Connections 08.26.2018: “This Teaching Is Difficult”

John 6:59-69; Psalm 84:1-2, 10-12

This may be an unorthodox thing to say, but I love it when the disciples are confused, troubled, uncertain, or skeptical.

The disciples—even the “extended family” of followers beyond the steady group of twelve men—were always the people closest to Jesus. They saw his miracles firsthand, witnessed his natural ability to connect with the greatest societal outcasts, and experienced his kindness and compassion for human beings, including themselves.

So in these moments when they have a hard time with Jesus’ words, I start to think that maybe I’m not as big of a heretic as I sometimes fear I am. I start to believe that this Way that Jesus proclaims really is as hard as he says it is, in spite of how the church has reduced it to a simple, superficial formula for salvation. I start to understand that, contrary to what I have sometimes witnessed in places of worship and among those who claim the name “Christian,” it’s actually not so unusual to use the logical side of your brain when thinking about faith. I start to accept that even when one question is answered, many more may arise.

“This teaching is difficult.” In John 6, by the time we get to this honest statement from some of Jesus’ disciples, Jesus has fed the crowd of five-thousand plus by miraculously multiplying a small amount of food, walked on water during a rough night off shore, and spent perhaps hours explaining how the bread he brings is so much more than physical food. He has covered a lot of ground and tried to teach some really deep lessons. And yet his disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (v. 60).

I’m sure Jesus was frustrated. I know I would be. But that doesn’t change the fact that his closest, most faithful followers—the ones called “disciples”—were overwhelmed and unsure. I find great comfort in that.

I also find comfort in the fact that Jesus never forced his disciples to believe what he was saying. He never threatened them with any kind of persecution or retribution if they didn’t fall at his feet and worship him. He warned them about consequences, of course, but the choice to follow him was always theirs to make—not out of fear but out of true love. He gave them permission to go (“Do you also wish to go away?” v. 67). But he left the door open. I know that he is doing the same for me, even as I question what some of his teachings truly mean.

Discussion

1. Can you think of other instances in the Gospels when the disciples were confused, troubled, uncertain, or skeptical? When you read such stories, how do you feel about these early followers?
2. When do you identify with the disciples the most—when they are faithful or when they are doubtful? Why?
3. What teachings of Jesus do you find difficult? Have you been able to accept it?
4. Do you feel that the choice of whether to believe and follow Jesus is yours to make? Why or why not?
5. Do you agree that Jesus always leaves the door open for you? Why or why not?

Reference Shelf

That it is the incarnate Jesus (vv. 35-48, 49-51) and the eucharistic extension of the Incarnation (vv. 53-58) that offer nourishment leading to life is a scandal to “many of his disciples.” They say, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60). Their offense at his words is known to Jesus (v. 61), another example of his prophetic knowledge (1:48; 2:25; 4:29; 5:6; 6:64; 11:4, 11; 13:1, 3, 11, 18; 16:19, 30; 18:4; 19:28). His response comes in vv. 62-63: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” The words spoken to them (vv. 35-48, 49-58) are Spirit and life in the sense that the Incarnation and Eucharist are of the realm of Spirit and therefore give life, that is, they put one in touch with the Spirit. They can do so because the Son of Man has ascended and has given the Spirit (7:37-39; 20:22). In contrast, things like the manna in the time of Moses belong to the realm of the flesh and are ineffectual. “But there are some of you who do not believe” (v. 64a). This, of course, has been known to Jesus from the start, as has the identity of his betrayer (v. 64b). His comment on the matter is: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by my Father” (v. 65; cf. Paul for whom also the faith that saves is a gift, Phil 1:29).

In v. 66 it is stated that “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus then asks the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” (v. 67). Will the desertion of disciples over difficulties with Incarnation and Eucharist be total? Peter makes clear that it will not. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68-69; cf. Mk 8:29). He assures Jesus that the Twelve will remain faithful. Jesus knows better. “Did I not choose you, the Twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (v. 70). He speaks, of course, of Judas, who is to betray him (cf. 13:11, 18, 26; 18:2).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 146–47.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley attends First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (13) and Natalie (11), and her husband John. Currently, she is looking for the next opportunity to be onstage in a local theater production. She also loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she will always be a writer at heart.

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