One of my favorite Anglicans, John Stott, once reminded us that we need to be Christians who have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Granted, that was in the old days when people actually read newspapers! I’m sure today he’d say we need to have our eyes on the Bible as much or more than we do on internet news and social media. But the point he is making is that if we want to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ, we have to know not only the good news in the Bible, but also what is happening in our culture, so that we can engage it.
And the news in our culture is very challenging. From a biblical standpoint, we now find ourselves in what Carl Trueman and others have documented as the rise and triumph of the modern self. We live in a culture obsessed with the nature of human identity divorced from any conviction of the existence of objective truth . It is wildly unpopular and politically incorrect to believe there is absolute truth and that one can know it. The relentless sexualization of human identity is a feature and symptom of this abandonment of objective truth.
Several weeks ago I quoted again in our AAC weekly update Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who stated that there will be a new generation of “refugees” from the current metaphysical-sexual expression culture we now live in. Yes, there will be refugees—because turning in on yourself and pursuing your own sexual desires as a fundamental liberty never ends well (See Romans 1:18-32 for a picture of what that looks like). Such a culture cannot keep its promise of personal happiness and fulfillment for individuals whose needs and cravings will inevitably be at odds. Sexual and relational brokenness, desperate loneliness, divorce, broken families, and spiritual and emotional wounds will accelerate with the ever-growing strength of the sexual revolution, blessed by the highest courts of our land.
In a culture where it’s all about me and my choices, where the bottom-line worldview is that the self is the only thing that can be known, and where freedom of sexual expression, self-interests and narcissism reign supreme, what do we as followers of Jesus Christ have to offer those who will be refugees of this new metaphysical-sexual expression regime?
You see, while the culture may be challenging us at this moment, Jesus challenges the culture right back. He says to it, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34-35 NIV). But it is not only Jesus’ promises we have to offer hurting people; it’s the way Jesus relates to the same kind of people we find all around us. Consider the context of this story. Jesus is in Capernaum’s synagogue facing the same sorts of people we find in our culture. Some were materialists, wanting more physical bread for their hunger, like those around us only concerned with what they can taste, touch, feel, and see that will meet their needs. Others were sensationalists, asking for more signs and wonders, like those around us who are never satisfied with the latest entertainment and are always craving more. Others were the “selfies,” those who turned away because what Jesus taught was too hard, like those around us always preoccupied with themselves and how they’ll feel or look to others.
He spoke to all these kinds of people, and yet, from out of all of them, some did believe and followed him. This story in John is not only about who Jesus is and who his audience was but how he draws people to himself, despite their resistance. John 6 contains at least four lessons for us as we face the refugees coming our way, four ways we can reach out to hurting and needy people just as Jesus did:
1. Jesus relentlessly points us to himself.
Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:34-35 NIV)
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” he is saying that he alone is that staple of life that fills the hunger in every human heart. This is the first of the “I AM” Statements in the Gospel of John. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5); “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the Resurrection and the life” (11:25); “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6); and “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). In this and every I AM statement, Jesus is calling attention to himself, saying in no uncertain terms, “If you want the fulfillment of the teaching, look to me. I’m all you need.” So if we want to reach lost people trapped in a “selfie” culture, the first thing we need to do is point them to Jesus as relentlessly as Jesus pointed them to himself!
2. Jesus points us to his blood.
Jesus said to them, “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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:53-54 ESV)
Can you think of anything more scandalous to a Jewish audience than telling them to drink blood, since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was strictly forbidden by the law in Leviticus (3:17, 17:14) and Deuteronomy (12:23)? In the Old Testament, the blood of an innocent sacrifice cleansed God’s people from sin. Jesus and his audience knew that. Blood reminded them and us of the violent sacrifices on the temple’s altar to purge humans from sin, though only until another such sacrifice was needed. As the author of Hebrews later wrote, the law required that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Heb. 9:22) Blood reminds us of our sins, put away by the blood of the one, perfect sacrificial lamb, Jesus Christ. Only his blood can blot out our sins for all time. It reminds us that saving faith is not only an acceptance of the gift of new life in Jesus Christ but also a recognition of this cost. His blood alone washes away the sin that condemns us to death. It also reminds us of the challenge set before us, as we follow Jesus down that same path of suffering and resurrection. Of course we want the eternal life that Jesus offers us, but are we willing to face the sin in our own lives that took Jesus to the Cross, and are we willing to turn away from that sin by His grace at work in us?
3. Jesus points us to our need to feed on him.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me…Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:56-58 ESV)
This language of eating and drinking further deepened the scandal of the Christian faith, and pagans used these words to accuse Christians of being cannibals. Of course Christians are not called to be cannibals, but we are called to feed on spiritual food. Christ is using this graphic language to say that people must take him into their innermost being, and he illustrates what “believing in Him” actually requires: complete devotion to and union with Christ. Saving faith is taking Jesus into ourselves as directly and as often as we take food into our bodies.
In its “earthiness,” the image Jesus uses here appeals to the “felt needs” mindset of the people who just ate the miraculous bread Jesus provided. And so this image can speak to those today who are starving for meaning, identity, and every other need of the human heart, soul, and mind. Jesus offers “real food” and “real drink” for our hungry hearts and thirsty souls.
One of the things I love about our reformed Anglican tradition is the fact that we find the culmination of this promise of real food and real drink in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Every Sunday we gather together to hear the words of Jesus unpacked and the Good News expounded upon, and in every celebration of Communion, we not only remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but we receive him internally by faith through the bread and the cup: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Through this outward sign, a spiritual reality is received that takes us beyond mere intellectual assent, membership, and attendance at church. Jesus is inviting us into the intimacy and dependency with him that he shares with God the Father: “Just as I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (6:57).
4. Jesus points us to trusting him, even when we don’t understand.
“Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before… The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:61-63 ESV)
Instead of cutting his audience some slack, Jesus challenges their response. Instead of dumbing down the message or adjusting it to the felt needs of his audience, Jesus says “You haven’t seen anything yet! There will be even more to come that will offend your senses and your thinking!” From this point, the scripture says that a great many disciples took offense, turned away, and no longer followed him. Jesus wouldn’t back down or compromise his claims. He didn’t run after them and plead for them to reconsider. He simply laid out what it means for them, for you, and for me to receive him as the bread of life. Then he turned to the twelve and said, “How about you? Are you ready to leave too?” Peter answered in some the greatest words of saving faith you and I will ever hear: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68 ESV)
How do we respond to the challenges that Jesus Christ brings? What are we to do with Jesus when he says, “Oh by the way, the truth you’ve been seeking, the God you’ve been waiting for, is right here. Look no further!” Or when we hear him tell us we must eat his flesh and drink his blood? Or when he lays some other demand on our life that we feel is unreasonable? Shall we dismiss him as a dangerous megalomaniac, deeply out of touch with reality? Or is he exactly who he says he is: the one God sent us, the one and only bread of life?
Our response to these challenges should be Peter’s: Lord, there is no one else in our “selfie” culture that we can turn to who will meet our deepest needs: forgiveness of sin and a life worth living, abundance now and never ending, real food for our hungering hearts, and real drink for our souls that thirst for a genuine and authentic identity. Lord, we will remain true to you and your word even when the rest of the world dismisses you and your word. We will follow you when your truth and your ways are hard to understand and even harder to apply. We will love our neighbors, share the Gospel, and pray for them even when they turn against us. We will receive with joy those refugees of a secular and sexualizing culture that won’t keep its promise of fulfillment, the same joy with which you received us when we came to you as prodigal sons and daughters.
We will follow YOU Jesus, because only you have the words of eternal life.