It has been said that even as we read the Bible, the Bible is reading us.
And there is a lot of truth to that statement.
We encounter words and phrases and verses and stories that play in our imagination, and as we watch the various reactions of individuals to the situations in the texts, we finding ourselves pondering how we, ourselves, would have reacted were we in the scenes that are described. And the further into the texts that we go, the more we begin to realize that the line between reader and text begins to blur. To put it another way, the power of the Bible is often revealed most pointedly when we find ourselves wondering whether we are reading these ancient words, or whether they are reading us.
Today’s suggested text from the Gospel of John offers a powerful example of this dynamic.
The passages that preceded today’s reading were filled with incredibly strange statements on the lips of Jesus. His claims that he was the bread of life which, like the manna in the wilderness, brought nourishment and sustenance to the people of Israel; his claims that by eating of that bread one would find new and enduring life; his claims that his flesh was true food and his blood was true drink, and that those who ate his flesh and drank his blood would last forever – they were strange words.
Because of our familiarity with these words, and with the stories of Jesus, we can sometimes overlook the incredibly bizarre nature of those claims. But we can only imagine how we would react if if any one of us were to hear a young man making these claims, today.
Eat your flesh, drink your blood and live forever, eh? Suffice it to say that very few of us would want to have anything to do with him. We would question his mental state, and in all likelihood, we would be suspicious of anyone who would want to have anything to do with him whatsoever, and be even more concerned that he seemed to be gathering, around himself, a group of close followers who were willing to leave everything behind in order to follow him. And that is to say nothing of the crowds that he was attracting.
Which makes the latter part of today’s reading all the more poignant.
Because the passage is, in many ways, all about how different people were reacting to the words and teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of John often uses the general term “the Jews” to designate the religious officials and individuals who heard Jesus’ words but who did not respond favourably to them – even though, it should be noted, all of Jesus’ followers, at this point, were also Jews.
But that catch-all phrase – “the Jews” – was the Gospel writer’s way to refer to those religious officials who were not particularly impressed by Jesus. They seemed to be finding him pretty hard to understand, his ways and his words mysterious, his teachings confusing and challenging to put into practice, his claims quite fantastic.
But as the scene plays itself out, we are informed, as readers, that it was not just that category of “the Jews” who were having problems with Jesus’ words. Rather, in verse 60, the author points toward the fact that many of Jesus’ own followers were also having difficulty with his strange words about the bread of heaven that comes from God, about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and living forever.
We read, “when many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’”
This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?
Jesus realized their concerns and their reactions. “Does this offend you?” he asked, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” He knew that they were having problems understanding him; he knew that some of them would find it too difficult to continue with him; he even knew that some were going to turn on him and betray him.
And then, in verse 66, we read, “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
It is a striking statement, because it forces us to realize that following Jesus was not easy, even for those who walked in his presence. Understanding Jesus was not easy, even for those who heard his words with their own ears. Even some of his own disciples, some of his closest followers, some of those who had taken the first steps on the journey with him…”turned back and no longer went about with him.”
But that is not how the passage ends. And it is in the last few verses of today’s suggested reading that we find some of the most challenging, yet simultaneously most reassuring words of all.
“So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’”
I do not know about you, but there is a part of these words that resonates with something very deep within me. Simon Peter’s words challenge me, but reassure me because they resonate with something deep within me, in some ways they read my mind.
Because, in spite of the fact that I was both raised – and have chosen – to try to follow Christ ever since I was baptized as an infant child, there continue to be times when I find the words and actions and teachings of Jesus to be pretty hard to understand, his ways and his words mysterious, his teachings confusing and challenging to put into practice, his claims quite fantastic.
And I am sure that I am not alone. We live in a world where most acknowledge the historical importance of Jesus, and perhaps even view him as a good moral teacher, whose words about loving others and being good neighbours should be put into practice. Viewed at a distance, Jesus seems quite nice, his teachings commendable.
But then we come closer, as the various groups in this passage had done, and we begin to sense that he seems to become more confusing the closer that we get to him. Once we move beyond the incontrovertibly acceptable “love your neighbour as yourself” part of Jesus, there are times when he becomes more confusing rather than more comprehensible. Eating his flesh, drinking his blood, turning the other cheek, giving up everything to follow him, loving our enemies, having faith sufficient to move mountains, expecting opposition and persecution, dying to ourselves, forgiving others if we want to be forgiven, watching out for apocalyptic signs of the end of the ages, expecting that anything that we ask in his name will be done for us, living in anticipation of the coming of the Son of Man, being willing to submit to a baptism of fire…well, suffice it to say that the further that we go with Jesus, the more we realize that his ways and his words are hard to understand, his ways and his words mysterious, his teachings confusing and challenging to put into practice, his claims quite fantastic.
But in the midst of our awareness of the confusing and challenging ways of Jesus, we actually find ourselves in the presence not only of Jesus, but also of Simon Peter – who, as we all know, would eventually fall away as well in Jesus’ hour of greatest need and of greatest revelation – but who nonetheless spoke words, in this passage, that resonate with the experience of many of us.
Yes, it’s all a bit confusing, but “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Like Simon Peter, we might know – intellectually and spiritually – that the ways of Jesus sometimes seem incomprehensible and challenging, yet there is something in Him that makes us want to continue on the journey, even if others turn back. There is something in Him that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, yet is so intriguing, so alluring, so powerful that we know, deep within us, that to turn back, as the unnamed disciples in this passage did, is to turn from the very source and essence of life itself.
Yes, we might find ways to live that seem a bit more comprehensible, neat, controlled, palatable. But we also have this deep sense that the journey through life with him is, quite possibly, the only one that is worth taking. We know that it will be a challenging one; we know that things will not always work out the way that we hope or expect, which was certainly a lesson that Peter and the disciples came to learn.
But perhaps the real good news was that their hopes and their expectations went unfulfilled; rather, they came to realize that their hopes and their expectations were too small. Perhaps they were hoping for, and expecting, a Messiah who would drive out the Romans and restore their dignity and independence; perhaps they were hoping for, and expecting, a powerful and persuasive king who would rise to power and put them in positions of power and prestige; perhaps he was a Saviour who had come to solve all of their problems for them. And when he did not seem to be achieving their hopes and expectations, they turned on him.
But in the end, what they came to receive, from him, was so much greater than their hopes and expectations. What they came to receive, from him, was a death-defying, divinely gracious, sin-conquering forgiveness that helped them to realize that his ways Jesus were, indeed, incomprehensible and confusing because they were not the ways of this world. In him, the cycles of brokenness and violence and hatred would be broken; in him, the grip of sin and death would be no more; in him, goodness would triumph over evil; in him, and in the great and final conflict between life and death, the cross would be prelude to an empty tomb.
Could they have understood any of that along the way? Absolutely not.
But what Simon Peter declared that day was a sense that there was something about him that went beyond their complete understand. They could not turn back, because they knew, they sensed, they believed that Jesus had the words of eternal life, that he was the Holy One of God, that in his presence, no other path was worth taking.
They realized that Jesus, though mysterious, held the key to life.
For those disciples, there was no turning back.
What about you?