Stay or Go?

Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs

Should I stay or should I go now? — The Clash

Give me one reason to stay here,
and I’ll turn right back around. — Tracy Chapman

The Gospel of John chapter 6 is full of hard sayings. Here are a few of the hardest. Jesus said:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:37-39 ESV)

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:44-45 ESV)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56 ESV)

Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

These disciples were the crowd who ate the bread and fish Jesus gave them one day, and then followed him from one side of the sea to the other the next day. Yesterday they wanted to make him King by force, but today they want to depose him.

Like their forefathers, they grumbled about God’s provision. They detested this hard bread, this hard saying.

It was only hard from the point of view of the flesh, not the point of view of the Spirit.

To those born of the flesh Jesus’s teaching is hard to chew and hard to swallow, like hardtack. To those born of the Spirit it is easy to chew and easy to swallow, like fresh baked cinnamon rolls.

To the flesh, Jesus’s doctrine was a jaw-breaker and pride-bruiser. This proved that they had no appetite for Jesus. They appreciated only what he could do for them, but they did not appreciate him.

In response to their grumbling, Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

He did not alter his message or offer them something more seeker-friendly. He simply offered them more of himself and they turned him down.

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:65-66 ESV) Why?

Perhaps they wanted a religion that was less God-centered and more man-centered; a message that was less about God working alone by grace and more about God co-operating with man; a teaching that was less about God’s sovereign free will and gracious desire, and more about man’s “free” will and good decisions.

Perhaps they went away in search of a god who helps those who help themselves, who caters to his people. 

Whatever their reasons, the bottom line is this: they turned away from Jesus because they wanted to. For that, there is no excuse. 

People always do what they want to do or die trying — unless the Father draws them to Jesus and the Spirit gives them a new heart and desires. (see Ezekiel 36:25-29; cp John 3:5-8)

Surprisingly, Jesus did not apologize to them, beg them to stay, or chase after them. He watched them turn and go away from him. Why? Because he knew that they were doing what they wanted to do, acting according to their old nature, on their own fleshly desires.

Since the Father had not given them to Jesus, he let them go their own way.

Then he turned to the Twelve and asked them, “Do you want to go away as well?”

Or,

Do you want to come to me and live? Do you want to learn the truth? Do you want to eat my flesh and drink my blood? Do you want me to raise you up on the last day?

Do you want to stay or go?

As a pastor, I have learned by experience the importance of asking people some version of that hard question. It is never easy, but it comes with the territory of congregational ministry.

One of the hardest things to deal with pastorally is the coming and going of people. Not so much the coming near (which is fun), but the going (which is sad and scary).

In some cases, the going away is necessary and justifiable — people must leave “against their will” (so to speak) due to a job transfer, a long commute, a sickness, or even death. In such cases, parting is a sweet sorrow. In a few cases, the going is the result of discipline or excommunication. This kind of going is bitter-sweet.

But sadly, in many cases, the going away is unnecessary and unjustifiable. People simply decide to leave because they want what they want, especially when it comes to such things as relationships, music, leadership position, activities, programs, involvement, doctrine, whatever. None of these things are necessarily bad or inherently wrong in themselves.

They are, however, poor excuses for going away and terribly selfish reasons for leaving a congregation of Christ’s people. And yet, I have watched many people turn and trade the greater things of the gospel of God’s grace, covenant renewal worship, and cross-bearing missional community for those lesser things.

Tragically, in a few cases, I have even watched some people do even worse than turn away from our congregation for a different one — some have even turned away from Christ and the church altogether.

Do you want to stay or go?

Jesus’s hard question brings his disciples to the crossroads of decision. In response to Jesus’s hard question, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 ESV)

For Peter, gaining the whole world was not worth losing the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. He decided to stay with Christ, not go with the crowds.

In contrast to the many followers who choked and turned away, a true follower of Christ chews the bread and swallows it.

A false follower believes the flesh counts for something. But a true follower believes and knows that the Spirit gives life, the flesh is no help at all.

A false disciple tests God in his heart by demanding the food he craves; he rebels against the Lord in the wilderness and grieves him in the desert. He tests God again and again and provokes the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 78:18, 40-41 ESV)

But a true disciple sings, “Give me Christ or else I die.” He will not exchange the good news of the person and work of Christ for anything else. No matter what everyone else wants, no matter how many followers stay or go.

Here’s a hard truth: The Word made flesh offers himself to us in ordinary means — in the preaching of the gospel of God’s grace, in covenant renewal worship, in the sacraments, and in cross-bearing missional community.

But if that is not enough for us, if that is not what we want, if that does not satisfy us, then we are free to turn away and go and do whatever we want. But whatever we do, we must each bear the consequences of acting on our desires.

Do you take offense at this?

Do you want to go away as well — or will you stay and live?

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