supper, but at the time that Jesus is saying this, the sacrament of communion didn’t exist yet.

It’s bad enough to hear it once.  We started reading in the middle of Jesus’ speech.  Jesus actually says, “eat my flesh” four times.

Those who are listening aren’t sure what to think.  Does Jesus mean this literally?  How can this be?

It’s no surprise that some of the disciples complained about how hard it is to take in what Jesus is saying, or that some of them left and stopped following Jesus at this point.  I think what’s surprising is Peter’s response when Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you want to leave, too?”

Peter says, “Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 MSG)

Bold talk from the guy who would become famous for denying Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested.  Which leaves us wondering whether Peter really understands the profession of faith that he is making. 

The reality is that some ideas feel too big to take in, and some things seem too big to accomplish, and so we get overwhelmed and want to give up, just like the people who walked away from Jesus in today’s reading.

One of my favorite parts of this story is that John says Jesus was aware that people were complaining about what he is saying.  This reminds me of the line in the song “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” that says, “Jesus knows our every weakness.”  Jesus is aware.  I find that comforting, because it reminds me that God knows our struggles and understands how hard it is sometimes to follow Jesus.  We might even give up on God, but God doesn’t give up on us.

Psalm 89:2 GNT says that God’s faithfulness is as permanent as the sky.

So what does it look like to keep walking, keep trusting, keep growing? 

Jesus says, “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

These verses remind me (and maybe you too) of what Jesus says John 15: “Remain in me and I will remain in you. . . When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love.” (John 15:4,10)  And then Jesus tells about the Holy Spirit who is the one that lives in us and helps us to remain with Jesus.

It’s like the old proverb, “How do you eat an elephant?

. . .One bite at a time.”

I don’t know whether you really want to eat an elephant, but I’d like to think that you want to follow Jesus.

How do we follow Jesus?  One step at a time. 

Writer Anne Lamott says that’s how to accomplish writing.  She says: “My older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”[1]

One bird at a time. One step at a time.  One idea at a time.

I’ve had to do this with books that have ideas that are challenging.  For example, the book Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby and Claude King.[2]  In this book, Blackaby helps us to see and understand how God is working all around us.  When I found this book, I was new to the idea of having a relationship with God and hungry to understand more about how to see God.  But Blackaby’s ideas were stretching me so much that I could only read this book a bite at a time.  Then I had to take a break and let the ideas digest for a while before I could take in any more.

Reading the Bible is like that, too.  There’s so much there, not just because it’s more than 770,000 words,[3] but because it’s full of ideas about God that can take some time to wrap our minds around.  We read it in bite-sized pieces so that we can take time to ponder what it says, ask God about what it says, read what other people think about what it says, talk about what it says, and hopefully come to some depth of understanding.  Some pieces are easier to chew, and some pieces will take a lifetime to fully digest.

How do we digest the whole Bible?  One bite at a time.  One verse at a time.

This is how we helped our kids clean their rooms.  Sometimes the mess was too big and overwhelming, and they couldn’t figure out how to get started.  So I’d make them a list of steps.  My granddaughter Raegan told me yesterday that her mom does this with her now. Step one: Clothes. Decide what she’s going to keep.  Step two: Put all the clothes that need to be given away into a bag.  Step three: Put the clothes she’s keeping away.  Step four: Straighten the shelves. Step five: vacuum.

How do you clean up a messy room?  One step at a time. 

Instead of giving up, just take one step at a time.

Sometimes all we know to do is just keep going, even when we can’t see what’s ahead.  This is what happened to us the time my husband Rob and I decided to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway.[4]  This famous road started being built in 1946, and was created to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.[5]  The scenic drive winds through the top of the Appalachian Mountains for 469 miles.  Along the way there are 280 scenic overlook spots to take in the stunning views.[6]  We were so excited to spend a couple of days exploring the southern end of the parkway, and since it was the beginning of fall, we hoped to get some good views of the changing colors in the trees. 

The beginning of the parkway was two hours away from our house in South Carolina, so we planned to spend the night at a hotel in Cherokee NC where the parkway begins, and then get an early start on our scenic drive.  It was a cloudy day, but we didn’t think that would be a problem when we left our hotel down in the valley.  But when we got up onto the road that runs along the tops of the mountains, we were suddenly in dense fog, the kind that only allows you to see just a little bit of the road ahead.  We couldn’t see a thing.

That fog almost killed us. Rob said that’s one of the scariest times he’s had behind the wheel of a car.  We probably should have given up, but we were determined, and we hoped that if we kept going we’d get past the fog.  So we kept going.  In the fog, barely able to see where we were going.  And actually we did at one point try taking a turnoff to get down the mountain, and we found that the parkway was so much better marked than the side roads that we were actually safer staying on the parkway, so we stayed on the parkway.  We had no choice but to keep going, and eventually, slowly, we did reach our destination.

And every single scenic overlook sign mocked us.

We could barely see the signs, let alone the view.

How do you get through a foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway? 

One mile at a time.

Sometimes we won’t be able to see that we’re making progress until we look back and see how far we’ve come.  Peter made a bold statement of faith in today’s reading: “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.” (John 6:68-69).  But Peter didn’t fully understand until much later.  Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus spent time with the disciples after the resurrection helping them look back and understand (Luke 24:44-45). And we see from reading Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts and 1 & 2 Peter that Peter did grow to have a great depth of understanding.

Looking back over our lives we can see how we have grown and changed, and that God has not left us alone along the way.

What challenges are ahead of us? 

Whatever they are, with God’s help, we can accomplish them one step at a time.

That’s how we follow Jesus.  One step at a time.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10

[1] Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird (pp. 17-18). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.






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