“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
That’s what people were saying about Jesus’ sermon. And I think it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t mean it as a compliment. Jesus had just finished rocking their proverbial boats by claiming that the only way to experience eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
I can only imagine what the response would have been if members of his audience had been the kind of sensationalistic journalists whose voices tend to dominate the media today: “Jesus of Nazareth endorses cannibalism!” or maybe “Radical leader of suicide-cult initiates followers into vampire ritual!” But Jesus’ listeners seem to have been a little more reserved than present-day news reporters, so they stopped at “This teaching is difficult”.
And who can blame them, really? We hear these words with the benefit of two thousand years of church tradition, wherein our pastors regularly give us bread and wine with the words “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” Those words have lost their shock-value for us.
Jesus, in this sermon on the Eucharist from John 6 (which we have been reading this month at church), is intentionally trying to disturb his audience. He deliberately wants them to feel confused and uncomfortable. Why is that? Because being uncomfortable is the best way to grow spiritually.
It’s a common notion that people turn to faith for a sense safety and familiarity in the world. The Communist philosopher Karl Marx believed that people use religious faith as a way to dull the pain of political oppression. That’s why he called religion “the opiate of the masses.” Psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that our ancestors invented God as a way of relieving their anxiety over the capricious and destructive forces of nature. Freud argued that God is a personification of these forces with whom humans can negotiate by means of ritual sacrifice. For both Freud and Marx, the purpose of faith is to ease discomfort in humans. I think many people in our day (religious and non-religious alike) view faith in the same way.
But Jesus seems to be doing the exact opposite of that in today’s gospel reading. If anything, he is making people less comfortable with his preaching. He presents this disturbing image and then does nothing to explain it or mitigate its impact on the hearers.
“This teaching is difficult,” people say.
And Jesus responds, “Good! That means you’re paying attention.”
The only guidance Jesus gives for interpreting his flesh-eating, blood-drinking imagery is this: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
“Flesh,” in this instance, is Jesus’ way of describing the surface-meaning of his words, whereas “spirit” is the deeper meaning. And he makes it clear that the deeper, spirit-meaning is what he really wants his followers to understand.
But, in order to get there, they have to let themselves become uncomfortable with the language as it stands. Is Jesus really endorsing cannibalism? Does he literally want us to eat his flesh and drink his blood?
Discomfort is the richest soil for spiritual growth in a person’s life. Those who feel safe and comfortable have no reason to question the status quo or dig beneath the surface of life. Those who struggle or live with pain, on the other hand, have no choice but to go deep and ask tough questions. Often, the pursuit of wisdom can only begin in earnest once the pursuit of happiness has failed.
So, Jesus calls upon his followers to embrace the discomfort of what he is saying in order that they might look deep, past the surface-meaning of the words to touch their spiritual meaning.
And how is this message received by its intended audience? Are they willing to go where Jesus is trying to lead them? For most of them, the answer is No. John tells us, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
The kind of faith that disturbs is not the kind that brings in the big numbers. Asking people to look deep into the mystery of life will not win you any popularity contests. It certainly didn’t for Jesus. One might even argue that this is Jesus’ most ineffective sermon ever when it comes to church-growth and evangelism.
But Jesus isn’t trying to win any popularity contests, nor is he interested in padding egos with platitudes and certainties. What Jesus wants is for people to grow in their relationship with God and each other. And the only way to do that is to challenge their assumptions and make them uncomfortable.
After the bulk of the crowds have left, Jesus turns to the few who are left and asks them (I imagine with a shaky voice and tears in his eyes), “Do you also wish to go away?”
And Simon Peter is the one who speaks up on behalf of the others, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This is Peter’s great statement of faith, not the declaration itself, but the question beforehand: “Lord, to whom can we go?”
I love it when Peter says this. I consider it to be one of his finer moments as a disciple. He answers Jesus’ question with another question, and a vulnerable one at that. I can hear the trepidation in his voice. He really doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The basis of his faith is not an absolute certainty that provides a sense of safety and security, but a deep trust in his friend that has been born of miles walked together and a sense of helpless desperation. “If Jesus is making me uncomfortable,” Peter believes, “it’s for a very good reason. If I can follow this rabbit-trail to wherever it leads, my hunch is that I will be glad I did.” Peter’s faith is born of personal trust, not absolute certainty. And the evidence of that faith is his willingness to stay in relationship with Jesus, even when the going gets tough and Jesus is being very confusing and disturbing.
This is where faith in Jesus begins to look very different from the conventional faith of polite, civil religion. Just as the purpose of Christian faith is not comfort, but disturbance, so also the process of Christian faith is not absolute certainty, but personal relationship. Jesus doesn’t ask us, “Do you understand me?” He asks us, “Do you trust me?” He doesn’t ask us, “Will you defend my doctrines from the heathen?” He asks us, “Will you love me in the least of these?”
Faith, for the Christian, is a personal journey undertaken with Jesus. Its hallmark is the willingness to keep going, even when Jesus says and does things that are confusing and disturbing. We keep on walking together. We stay in this relationship, not because we don’t have our doubts and struggles, but because we trust that our friend will never lead us astray.
If you’re here this morning and you find yourself struggling with doubt, if there are things about Jesus that make you uncomfortable, I want to invite you to keep walking. I won’t try to resolve those questions for you; I won’t even tell you that you have to figure them out for yourself. Because, at the end of the day, Christian faith is not about arriving at a comfortable answer to our questions; it is about continuing your journey with Jesus and allowing him to lead you from question to question, deeper and deeper into the mystery at the heart of everything.
If you find yourself being disturbed on this journey, it’s a good thing: it means you’re paying attention.