At the start of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus hosted more than five thousand excited followers who loved the free-lunch, quick healing services, and great sermons; yet the next day he was left with only a few, beaten and battered disciples experiencing spiritual vertigo. The crowd who proclaimed the day before, “This is the Prophet!” dwindled to a sad gathering of followers who grumbled; “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it!” Then John tells us, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”
When we are confronted with the difficult parts of our faith, whether in scripture or life, there is a tendency to make one of three missteps: sanitize our belief in an effort to gloss over the tough things in life; distort the truth by removing or redefining scripture which doesn’t align with our personal biases; or most unfortunately abandon biblical faith all together.
Sanitize, distort, abandon: unfortunate responses when life and faith seem at odds with each other. Instead of staying around, instead of asking the hard questions, and struggling to learn the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words, people just walked away.
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”: My tendency, and maybe yours, is to skip over the troubling parts of the Bible. Life seems much easier to sanitize our belief by ignoring (or removing) those scriptures that cause us pause; anything that makes us feel uncomfortable.
We might think if we ignore the difficult parts of faith and life, they will just go away. Seems like a good strategy. Problem is, you really cannot ignore the troubling parts of scripture without undermining the inspirational parts. A sanitized belief system removes the possibility of real answers by ignoring the real questions, as though they don’t exist. It is nice to ‘imagine a world without problems or uncertainties’ but there is real evil and brokenness in the world; both within us and around us. We cannot just wish it away by ignoring the hard parts.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Some in the crowd began to distort the truth of his words and like many people who take this route, they did this for selfish purposes. Distorting the truth lets us off the hook for confronting the challenging parts of living out our faith, particularly when it comes to loving others.
Throughout history, there have been large and dangerous movements who distorted scriptures that conflicted with their own biases, prejudices, or perspectives. Historically, those claiming to follow Jesus justified slavery, oppression, abuse, racism, and even things that seem more innocuous such as materialism, gossip, legalism, and isolationism. This is equally true within the anti-religious arena. Distorting scripture to erase other’s belief is likewise a play for power, privilege, or control. This is evidenced in places where religious freedom is seen as an enemy of the state. China’s repression of Muslims and Christians is our most recent example in the news.
At the heart of this negative response to Jesus’ words, was a resistance to the overall metanarrative of God’s intention for the redemption of the world through him. Jesus is speaking of a spiritual reality of his being one with the Father and the true Messiah. Some may have been offended by the imagery, but I suspect their sarcasm was not about Jesus violating their understanding of decency: “Eat your flesh? Drink your blood?” I believe it was about who Jesus is, and what following him might mean to their preconceived notions of status and position.
Here is why I think this: Jesus had returned the previous evening from the bordering countries where he healed, preached, and feed thousands of people from countries seen as enemies. To accept Jesus as the True Manna from Heaven meant those hearing his message would have to change, to reject their old prejudices and learn to love their enemies. I believe many in the crowd found an off-ramp from this religious holy man by latching on to a concrete interpretation of his words. They distorted Jesus’ words to justify rejecting him, so they could stay aloof from the demands of following him: “Love God, Love Neighbor”.
When there is too much that unsettles someone, the response is sometimes to abandon biblical faith all together. Please don’t do this. You think life is tough facing problems WITH God? Imagine (or remember) the despair of believing there really is no ultimate purpose in life. Theologian Brian Brock reminds us of the story of Jacob who wrestled all night with whom he thought to be a man only to realize his struggle was ultimately with God (Genesis 32:22-31).
“This is a seminal story in the formation of Israel’s identity. Jacob is given a blessing—he is named “Israel,” one who wrestles with God. Forevermore Israel’s children will be known as those who wrestle with God.”Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body
Jesus and the Early Church modeled for us caring Christians communities, sharing lives of hope, encouragement, and wrestling with the application of biblical faith. We have this unchanging, eternal truth that has to be discovered anew by each generation. No tricks; No gimmicks. Just ordinary people like you and me living out the grace and truth of Jesus Christ in our daily lives.
“So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Let those words resonate in your soul for a moment: “to whom shall we go?”. These words momentarily take my breath away. Like some of you, I have tried other pathways in hope of some enlightenment, some peace. I know nowhere else to turn. As Saint Augustine observed “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Then Peter answered his own question: Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” This is as close to the core of the Christian faith journey as it gets: “We heard your words. We believed what we saw, learned, experienced. We now know who you are. You are the Holy One of God.”
As followers of Jesus, our challenge is to open ourselves to engage with biblical truth and embrace a living faith. Theologian C. Kavin Rowe reminds us in Christianity’s Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope, “Human life is just too hard to have a boring Christianity.” Following Jesus may be unsettling, challenging, even disheartening at times, but is certainly not a calling to boredom.
So, how do we engage, embrace, and find our balance in a world that feels so unstable?
I have a real-life experience that hopefully offers a useful analogy: it involves a longshore current, sandbar, and some people sitting on the shoreline in beach chairs. Recently, Kathy and I were swimming at St. Augustine beach. The current pulling me down the shore was strong so I wondered, “If the current is down below, can I stay above it, float on my back, paddling to overcome the current?” I did this and thought I was doing well until I looked up and saw I was pulled way down the beach. In my mind, I was making progress moving against the current or at least holding in the same place, but that wasn’t the case at all. The current in this story represents the pull of the troubles of the world away from walking with Jesus.
So, I got out of the water, walked back up the beach and tried again. This time, I stayed upright and dug my toes into the sandbar to hold against the current as well as I could. It was tough and involved paddling with my arms, but it worked fairly well. In this analogy, the sandbar represents my faith, the scripture, my experiences of Christian community, and I was doing a pretty good job of resisting the current.
But I needed more. I noticed a small group of people sitting in chairs on the beach in front of me. I locked my eyes on them because they became my “point of reference”: I could tell when I started sliding away. This gave me something tangible to fix my eyes on, to know if my efforts to stay put were working. In this analogy, these people represented our “cloud of witnesses”, the Church, the body of Christ.
In life, I need the friendships, encouragement, role-models, sound doctrine, and reminders I find when I gather with other Christians, I am not tossing alone out at sea without hope. Others become my “point of reference”. We face dangerous currents and powerful undertow in our world, which can cause spiritual disequilibrium, but a community of faith helps us stay grounded. We need each other. Now, as always.
Simple analogy, but an important point: When confronted with the difficult parts of life and faith, don’t let the rip current of confusion pull you out into an ocean of despair.
I encourage you not to sanitize belief, distort truth, or abandon faith. Jesus has shown us a better way. Engage with the biblical narrative, even the hard parts, even the parts you question and doubt. God invites us to embrace a living faith as part of a community, the Church; one that is authentic, grounded, and willing to face the hard questions and days with grace and truth—even when life and faith seem to be at odds.
When asked by Jesus if they were going to stay or go, Peter replied on our behalf, “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.”