Should we stay or should we go? Should we remain or should we leave? That’s a decision we will all be making at some point over the next two years, when we vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. David Cameron has promised to give us all a choice on the subject before the end of 2017.
If you have been following the news over the past week you will know that the two opposing referendum campaigns have now officially launched. One side, led by Nigel Farage and others, wants to persuade us to leave the EU – while the former head of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose, is among those trying to convince us to stay. No doubt we’ll be hearing an awful lot more from both campaigns over the coming months, right up to referendum day.
But its not just David Cameron who gives people a choice whether to stay or go. Because in our Bible reading today, Jesus gives his first twelve followers a similar choice. Do they want to stay with him, or head off in another direction? It’s the question Jesus poses in verse 67 of our passage today: “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?”
The reason Jesus asked them this question was that many other disciples were leaving him. We are told in verse 66 that many who had initially followed him had had second thoughts. Many clearly thought they’d backed the wrong man:
- To many of the crowd, Jesus’ claims to have come from God and to be able to give eternal life, were just too much to believe. They simply could not stomach the idea that Jesus was the “Bread from Heaven”.
- Others were offended and disappointed by Jesus’s repeated predictions that he would sacrifice his life – “his flesh and blood” – for their sins. Spectacular miracles and a revolutionary Messiah were what they were looking for, not a Suffering Servant on his way to a Cross.
And so many stopped following Jesus. They left him. They didn’t finish what they’d started. They were like a horse that falls at a fence in the Grand National, an Olympic athlete who pulls up well before the finish line, or a team that fails to stay the course in the Rugby World Cup!
And so Jesus asked his twelve disciples if they wanted to follow the crowd. Did they want to give up on him too? Were they going to go away – or stay by his side?
The truth is Jesus asks us the same question today. If we are Christians here this morning we need to face up to the fact that we live in a secular society in which our Christian faith is widely rejected, ridiculed and derided. We need to recognise that we live in a country where the church has been in decline for decades – a country where crowds of people have walked away from Christ.
Today Jesus wants to know whether will we join them, whether we will leave him too? Or will we keep the faith, will we commit ourselves to Christ, will we keep following him until to the end of our days.
So as we look at the rest of our passage this morning, I want us to think about some of the temptations and trials that try to lure us away from Christ today – I want us to be honest about the challenges to Christian faith that can come at us from the world, the flesh and the devil.
But I also want to remind us of the convictions that will keep us close to Christ. I want us to be reminded why the carpenter from Nazareth remains the only man in the world worth our total trust. I want us to be reminded why the Lord Jesus Christ deserves our unfailing loyalty and love.
- Challenges to following Christ
Do you know what a ‘vox pop’ is? A vox pop is when a newspaper journalist or a TV presenter interviews a member of the public and asks for their opinion on a contemporary question or controversy. For example:
- What does the man on the street think of England’s early exit from the rugby world cup?
- What does Mrs Thomas from Tunbridge Wells think about the EU referendum campaign?
- And does Dave from Doncaster like the new album from One Direction? And so on and so forth!
Often the vox pops responses reporters get are rather inane or uninformed, and really don’t deserve airtime. But just sometimes the man or woman on the street says something rather illuminating and informative.
Well, imagine that this morning I picked up a microphone and walked round a typical church in a typical British town. Imagine I conducted a ‘vox pops’ interview in which I asked members of the congregation the same question that Jesus asked the Twelve disciples in our passage today – “Are you going to leave?” “Are you going to give up on your faith?”:
- First off, I turn to a teenager. Will she leave Jesus? “Yes, I think I might. I’m finding the “forbidden fruit” of sex, drugs and heavy drinking very tempting. Many of my friends claim to enjoy them and I feel I’m missing out. And my clever friends claim that science has disproved God or shown faith to be a delusion, and I just get tired of trying to answer them. Yes, I think I might leave Christian beliefs and behaviour behind.” Oh dear, not a promising start!
- In my imaginary interview I then go up to a middle-aged working man. Does he think he will keep following Jesus? “I’m not sure”, he replies, “With all the time and energy I’m devoting to to work, to sport and to my family, church keeps getting squeezed out.” Another disappointing answer.
- Next I turn to an older woman – what are her thoughts about following Jesus? “I’m starting to drift, she replies. Bad health, bereavement and relationship difficulties have all hit me in recent years, and I’m not sure God is there or cares. I’m finding it hard to carry on as a Christian.” Another sad reply.
- An elderly man next catches my eye, and I ask him the same question. “Frankly I’m getting weary” he replies. “I’ve been a Christian for many years now. I’ve served a long time in church and done all sorts of ministries, but am running low on energy and on faith. And there are some sins I’ve been battling for decades and never seem to defeat. Its very tempting to give my faith up sometimes.”
Finally, just as I’m getting really depressed and tempted to go home, I come across another Christian man, called Peter. I ask him if he is tempted to leave Jesus. “Are you mad?” He replies. “Where else is there to go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. I believe and know that he is the Holy One of God! I’d be crazy to leave him!” A much more promising reply!
Well, which of those different responses do you most identify with? We’ve probably empathised with all of them at some point in our lives. But I hope we have the same convictions as Peter. Despite all the temptations and trials that face us, I hope we have the same confidence and courage to keep following Jesus.
- Follow Christ with conviction!
In our postmodern, politically-correct age, it is not always fashionable or popular to have settled convictions about things – certainly not on religious or spiritual matters. To profess a firm and confident belief is to open yourself up to accusations of being intolerant, closed-minded or even bigoted. Certainly the Church’s position on things like marriage, abortion and assisted suicide is criticised in our secular society.
But Christian convictions – Bible-based convictions – should not be a source of embarrassment or shame. Because it was two settled convictions about Christ that sustained Peter’s faith in him. Two convictions which can sustain our own faith in Jesus today too.
We should seek to share Peter’s conviction about Christ’s identity, and his conviction about Christ’s words.
Firstly, Peter and the Twelve had a conviction about Jesus’ identity. Because In verse 69 Peter calls him “the Holy One of God”.
- Unlike the rest of the crowd, the Twelve really did believe that Jesus was the Bread from Heaven. Like the manna from Heaven that Moses and the Israelites received in the wilderness, Jesus really had descended from above to rescue and sustain God’s people.
- As witnesses to Christ’s amazing miracles, his authoritative teaching and his moral perfection, the Twelve had come to realise that Jesus was far more than just a wise man, a political revolutionary or a religious mystic. In him they had come to see God at work, God living a fully human life. The Holy One of Israel had come in human form. God was no longer to be met in his Temple, but in the person of his Son.
You may know that the word “holy” has two-closely related meanings. To be ‘holy’ can mean to be set-apart, unique and special. It can also mean being morally pure, blameless and without sin. The Twelve had come to realise that Jesus was the “Holy One of God” in both senses of the word:
- Because by his profound teaching, his command of nature and his astonishing claims, the Twelve had come to see that Jesus was utterly unique amongst men in his knowledge, power and authority. Only his Father, God in heaven, had similar qualities. Jesus was therefore holy because he was uniquely divine.
- And in his ethical perfection, his blameless life and his impeccable conduct in the face of enormous temptation and provocation, the Twelve disciples had discerned Christ’s moral holiness.
- In two letters he wrote near the end of his life, Peter called Jesus a man “without defect or blemish”, (1 Pet 1:9), a man “who committed no sin, in whose mouth no deceit was found”, a man “who did not retaliate when insulted, nor make threats when he suffered” (2 Pet 2:22-23). What friend of ours could say the same things about us? You see, Jesus was uniquely good as well as being uniquely God.
If we have really grasped who Jesus is, if we are really convinced that he is the Holy One of God, then we will find him endlessly captivating, supremely interesting, totally awesome and worthy of our complete loyalty and constant love. The thought of abandoning him will quickly become unthinkable.
So in our prayer life, in our reading of Scripture and in our daily and corporate acts of worship, let’s seek to nurture and sustain our conviction about Jesus’ identity as the Holy One of God, as our Lord and Saviour.
If confidence in Christ’s identity is the first secret of Christian perseverance, the second is to have a settled conviction about the power of Jesus’ words. Because Peter’s perfect answer in verse 68 of our passage today reminds us that Jesus’ words are life-giving, Spirit-empowered words. Words of eternal life, no less.
Christ’s words are life-giving because they grant eternal life to all who believe. They are the antidote to death. We are to stake our destiny on Christ’s verbal promises of forgiveness and friendship with God, both in this life and in the world to come.
With such a great salvation on offer, it would be foolish to turn our backs on the one who offers them. No Christian in their right mind would want to turn away from our Risen Saviour.
Christ’s words also show us how to live meaningful lives now. They provide us with guidance on the journey through life, information on our purpose on earth, instruction on how to live lives that honour God and bless our neighbour.
And lastly, Jesus tells us in verse 63 today that his words are spiritual. Spiritual because every word he spoke was inspired by the Holy Spirit. As we read Christ’s words in Scripture we can be completely confident that they are truthful and trustworthy.
So let’s learn from Peter and seek to nurture our confidence in the quality of Christ’s words. Let’s read them regularly and prayerfully – asking God’s Spirit to bring them alive for us, and to apply them to our daily lives.
As I finish this morning, I hope we’ve learnt from Peter today that the secret to Christian perseverence is to have two firm convictions. Two firm convictions about Christ’s identity and about the power of his words.
These twin convictions will grow as we read Jesus’ words in the Bible, as we speak with him in prayer and as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.
Peter’s convictions about Christ meant that he stayed the course. Despite the odd wobble and weakness, Peter came through in the end. He followed the Lord Jesus to the very end of his days, and he looked forward with confidence to eternal life in the world to come. May God help each of us this morning to do just the same.