WHY TURN BACK ? John 6:66-68

A sermon with the Anglican congregation of Christ Church, Cataraqui, August 21, 1994

by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)

"Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66)

Today we wonder why disciples of Jesus could ever turn back?" We all know people who quit church going. Sometimes it is because they have got miffed about something that the minister did or did not do. Ministers all make mistakes, so that happens quite often. Others feel rejected or humiliated when someone makes an unkind remark after a service or in a committee meeting. Others get miffed because they did not get their own way.

We may not agree with people who quit our congregation for those kinds of reason, but why would someone turn their back on Jesus?

Before we can answer that question we need to grasp what a disciple is. Notice the word in our text: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." A disciple is not someone who knows the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, or a great saint, or a faithful church worker. The word disciple simply means a learner. Someone who begins learning from a teacher.

Mollie and I were missionaries in India for eleven years. And we often met people who had become disciples of a Guru. "I would like you to teach me the practice of Yoga Meditation." And if the teacher accepted the person as a disciple he or she would go around with him after the day's work, and learn whatever they could. Among Jews a student would attach himself to a Rabbi to learn the Old Testament law. In the old days here in Canada a young man would be apprenticed to learn furniture making from a cabinet maker. There is still an apprenticeship to become a plumber or a motor mechanic.

Let me read to you the only definition of the word Christian in the Bible. When Paul came from Tarsus to help Barnabas as the church grew in Antioch, we read "It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). A Christian is not a dedicated, holy person without faults, or someone who has had a great spiritual experience. A Christian is simply someone who has been baptized or enrolled to begin learning from Jesus. As Anglicans we baptize babies because we want them to begin learning from Jesus from the first prayers and songs with their mother.

So the first Christians were people who would go around with Jesus to learn about God. They might go and join him in the evening by the Sea of Galilee. Or spend a week-end with him when he taught the Sermon on the Mount. When numbers increased he trained his first disciples to teach the new learners. And later in cities across the Roman world people would gather in homes where the Christians would teach each other. You are gathered here this morning, not to earn a place in heaven, but to learn God's kind of love from Jesus himself.

So for our second question we wonder why some quit being disciples of Jesus. Our text was "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."

John's Gospel explained that the reason was that these quitters found his teaching hard to understand. "When many of his disciples hear it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'" This fall many students will enroll in St. Lawrence College. And some will quit because they find the calculus or the chemistry too hard to bother with. In most cases their teacher would have helped them, but they did not really want to learn. In the old days a boy apprenticed to a plumber would quit and go home to his mother when he had to clean out the pipe into a septic tank.

At Saint Lawrence Community College those who complete the courses and get their diploma usually get very good jobs. But on the average about one third to half of the students drop out from the classes. Some quit because they are too busy doing other things. Having a boy friend or girl friend is a very common reason for dropping out. And I am sure there were other good and bad reasons for disciples who began learning from Jesus. As he explained in the parable of the Sower, some have no depth of earth and others get choked by the thorns.

When Jesus saw this happening he asked Simon Peter, "Do you also wish to go away?" And Peter answered "To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). He certainly did not want to go and learn with the Pharisees who would give him 600 rules to obey. Nor did he want to learn with the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection and thought the only way to survive was politics.

So our third question is to ask what Peter and James and John learned from Jesus which was so important to them? Why did they stick with him? From the rest of the New Testament we learn that God's kind of love is the most important thing in the world. First we learn to accept the love of God. Like the Prodigal Son, as soon as we turn home the Father runs to welcome us. We do not have to earn our place at the party. God's love is total and unconditional. But some people find it very hard to accept love. They feel too unworthy.

But why do we need to keep learning the love of God? It seems so simple. One reason is that Satan keeps putting doubt into our minds. "You are not good enough." A sense of guilt and failure keeps creeping in and we get miserable and discouraged.

Having learned to accept the love of God for ourselves, we can then learn to love others. But again that is not as easy as it sounds. We keep meeting people we find very hard to love. Husbands and wives bicker and end up in a divorce that neither of them needed. Families fall out and won't speak to each other. Learning to love enemies does not come naturally. And learning to love other Christians in church can be the hardest of all. Jesus said "By this shall all learn that you are my disciples by your love for one another."

That is why we need to turn to Jesus every day to learn how to love in every kind of situation. And the best place to learn loving is in a community of those who are learning with Jesus.

"Because of this and other reasons many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." But with Peter we say "To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

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