Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Is the Easiest Thing the Hardest?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Bernard of Clairvaux, Hymnwriter and Theologian
August 19, 2012
The nature of grace is that it’s free. There’s nothing you do, nothing that’s up to you, nothing about you that you have grace. It’s given to you, it’s not of you or by you or from you. It’s the easiest thing there is. Salvation is accomplished entirely by God and given you entirely by grace. There are some things you do that are pretty easy but you are still doing something. With salvation there is nothing you do. You can’t get easier than doing nothing.

Consider if you were extremely hungry and someone gave you food. You would be happy that you are being fed. You would be thankful that the person gave you food. You wouldn’t be consumed with thoughts of, “I’m glad I’m taking the food in my hands and exerting the energy to put it in my mouth. I’m glad I’m doing the work of chewing so that I can get the benefit of the food.” When we eat we’re thinking about the food, not the work we do of actually eating it. The food has been given you by grace, not by anything you have done.

Think about if you were given a lavish meal by a wealthy person or by a king. Your focus wouldn’t be on all that you do to get the food in your mouth. You would be amazed that you have been given this gift of this lavish meal.

This is the nature of grace. This is what God’s gift of salvation to you is all about. It’s Him giving it to you, it’s you being the recipient of love and mercy you don’t deserve.

So it’s easy, right? In that He does it all and you are simply the recipient of it, yes, it’s pretty easy. It’s so easy that it seems that everyone should be in possession of this gift. It seems that everyone should be saved. You hardly have to look around to know this isn’t remotely true. We hear often of the new atheists who are hell-bent on drowning out Christ and the religion of Christianity. We know people in our families, our neighborhoods, and where we work who are staunch members of Judaism, or Islam, or Mormonism, or any number of religions. You never have to travel to other parts of the world to meet and know followers of the world’s religions.

Most definitely, not all people are in possession of the gift of salvation from Christ. Why is this? It’s so easy, He simply gives it to us, why are so many people without it? Why is the easiest thing the thing that so many people do not have?

It’s because the easiest thing is also the hardest thing. Being in possession of eternal salvation is the hardest thing in the world even though it’s the easiest thing to receive. Why would this be? Why is the easiest thing the hardest?

In today’s Gospel reading after Jesus details how people receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Take note of who these people were. They weren’t the hard-core atheists that want nothing to do with Jesus. They weren’t Muslims who view Jesus as merely a prophet. They weren’t your run-of-the-mill humanists who could appreciate the timeless wisdom Jesus taught even if they viewed Him as nothing more than a great teacher. These were disciples of Jesus. They were His followers. And it wasn’t just a few of them who couldn’t stomach Jesus’ teaching. There were many of Jesus’ followers who took issue with what Jesus was teaching here.

Such an easy thing, and yet so hard to swallow.

You heard the words yourself when the Gospel reading was being read a short while ago. I’ve read those words many times and have to fight the thoughts that come naturally to mind and that are eerily similar to what those people said when they heard Jesus speak them. Jesus giving His flesh to us to eat? Giving us His blood to us to drink? If I weren’t a Christian I really think I would hear these words and think of this religion of Christianity as one that has some disgusting elements to it. Some religions throughout history have had elements that are just too much for most people to bear. Sacrificing children, self-mutilation, commanded to view yourself as a worthless person. These are teachings and rituals that rightly turn many people away.

We are Jesus’ disciples. We are His followers. How do we react to these words of Jesus? What is He teaching us when He says to us, “I give you My flesh to eat and My blood to drink?” Isn’t it a little disgusting to think of, eating flesh and drinking blood? Why does Jesus say, “Here, eat this, My flesh”? Is it any wonder that John tells us that many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and then rejected Him?

There’s a reason we normally think in terms of our belief in Jesus as just that, belief in Him; or having faith in Him. If someone asked you, “Do you believe in Jesus?” you probably wouldn’t respond with the affirmation, “Yes, I wholeheartedly eat of His flesh and drink of His blood.” This way of talking that Jesus used in the Gospel reading about believing in Him is one of the many ways He and the Scriptures talk about believing in Him. As it is with the all the others, this faith in Him is completely the work of God in us. As Jesus Himself said in the Gospel reading two Sundays ago when His disciples asked Him what they must do, He responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” If it’s true that believing in Jesus is something you do it’s true this thing you do is actually the thing God does. It’s His work. You believe because God works it in you.

This is at the heart of why this is so hard. Who can listen to a teaching that removes you from the equation? What part do you play in your salvation? None. Who can listen to that? Who wants to be in a religion like that? So many people say, “No thanks, I’ll go to a religion where I hear that I have some good in me and it counts for something.” Not Christianity. Not Jesus. With Him what you get is, “Eat of My flesh and drink of My blood,” as if to say, “It’s all Me.” If you want salvation you can get it only if you believe that it’s not of you but of Him. If you are to be forgiven of your sins you must recognize that you are so utterly sinful that you are unable to do anything to get rid of your sin.

That’s why it’s the hardest thing. Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked them if they were going to turn away also. Every so often we are met with a confession of faith that we can simply step back and marvel at. We would do well not only to meditate on the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading but the confession of faith from the lips of Peter. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” At this point the furthest thing from Peter’s mind was how much he inserted himself into the relationship between him and his Lord. His confession of faith was of the one who had been sent by God, who worked in him the desire and ability to believe in the one whom God has sent.

Peter had many problems, as you and I often do in our faith life. But it is purely by the grace of God that we see that when we believe we are saved by grace we are saved solely by what our Lord has done and by nothing we have done. That it is purely by grace that we who are sinful are actually given the grace to do something amazing, believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of all of our sins.

But there’s another reason that the easiest thing is the hardest thing. When Jesus talks of giving His flesh for the life of the world and offering us His blood He is speaking in terms of who He is and what He came to do. His flesh was offered on the cross for the life of the world. His blood was shed on the cross for the taking away of the sins of the world. This was not easy, it was something no one could do but Jesus Himself. It was in fact the hardest thing and that’s why Jesus came, in order to accomplish it. He came in order to do what none of us could. He who has the words of eternal life is He who gave His flesh and blood for the life of the world.

This hardest thing that Jesus Himself has accomplished has now been given freely to you, by grace—His mercy, His forgiveness, His eternal salvation, all given to you. To whom shall you go? There is no one else who gives you such gifts. Your Lord has the words of eternal life and He gives them to you freely in your Baptism, which you live in daily. He is the one who gives them to you by grace and mercy in His Holy Supper where He gives you His body and His blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for your salvation, for your life. Amen.


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