As I sat in church today I thought back to a man I met about 20 years ago. He was a noted photographer in Laguna Beach, California, and we were picking up an image of his to use on the front cover of a book we were publishing. Somehow the conversation steered toward religion and faith, and he commented, “Oh, I follow the teachings of Jesus!”
“You’re a Christian? that’s awesome!” I replied, please to find a common ground of faith in the man.
“Oh, no,” he answered back quickly. “I didn’t say I was a Christian…I just study the teachings of Jesus. He was a great teacher.”
I was dumbfounded, and felt I’d walked into a weird word trap. “So…like…’Love one another’…’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’? That kind of thing?”
“Yeah, and how he wanted others to be sacrificial and forgiving…”
Hmmm… “And what about the parts where he said ‘I and the father are one?’ Do you think he was God?”
“Oh, no…” he came back. “I just like the morality he gave to people to follow.”
You see…what made me think of this story was that the message being preached was from John 6, where Jesus says in Verse 53: ““Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Not exactly the words of a great “moral teacher”. On its base level…the text alone…this is a hard teaching. He was teaching this in the Synagogue of all places, and he sent the Jews onto a real tizzy! Eat his FLESH? Drink his BLOOD? Who IS this guy??
This falls under one of those “Let him who has ears, let him hear” moments. Of course Jesus didn’t mean to take a bite out of him like a hungry zombie out of The Walking Dead! He meant we must consume him! Ingest him! Make him so much a part of ourselves that when we draw Jesus into ourselves we can’t tell where he ends and we begin. As when we consume food, it is broken down and spread throughout our bodies, the nutrients sustaining our every cell, indistinguishable from it’s original form!
Yeah…I get it…but great moral teaching? Not quite.
This message was so tough that in verse 60 we read, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And by verse 66: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Again, not the response you would expect to receive toward a great moral teacher.
Jesus has already confronted them with the fact that they were following him, not because of his teaching, but because he had fed them! And this is often the case with people who come to church to “get a taste of Jesus”. They want their ears tickled. They want to be told they’re good people. They want to hear that they’re fine just the way they are. But Jesus came to change us…every last one of us. Not just CHANGE us, but to TRANSFORM us…to make us into something other than what we are. And something that extreme takes a whole heart on our part…going in all the way.
Even eating his flesh and drinking his blood. “But that’s repulsive!” one might say. “Couldn’t he have used a different metaphor?”
But he didn’t. It was necessary to divide the “I Wants” from the “I Needs”. The I Wants want to have their ears tickled…to be made to feel good. The I Needs know that there is something they do not have, and know there is no way they can get it or achieve it on their own. They need Jesus. Period. And they will do whatever it takes to love him and serve him.
His disciples didn’t exactly get what he was saying. But they did know one thing…they needed Jesus.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (verses 67-68)
C.S. Lewis said it well in his book, Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a good moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
I think back to that photographer often, and wonder if he ever found what he really needed…the words of eternal life.