Note: A sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church (Orange City, FL) on March 12, 2023.
Have you ever experienced a problem or idea that you found difficult or challenging? For example, something that you had to wrestle with mentally to grasp and understand it. As a student, I flourished in subjects like history and reading. But I found math, particularly word problems, difficult. All too often, I would stare and stare at the problem before me, using all my mental fortitude to determine the right answer. Sometimes I would get it. I remember feeling so proud that my mental efforts had been rewarded and that I could finally relax my mind. But all too often, my thoughts and efforts were not enough to discover the answer. All I was left with were my math scribbles and a feeling of defeat. I had to abandon the problem because it was too difficult to understand.
I would wager that my experience is a problem you can relate to. Perhaps not about math (though that is a very common one), but maybe something else like science, mechanics, or history. We all have had to face some hard-to-understand concepts or teachings at one point or another. Just the other day, I became immensely frustrated with figuring out my taxes since I am self-employed. I was angry and upset over financial questions I didn’t understand. And like the disciples in our scripture today, I told TurboTax, “This is difficult, who can understand it?” I also said a few other things that are not appropriate to repeat in church.
It’s frustrating to not understand something. It doesn’t make you feel good when you don’t get it. To stare at something over and over, willing the mind to put it into terms you can understand. We like to feel smart and enjoy the fruits of our mental and physical labor. I know I like that feeling that comes when I learn a new skill or task. There is an adrenaline rush that comes with you just “get it.” To look at something and say “ah ha!” I understand that. And I also know the feelings of defeat and frustration when I realize I don’t understand. It’s annoying and unsatisfying to not “get it.”
In our scripture today, we have followers and disciples of Jesus who become frustrated with the difficult nature of Jesus’s teachings. Some became upset over the things he was talking about, so much so that they just decided to leave saying, “Who can understand it?” Others, like the 12, stick around willing to keep trying. Then there was Peter, oh Peter, who double downs and proclaims Jesus as the “Holy One of God!” And then there is Judas, who seemingly goes along with what Jesus is saying, but as we know, something different stirs within him. But let’s back up a bit and look at the bigger picture of what’s happening in the chapter. Like many chapters in John’s gospel, there is usually a lot going on, so a little context and setting the stage will probably be helpful.
John chapter 6 is a busy chapter with miracles such as the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water. The Bread of Life discourse occupies a large portion of the chapter, which is followed by rejections and Peter’s confession of faith. The chapter begins with Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee. Large crowds were following them because they were watching all of Jesus’s healing miracles. Well, a large group of hungry people is never a good thing, especially when they’re following you, so Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish to feed this group of over 5000. Following this event, Jesus goes alone to the mount to pray while the disciples return across the sea by boat. But during the night, Jesus walks on the water and joins them in the sea. Of course, the crowds again go looking for him in the hopes of receiving more free food, ultimately finding Jesus in Capernaum. Notably, it’s not these wondrous and miraculous events that were the source of the controversy to follow. Much like the endless breadsticks at Olive Garden, everyone loves free bread. However, it’s the things Jesus says about himself that cause so many of them to become upset, confused, and offended.
Everyone is interested in the bread from heaven, the true bread that gives life to the world. So much so that the crowd enthusiastically responds with “Sir, gives us this bread all the time!” in verse 34. However, Jesus responds with an unusual mix of spiritual and physical symbols, describing himself as the bread of life. And as the bread of life, Jesus must do the will of the one who sent him, God his Father. Furthermore, all who look upon the Son and believe in him will have eternal life. All this understandably causes quite an uproar. Some, whom John unhelpfully calls “the Jews,” even became hostile, asking how this man whose father and mother are well known can call himself the bread from heaven. None of this deters Jesus however. Instead of backing off this claim or trying to be more nuanced, Jesus goes further and states that “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” In verse 51. And, unsurprisingly, people again become hostile and upset asking “how can this man give his flesh for them to eat?” In a way, this question is similar to the one Nicodemus posed. He also struggled with physical and spiritual symbols, and asked Jesus in John 3:4 “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” It’s evident that these questions demonstrate a struggle to understand Jesus. Neither Nicodemus nor the Jews in our story “got it.” Jesus’s mixing of the physical and spiritual, or heavenly, not to mention his relationship with God, just doesn’t compute. And it is hard to accept, and especially to follow, that which we don’t understand.
Jesus responds to the growing hostile crowd with more talk about flesh and blood, stating in verse 54 that “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Well, as you would guess, this again didn’t sit well with folks. Maybe things would have gone over better if Jesus wasn’t teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, it certainly didn’t help. But this time, in verse 60, we learn that many of Jesus’s disciples can’t grasp what Jesus is saying. We’re not familiar with these disciples and their relationship to Jesus and the Twelve. Perhaps these disciples in a general sense, are not yet committed but are following and learning from Jesus. Whatever the case, these disciples exclaim, “This is a difficult saying! Who can understand?” I like how Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible puts it, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.”
It’s here that I want to remain and devote our time this morning. Much could be said of course on all this talk about eating bread and flesh, but I want to focus more on the levels of response we see here among Jesus’s followers. Because I think it’s valuable to push within a story like this to dig a little into areas that might be overshadowed by the overarching discourse. There is surely a lot going on theologically about what Jesus is talking about here. Much more than we have time for. But suffice it to say, Jesus’s words are difficult to understand both then and now. The disciples think of Jesus on a material and physical level, as just the man before him. But what Jesus is trying to open them toward is the possibility of the impossible, that God is with them in the flesh. And for many of them, daresay probably all, the mystical and spiritual ways Jesus is describing himself just go over their heads. They fail to comprehend because they are encountering ideas that can’t be comprehended. The problem isn’t that they don’t get it. The problem is their willingness (or lack thereof) to leave behind certainty, accept not-knowing, and dwell within mystery itself.
These disciples tell Jesus “This is a difficult saying,” it’s “too tough to swallow.” They’re looking at him and one another trying to find a clarity that will bring meaning, but not just any meaning, one that fits within the confines of their own context and experience. And Jesus can sense their confusion, frustration, and anger over what he’s just revealed. I find it remarkable what he says to them in response. In verse 61 it says that Jesus was aware of their complaining and asks, “Does this cause you to be offended?” An alternative translation I like is “Does this cause you to no longer believe?” The Greek verb often translated as “offend,” skan-dal-id-zo carries a meaning of causing one to begin to distrust or desert the one they ought to obey. Jesus seemingly recognizes the difficulty of his words, knowing that his teaching has reached a critical point of no return. He can’t just roll things back or rephrase his words to make them more palatable. After alluding to the cross with his statement about the Son of Man ascending, Jesus pointedly puts the ball into their court, stating in verses 63 and 64, “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” But perhaps the most difficult thing of all is that Jesus tells in verse 65 that “no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come.” Herein lies a clue to their failure to comprehend. Jesus’s words are strong and harsh, suggesting that understanding is not a matter of the intellect but of the heart. One cannot understand Jesus without being open and willing to be grasped by God.
Thus, the narrative reaches a decision point, one that Jesus readily acknowledges. It’s up to these disciples as to whether to leave because it turns out that Jesus is just a madman or there is more to this Jesus than one could possibly conceive. They must make a decision, not Jesus. Will they be turned off in frustration by what they cannot and will not understand? Or maybe, just maybe, they have enough room in their hearts to accept the inbreaking of the impossible. That Jesus isn’t mad after all, in fact, his words point to a life filled with the spirit, a life that is fully alive. Jesus risks his followers and his own popularity as a teacher with words and ideas meant to provoke doubt. Because it is within this doubt, by dealing and confronting that which is exceedingly hard, that their faith emerges.
How we react to what we cannot understand speaks volumes to our own character, particularly as it relates to things of the spirit. In verse 66, it says that “many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer.” They essentially gave up and moved on to the next thing. With closed hearts and minds, they walk away. And their response to Jesus’s question, “Does this cause you to no longer believe?” is an affirmative “yes.” This is probably the most predictable and believable response. Honestly, I would have found it strange if everyone in the crowd just wholeheartedly believed Jesus without question. And if we are honest without ourselves, it’s probably the more relatable response. Spiritual things can be hard to understand. And issues concerning God often come with a lot of theological and religious baggage that may not sit well with our own expectations and experiences. In matters of the spirit, many, if not most, walk away from it. Especially when it comes to Christ. So, it’s not surprising that when Jesus asked the disciples to accept, to consider, to be open to these things regarding the spirit it put them off. Jesus’s words were disturbing and unsettling to their ears. And they were unwilling to take that extra step. You see they only wanted to follow “their” Jesus, the Jesus that made them feel comfortable. The Jesus they could understand and that didn’t ask too much of them. They didn’t want to wrestle with their own doubts about their faith. So, rather than going forward and taking the risk of faith into the unknown, they take a step back and walk away.
Have you felt this way about God? Maybe there has been a time when you wanted to quit following Christ and not accompany him any longer. For myself, I’ve had multiple times in my life, many of them long and extensive, where I’ve had to wrestle with this feeling. Times that in all sincerity, I’ve had to ask myself if I wanted to continue. One time I always come back to was during my last year in Divinity school. After spending considerable time reading scripture and studying theology, I began to experience intense doubt about God and about Christianity. I could only see it all through the lenses of absurdity and madness. My carefully constructed belief system began to crumble, and I saw just how difficult, unusual, and confusing Jesus’s teachings really were. Consequently, I seriously faced the prospect of walking away as the only proper response.
Fortunately, the words of Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, provided me with a way of seeing my doubts in a positive light. As an aside, Tillich is one of only a handful of theologians to make the cover of Time magazine, doing so in 1959. His work was widely popular following World War II, as his work grappled with associating human experience with Christian symbols. Tillich writes that “serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character” (22). His portrayal of doubt allowed me to better see its role in my faith. In addition, he writes, “Faith includes courage” (20). Faith includes an inherent “in spite of” element, the risk of faith, and the risk to follow Jesus when everything is telling you that you should quit following him.
I don’t remember referring to this scripture during that time of my life, but I wished I had. It perhaps would have helped me work through those feelings I had. You see, all those present with Jesus that day had to work through what they did not understand. To face something difficult and work through their doubt, to find the courage to be open to what it was Jesus was asking them to consider. Those that left were unwilling to risk a life of faith open to the mystery of the unknown.
After most had left, Jesus asks the Twelve in verse 66, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” You see, the question had to be asked. Faith cannot be assumed, it must be probed and put on the spot. For their relationship to continue, Jesus had to ask the question. And in this moment of tension, between himself and his disciples, Jesus probably expected them to also leave. Here the Greek might give a clue as questions prefaced with the participle μή (mē; may – mu and eta), suggesting a negation—signaled here with the phrase “do you?” Meaning an anticipation of a negative answer.
Peter, speaking for the Twelve, gives a surprising and honest answer. One that I find instantly relatable and honest. Peter says in verse 68, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life?” Peter’s saying here that they have no other option. They have no other place to go and no one else to follow. Who else can claim what Jesus claims? Jesus is either the Christ, the Son of God or he is insane. And if he truly is, the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah, God’s own Son, then where do you go after that? They may not understand Jesus and all the things he claims to be, but there is no going back to being simple fishermen and laborers.
You know some days the best we can do is the sentiment, “to whom would we go?” Did the disciples completely understand everything Jesus was telling them? I doubt it, Peter and the Twelve are no more aware than the disciples who left. After all, Peter will still deny Christ. The difference is that they’re willing to work through what they don’t understand. They’re not scribes, scholars, or philosophers. They are everyday folk humble and wise enough to acknowledge that while they don’t fully get it, they’re willing to risk everything, in the hope that they might one day grasp it. “I believe help my unbelief!” like the father in Mark states when he asked Jesus to heal his child. I don’t see faith as a one-and-done deal, it’s okay for us to have a work-in-progress type of faith. One where we acknowledge that we don’t fully get it but we’re willing to stick around and remain loyal to Jesus to better understand. Returning to The Message bible, I like how it puts it in verse 69, “We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.” In other words, “we’re in this for the long-haul Jesus. We don’t totally understand it yet, but we’re confident that you are who you say you are.”
My friends, don’t be discouraged when faith seems difficult. Don’t give up when grappling with what seems hard and incomprehensible. Work through it all with courage, humility, and love. And when Jesus asks you, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” you can say, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Photo by Eileen Pan on Unsplash