What are our expectations? What do we eagerly desire from God? Expectations have a significant influence on our lives.
And the gospel passage today (John. 6: 56-69) focuses on the expectations of people around Jesus in his day - and helps to focus on our expectations today.
Clear, attainable expectations can provide a basis for a sense of achievement, success and fulfilment. Alternatively, expectations can be so tight and rigid that people are doomed to failure or else they can be so vague and idealistic that no one can attain them. Expectations have a lot to do with our sense of success and failure, fulfilment or emptiness.
Case. Some years ago young Jimmy was referred to me at Cairnmillar. He was a very anxious, insecure thirteen year old. His parents and teachers were worried because he had been a bright though sensitive child. But when he went into senior school things started to go wrong : he had no concentration, was easily distracted, his results had plummeted, he was obviously anxious and had no friends. He had become increasingly isolated.
What was going on?
As we explored what was going on in his life, it became increasingly apparent that Jimmy had a rocky relationship with his Dad, who was a powerful, dominating and rather stern character. Frankly, Jimmy was scared of him and felt he could never please his father.
Expectations had a lot to do with the breakdown, Father was always setting Jimmy tests to pass and when he succeeded, which wasn't often, he was rewarded.
Positive reinforcement isn't such a bad thing. The problem was the nature of the tests and expectations which his father set. They were usually rather vague and general.
For instance, "Jimmy you job today is the backyard. When you've done that you can go to the footy." It sounds innocuous. But for Jimmy it presented an impossible challenge.
"Your job is the backyard." What does that mean? Jimmy would stand semi-paralyzed. Where should he begin? So Jimmy rarely got the reward of going to the movies or the footy. He felt hopeless: that he could never please his dad.
So Jimmy's father had to learn to be very clear and explicit in his expectations: "Jimmy your job today is to trim the edges of the lawn and clear up the leaves under the elm tree and put them on the compost." Little by little Jimmy began to succeed and became a happier youngster.
Expectations also are important in spiritual life. What do we expect of God? What do we earnestly desire God to do in our lives and the life of the world?
The gospel passage today - one of the most difficult in Scripture - challenges us to re-examine our expectations of God. What can we expect of Jesus? What does he promise?
Remember the situation.
It is the season of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. A great crowd has followed Jesus across Galilee because they had seen SIGNS of healing. What are they looking for? What are their expectations? Presumably they are looking for even greater SIGNS.
As they gather, Jesus asks for food. They find a small boy with five barley loves and two fish. From this meagre offering the crowd of 5,000 is fed and twelve baskets of left-over bread is collected.
Here is yet another SIGN. Some people start saying, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Their expectations are growing.
Jesus realizes what is going on. They are about to grab him and install him as king. Here is the one who will lead them to triumphant victory and restore the former prosperity and glory of the nation.
How does Jesus respond? It says, "he withdrew to the hills by himself". He turns his back on their triumphal, nationalistic expectations.
The disciples then leave the crowd and return by boat to Capernaum where they are joined by Jesus walking on the water.
The crowd is persistent. They pursue Jesus and find him the next day in Capernaum with the disciples. Now they address him as "Rabbi" - teacher, master. But what are they looking for?
Jesus rather bluntly reflects back a mirror-image of their self-centred, self-interested expectations : "Truly I tell you, you seek me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves."
They have been filled, their physical needs have been satisfied, and they want more of the same. But Jesus confronts them with a difficult truth : their expectations are all wrong. They are looking for entirely the wrong thing because he himself has been sent as "the real bread of heaven". He himself is the true sign. He himself is all they need for full life.
It seems to be a truth too hard for them to grasp. Their expectations are very literal, materialistic and earthly. Without understanding, they say, "Lord" - it has gone from Prophet to Rabbi to Lord - "Lord, give us this bread always." But they are still looking for earthly SIGNS.
In response, Jesus confronts them with the first of the great "I AM" statements - equating with the name of God - "I am the bread of life ... which has been sent down from heaven." He himself is the eternal, real bread of life. But he is speaking of a spiritual truth, which seems beyond them.
They are shocked. They swing from wanting to enthrone him as king to the opposite extreme of rejection : "Isn't this Jesus, the son of Joseph?"
Jesus responds emphatically : "I am the living bread which came down from heaven."
Then an allusion to communion : "If anyone eats this bread they will live forever."
Followed by a forewarning of his death: "The bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
But they are unable to hear. They are preoccupied with their earthly, self-centred desires and expectations. Their thinking is literal and earthbound.
They fail to see that in himself Jesus opens up a new world - he is opening up the eternal, spiritual realm. He is the ultimate sign of the Eternal in the Present.
But all they see and hear are the literal words of the rather bizarre, shocking images which he uses.
It all hinges on their expectations of Jesus as they come looking for earthly satisfaction. What can we expect of Jesus? What does he promise?
There it is! That's the promise! There is the key which unlocks the mystery of this uncomfortable, rather shocking saying - which, incidentally, contributed to the reputation of Christians in Imperial Rome as cannibals. But such a literal understanding fails to grasp the inner spiritual truth.
It is all about the indwelling presence and the abiding presence of the Spirit of the living Christ. The indwelling presence of Christ is the promise. It is all about his promise of presence and participation in every moment of joy and sorrow, success and failure, strength and weakness - in this life and beyond to eternity.
Those who are grasped by this spiritual truth have the doors of eternal life opened up to them.
The promise of the indwelling presence comes through again and again in John's account of the Gospel:
The promise is clear. Jesus also makes it clear that when he speaks of "flesh" then he is speaking of a spiritual reality : "It is the Spirit," he says, "that gives life, the flesh is no help; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." (6:63)
But for some it is no where near enough. It is not what they expect. They want triumph, prosperity, glory, power. It reminds me of the slogan of a modern North American sect : "Health, Wealth, Deliverance." This is not the promise of Jesus. So, "after this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him". (6:66)
For others Jesus' promise is too much, way beyond their expectations of physical, carnal, tangible gratification. They will not find it in Jesus and his promises. So, "many of his disciples turned back and no longer went with him."
Still others were profoundly shocked, offended by his seemingly bizarre message - missing the inner, spiritual truth. They were bound to be disappointed and to go away empty. So, after this, "many disciples faded away and stopped following him."
Make no mistake : expectations have a significant influence on our experience. Also Jesus' words often have the power to create misunderstand and conflict and to cause offence. They leave no room for compromise. They demand a decision.
On that day many disciples turned away : "This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it?" The twelve remained. Simon Peter spoke for them :
"LORD, YOU HAVE THE WORDS OF ETERNAL LIFE; AND WE HAVE BELIEVED, AND HAVE COME TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE THE HOLY ONE OF GOD."