Do you also wish to go away?
Today marks the fifth and final installment in Jesus’ bread of life speech. Over the last two weeks we heard the religious leaders’ reaction to Jesus’ words; and now, today, we hear from the disciples. When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, some of the disciples start to grumble. They say that this teaching is too “hard” or “harsh.” They think it’s difficult to understand and more than a little repulsive. We hear that they become offended.
The word for “offended” in Greek is scandalizo, from which we get the English word “scandalized.” It has a variety of meanings, including “to trip and fall,” “to put a stumbling block in someone’s way,” and “to cause to sin.” In today’s reading, that last one is exactly what happens. If you remember, sin in John’s gospel is defined not as moral failings like blasphemy or adultery or violence, but rather as a lack of relationship with God. Some of the disciples hear Jesus’ bread of life speech and Jesus’ words effectively end their relationship. The disciples find Jesus’ words too hard to hear and so they walk away—their relationship with Jesus is over. John says, “Because of [his speech] many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66).
When I read this passage for the first time this week, I got a bit emotional. The image of some of Jesus’ disciples shaking their heads and walking away is heartbreaking. The image of Jesus, heartbroken himself, looking with longing after those disciples who left is agonizing. You can imagine a dejected Jesus turning to his twelve disciples who remain and asking them, “What about you? Do you also wish to go away?”
And then Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go?” It’s as if Peter takes a survey of everything he’s heard Jesus say, everything he’s seen Jesus do, and says “Are you kidding? We’ve come too far to turn back now. And even if we wanted to, there’s nowhere to go. We’ve seen too much.” For Peter, there are no other rabbis to turn to. There are no other lives to lead. Any life that doesn’t include Jesus just seems pointless. If he left now, he would spend the rest of his life wondering where his relationship with Jesus could have led. It’s as if Peter says, “Believe me, Jesus, if I could turn around and leave like those other disciples—I would. But I can’t. You’ve enticed me, ensnared me, entrapped me. There’s no leaving now.”
And so we’re left with this image: Jesus stands at the center as some disciples turn their back on him while others turn their face toward him.
What we have is an image of faith. Peter says that he “believes,” which is better translated as “trusts.” I think it’s safe to assume that Peter, like the disciples who walked away, did not fully understand everything Jesus said in his bread of life speech. It might very well be that Peter found the teachings too hard himself. Peter never says that he understands Jesus. He says simply that he trusts and knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Essentially, Peter declares, “Jesus, I don’t know what all that junk about the bread of life was about—but we’re with you to the end.” Peter recommits himself to Jesus even in the face of his own ignorance.
Because that’s what faith is all about. A faith that clings to Jesus when everything is going well and everything makes sense is no faith at all. True faith is defined by trusting Jesus and staying in a relationship with Jesus particularly when everything is going wrong and nothing makes sense. The disciples would learn this lesson the hard way when they abandoned Jesus after his arrest; but the lesson sinks in later when they endure all kinds of persecutions for the sake of the gospel.
Have you ever had those moments of confusion? Those moments when you feel like you want to walk away from Jesus because it’s all just too hard, too scandalizing? “Do you also wish to go away?”
Just listening to the last five weeks of gospel readings from Jesus’ bread of life speech might be enough for even the best among us to throw in the towel. Those disciples who walked away from Jesus after hearing the bread of life speech were certainly not the last ones to do so. How many people have turned away from the Christian faith because trying to reconcile the scriptures with their own life experience was just too hard, too confusing? How many have left because they couldn’t reconcile evolution with creation? How many have left because they couldn’t reconcile modern support for LGBTQ+ people with Leviticus’ harsh laws? How many have left the church because too many Christians simply don’t live up to Jesus’ teachings? In the face of all these questions, whose faith can stand?
Or how many Christians in Afghanistan are ready to give up their faith now that the Taliban has regained power? You all saw the photos of people scrambling to get on airplanes at the airport in Kabul. Women and children outside the airport were caught between volleys of gunfire or beaten for attempting to flee. A toddler was trampled to death by people trying to evacuate. You’ve seen the photos of men painting over posters of women in beauty shop windows. Women who for almost 20 years have had the benefit of education will now no longer be able to attend school and will most likely be forced back into head-to-toe burquas. Several protestors in Asadabad were shot by Taliban fighters for celebrating Afghan Independence Day last Thursday. The climate for Christianity, which was already bleak under the democracy, will most surely turn violent under the rule of the Taliban. In the face of such horrendous violence and oppression, whose faith can stand?
Or how many Christians in Haiti are ready to give up their faith in the aftermath of yet another earthquake. Over 12,000 people are injured, at least 2,200 people are dead, and another 344 people are still missing. Half a million children have limited or no access to shelter, safe water, or food. Most of Haiti’s churches, which provided some of the greatest sources of shelter and relief, were reduced to rubble by the quake. People have still not received aid due to impassable roads and bureaucratic red tape. All of this in the wake of the hurricane that slammed Haiti in 2016, and the devastating earthquake that killed roughly 200,000 Haitians in 2010. In the face of such disaster, whose faith can stand?
Or with the arrival of the delta variant of the coronavirus, how many are on the verge of tumbling into despair? Hospitals in Mississippi threaten to be overrun as the pandemic reaches its worst levels yet. Louisiana and Florida are also facing skyrocketing numbers of cases. Healthcare workers are being pushed to the limit around the country. I heard recently that even a number of pastors have been hospitalized due to stress. It seemed like maybe the worst of it was behind us yet now, as we look to the fall, many are planning to reinstate strict social distancing measures. 17 months into this pandemic and the end is nowhere in sight. In the face of such sickness, whose faith can stand?
Aside from all of those things, there is plenty in our daily lives that could scandalize us, cause us to fall away. The death of a loved one, a battle with addiction, out-of-control credit card debt, a fight with a family member, a sudden and serious diagnosis. There is so much in our lives every day that makes us ask, “why?” All of these things and so much more can make us turn to God and say: “I don’t get it. Why is this happening? I don’t understand. Help me understand.”
But faith is not a matter of understanding. It is a matter of trust. Faith endures. It continues in our relationship with Jesus even when it seems like there’s no point in continuing a relationship with Jesus. It chooses to hope in the good future God has promised us even as the world seems to collapse around us. It drops you on your knees to pray even as you question God’s existence. Faith clings to the good news even as the headlines bring us bad news after bad news.
It sounds crazy, I know. There’s a good reason why Paul called the message of the cross “foolishness.” Faith seeks to understand, but persists even when it can’t.
So in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart, let us pray this week for the gift of faith. Pray for God to give faith to those who struggle to understand the gospel. Pray for God to give faith to the people of Afghanistan who stare into the face of oppression, bloodshed, and oblivion. Pray for God to give faith to the people of Haiti who spend their nights in fear wondering when the next earthquake will come. Pray for God to give faith to those for whom the pandemic has brought them past their limit. Pray for God to give us all the faith to endure in the midst of the struggles and tragedies that confront us each and every day.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:48, 54). This is Jesus’ promise and Jesus’ promises are true. No matter what the world may throw at us, no matter what we may have to endure, in Jesus there is eternal life.
And so even in the face of all that is wrong, come to this table, eat and drink the flesh and blood of your savior. You don’t have to understand it. Just come and receive God’s grace.