"After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 - John 6.66-70

{From a sermon given 7/16/17}
 
I was a part of the generation that began to try to force the name of Jesus into the mainstream. People that wanted to insist that we think about Jesus the way we do the other good things in our lives. They made T-Shirts that had peanut butter cups on them but where Reese’s would have been instead it was Jesus. Or a Ford emblem that said, instead of Built Ford Tough, Built Lord tough. Instead of Starbuck, it was Jesus and a crown of thorns on a sticker. We found that the world around us was generally willing to make room for Jesus in the marketplace. And we thought we had won. And maybe that was the problem - it was our hope to tell people that Jesus was good, like chocolate, or like coffee, that he was something we should not be ashamed of. But there was no place to tell the truth, the real truth, which is this: that it is the love of Jesus that we need. Jesus is so good that you should love him, unlike those things to which we give parts of ourselves, with all your heart and soul and strength.  

The Apostle Peter stands in the background of John 6 as Jesus receives volley after volley from offended followers. Jesus fed the 5000, which was quite a thing, but then he called himself the bread of life, which to us seems pretty obviously the outcome of all those loaves and fishes but not to the religious leaders of the day, and not to the everyday folks who followed Jesus out into the hills to grab hold of the latest Messiah to fill their stomachs with the hope that they could make themselves well. The crowd wanted a religion as flimsy as bread on the water. But as the NT Scholar FF Bruce said,“What they wanted, he would not give; what he offered, they would not receive.” Jesus demanded devotion, love, exclusivity. And just as it is an offense in that place, among those people, it is also an offense in this place, in my heart and yours. They voted with their feet. Many, the Scriptures say, fall away. And I’m afraid we vote that way too. 

We should not judge too harshly those disciples that walked away. The idea of a God that requires everything from us, that does not bend to our will, is terrifying. The God that asks us to live generously to people we do not love, or in some cases do not know. A God who makes us nervous in all of his talk about giving all and following him. When someone tells you that they are life itself, that you must eat and drink them, isn’t the most rational response, in the end, isn’t it just common sense to shrug? And don’t we do the same thing as we consider the person we have not forgiven, the poor we have not served, the prisoners we have not visited, the sin we have treasured? We are not alone in this difficulty to love Jesus as we should. The New Yorker rerprinted Flannery O'Connor's writing journal from her earlier years as she struggled to integrate her life as a writer and her life as a Christian:

"Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing."

The text says literally that they backed away, away. Haven’t we backed away too, it’s okay to admit it - you’re in the right place this morning if you're lukewarm about all this - Jesus loves the honesty. Haven’t we backed away from the idea of a Jesus that you love? Every week I have to be called back by the sermon. I hope you will be too. This sermon series is called A Life in Nine Words, and the word this week is "love."

There is the love that we are to have for Jesus, an exclusive, devoted, affectionate love, and for most sermons about our love for Jesus this is where we would begin, with our love: a burner of a sermon about how cold our hearts are toward God, and how we might make them warmer, get water from the rock, blood from a turnip. I would spend the balance of the time telling you to fix your feelings because your feelings are broke. Fine. That’s not the preaching you’re getting this morning. As the disciples are questioned about their love for Jesus - about whether they will stay or walk away - Peter, who is so much like us, he's a "volume shooter," sometimes he gets it right. Here's what he says: "where else are we going to go Jesus? You have the words of eternal life, we believe you, that you are the Holy One of Israel." Peter sees here that it is the love of Jesus that provokes a response of love from his people. The degree to which you are believers in the love of Jesus, well that's the degree to which you will love Him with your whole heart. 

I know, if you're a skeptic, or just mildly bored by your faith in Jesus this all sounds hopelessly esoteric, caught in the clouds, and we are here on the ground of things. But what else could be more relevant in everyday life than knowing, without a doubt, that we are truly, cosmically, powerfully, assuredly loved? What could be more relevant than to know that this love does not leave us, does not embarrass us and does not need to be impressed by our competence. Peter says two things, that Jesus is the word of life, and he is the Holy one of Israel. You have to know the love of Jesus before you can love Jesus. 

But what does that love look like?

The word of eternal life means that God has given the way to life. That we can flourish and become the men and women we are called to be. That whatever is deathly in us, all that makes us broken and wicked and lost - the anger that burns not only us but those we love, the greed that makes us hate the money other people have, that turns our work into an unhappy practice in coveting. Whatever is deathly, our addictions, the addiction to escape, gambling and sex and eating and gossiping - the temptation to know something that others want to know. All of it finds an end in the word that Jesus brings. He brings eternal life - light for our darkness. Life for us, if only we want it. The word of life is the love of Jesus for us. But of course the book of John says that we preferred darkness. Remember Jesus sought Peter out, invited him in to salvation, held out eternal life for him. The love of Jesus was the fisherman become the one fished. That has to mean something. This is love. Peter knew that the darkness in his heart was dark indeed, that he preferred death to life, so when life came calling it was love he knew he didn't deserve, and it hooked him. And this is why we celebrate the love of Jesus every week. It is why we direct ourselves to Jesus in worship - and we expect for him to respond, not because we love him but because he loves us. We are hanging on that love while we confess and pray and listen and sing.

The Holy One of Israel is a statement of expectation, weight, longing, exclusivity, promise. For peter it is the recognition that God has come a long way for him, that his promise has stretched out over a great distance, he has come a long way to save his people. For Jesus to be the holy one of Israel means that all is not lost, that this is a love from God that spans generations, that is informed by heartbreak and broken promises of his people. So when you wonder if the God of the Bible is a God of love you have the long story of his patience and endurance. You have the evidence of what he has walked through and the testing of his love. When Jesus shows up he wears, in his flesh, the evidence that God’s promise to be our God endures. 

Sometimes we lose track of how long is the story of the love of God. As a young boy I remember the smell of my mother’s coat when she returned home after her shift. It smelled like the restaurant when she waited tables, I could smell the sauce at Lentini’s. But I could also smell the city because she often had to walk a long way from work when we couldn’t afford a car. I had the evidence of what she went through to love me. This is true of the love of Jesus for you. He is the physical evidence of the long way God goes for his people. This is not puppy love, it is not infatuation that dies after a while, this is long-term covenantal love. He is the Holy one of Israel. He is the one who loves you just like he said he would. Peter is saying Jesus you are God's own promise to us, come a long way to find us, a long, long way to save us. 

The greatest truth with which we need to wrestle is the idea that Christianity is not ruled by other words first: rationality, fairness, morality, all the things we might bring to Jesus, none of these truly define Christian religion. But love does. We talk about the love of Jesus for us but it is quick, we move on to other truths, the theological proofs, the apologetics about the second law of thermodynamics, the prevalence of early manuscripts. We have to recognize that we have not treated Christianity as a religion of the love of Jesus. But we must believe it, because everything that happens after hinges on this truth. Jesus loves you. Sometimes that truth is stuck in our throat, but it is indispensible, it drives our way of life. 

So what happens to you and I, what life do we live if we build things on the love of Jesus? Well, we say what Peter says here, where else can we go? Because of the love of Jesus we love him. So how do we practically say, like Peter, that “there is no other place to go?” How do we love Jesus?

We love Jesus by saying, "Jesus." To love Jesus is to love his humanity as much as his deity. Sometimes it is easier to use only the religious language of "God," in our dialogue of faith. God is an idea that causes less trouble, raises less eyebrows. Say that God loves you and we can have a discussion around a fire, crack open a drink and roast a marshmallow. That love is theoretical, it is like discussing the missing Quark or Federalism or the usefulness of essential oils. But talk about Jesus and he is present in the room, full of compassion and love, full of the miraculous that sometimes makes us blush, he is crucified, his wounds are too much, his suffering too impolite for civilized discussion. To say Jesus loves you is to be reminded that the person of Jesus loves you. His flesh is evidence that you are loved. His wounds are evidence that you need him, his eyes are evidence that he sees us, his ears a promise that he hears us. So talk about Jesus in your home, talk about Jesus in discussions of faith - God gave his love a name so that we would use it and know that he loves us. At the name of Jesus will every tongue confess. 

Let's love Jesus by following Jesus. It may seem obvious, to say follow Jesus is like saying, eat your vitamins. Well, of course. But one of the reasons I included this word in the nine is that sometimes I am afraid we are following not something more than we are following Jesus. We must not define our faith most by the things we despise. A friend of mine was talking about a deep friendship he shared with a Christian in the spotlight; someone who is very well-known in Christian circles but who had recently tried to leave the faith. My friend was saying that what he saw in his friend's life was an expertise and enthusiasm for criticquing Christianity. He was not that kind of Christian, not the kind of Christian that just doesn't get it. My friend recognized that thes person loved being a contrarian, being cool about it, being not something more than he loved Jesus. And there is just no substitute for the love of Jesus. So I say this as a warning and an encouragement. We cannot love anything about the gospel or about theology or about Christianity or the lifestyle of Christianity or anything, anything, more than we love Jesus. 

You must love Jesus more than you love being free from moralism, you must love Jesus more than you love the comfort of Christian community. You must love Jesus more than living a balanced life or living an orderly life, or an envied life. You must love Jesus. Because if you don't love Jesus then you will find that you do not follow him either. You will find yourself in some other place than orthodoxy, believing some other thing, you will find yourself fresh out of generosity, fresh out of courage. You must love and follow Jesus not the idea of Jesus, not the ethic of Jesus, Jesus. This means a daily life of prayer is critical. You must have communion with Jesus if you are to follow him. The practice of daily personal prayer.  

Let's love Jesus by believing on Jesus. So for those of us who know that we love things about Jesus more than Jesus. For those of us who will struggle to say Jesus or follow Jesus, what do we do? It helps to remember, again, that we must look to the love of Jesus, and trust that love. Let's remember how unique and beautiful that love is. This, from Frederick Buechner:

“The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing--the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing--to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy--love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured's love for the torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world.”

Well to love Jesus is to know that he is the perfect response of our God to our inability to love him. His love's great beauty is that he does not toss us away with our small love for him. Don't get things twisted this morning. To love Jesus is to love his quality of patience and grace for you. To expect less of Jesus than immense patience and grace and tenderness for you is to make him into a graven image. It is a second-commandment violation! If you find that you are laboring under the idea that Jesus scowls at your inability to get things right, if you believe that Jesus could never forgive your small faith, the betrayals, the faltering little pledge of allegiance we give him, then you are not following Jesus but some other God. We cannot believe on Jesus without believing on his gentleness and care for his wounded saints.

The best way to grow in love for Jesus is to believe on Jesus. To know that his flesh came into the world to greet you in your imperfect faith. He calls to you today in your frustration over your lack of faith and your lack of love, to believe on him. You say you do not love him as you should, that your love is weak, unclean from sin - believe on me, Jesus says as he heals a leper. Believe on me, Jesus says as he helps the broken to walk. Does your love for Jesus feel dead, deader than dead? Jesus says believe on me as he raises a little girl by hand from the dead while the mourners outside mock and jeer. Believe on me, Jesus says. He loves us first, believe on that. He loves us first so we can love him back. So believe on him, place your hopes on him, ask him to drive you emotionally, rationally, to love him as you ought. I believe he will answer that prayer. Flannery O’Conner’s writing journal reflects her growth in understanding how to love Jesus:

"We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You... I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside."

If we are to build a life, it will have to be built on a love for Jesus.