John 6:56-69 – 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 26, 2012
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)
Since it’s only you and me, I want to honestly reveal a few thoughts about my Christian faith.
Sometimes I think myself a:
Yes also . . . a doubter.
These insights were easily triggered after reading John 6:63-64, where Jesus supposedly announced, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. [Here comes the verse that makes me gulp.] But among you there are some who do not believe.”
Soon after these verses in John’s Gospel, many of Jesus’ followers drifted away. Left. Vamoosed. However, speaking for the terrific twelve, the disciple Peter stayed, reassuring Jesus about their belief and commitment to the Nazarene’s words and way.
Good for you guys! It’s swell to have buds that’ll stick with you through thick and thin, when the going gets tough, as the storm clouds gather and . . .
. . . Oops. You and I know the whole story. Twelve brief chapters later, with Jesus under the imperial thumb of Rome, boastful Peter will mumble he’s never heard of Mary and Joseph’s first-born (John 18:25-27). For our friend Peter, the shelf life of belief had expired.
And yes, the wayward fisherman, the brother of Andrew, the Peter who becomes the “rock” of the church, will stage a comeback.
Still, there are those passages, scattered in the Gospels like landmines, where both unnamed and famously named disciples skulk off into the night. Jesus’ words were too hard. Jesus’ ways of confronting powerful institutions, and challenging an individual’s weaknesses, demanded more commitment than seemed humanly possible.
It’s far too easy and self-indulgent to imagine I’m a hearty, steadfast Christian . . . like the Peter we finally witness deep into the Acts of the Apostles who healed strangers and baptized gentiles and generally wielded the name and message of Christ with a boulder-steady faith.
Am I not more like the unnamed, unknown followers of Jesus that admitted, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Indulge me. Let me cherry-pick a few teachings—regardless of which Gospel contained the words—that prompt me to turn tail and scoot for the hills.
- Give my coat away? Sure, as long as it’s the one never worn or worn-out and I can keep my favorites. (Matthew 5:38-42)
- Am I like the father scurrying out to welcome his younger, “prodigal” son? Truth be told, I’m older son material, grading others like an Olympic judge wearing a blindfold. (Luke 15:11-32)
- Claiming Jesus as the only path to knowing God? Sorry, I’ve met too many hard-hearted, mean-spirited and hypocritical Christians (…takes one to know one, right…), and quite a few humble, vulnerable and compassionate atheists. (John 14:6)
Jesus’ teachings were are too hard. And they are frequently corrupted. Regarding the recent murder of six Sikhs in Wisconsin, their killer Wade Michael Page “wore his beliefs proudly. On his bicep he has the number 14 tattooed in the middle of a Celtic cross, the symbol of the neo-Nazi White Power movement.”* And what else, long before any Nazi connection, did a Celtic cross symbolize? Sigh. (And check out this New Yorker article I literally just read about Oak Creek.)
Jesus’ teachings were are too hard. There’s no need to be dramatic, referencing the current headline depicting a tragedy or travesty in the name of Jesus. Each day, in my feeble life of faith, I do think it’s fairer to label myself with a word from my opening list. Am I not agnostic because there’s so much I’m not sure about? I’m enough of a heretic because I do doubt established traditions like Jesus’ virgin birth. According to a 2007 Barna.org survey, 75% of Americans are convinced the virgin birth happened like the Bible said. Doesn’t joining the 25% dump me into the heresy pit? (Of course, maybe there’s been a big shift in the numbers since ’07?)
Jesus’ teachings were are too hard. I do cling to my coats as others shiver. I linger in metaphoric fields and criticize metaphoric siblings. I may cringe at fellow hard-hearted Christians . . . but I’ve accumulated enough shameful actions in my life to repeat: it does take one to know one!
And yet . . .
In one of my favorite (and happily overused quotes) Maya Angelou mused, “I’m trying to be a Christian. I’m working at it, and I’m amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, Already? Wow!”
Or how ‘bout this from Frederick Buechner, “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all.”
In my faith, I have not arrived. Sometimes I focus too much on my weaknesses. Sometimes, I’m such an arrogant jerk. But always—and I believe this like my life depended on it—the God revealed by Jesus, in the Gospels and in my heart, never leaves my side. When, like the followers who vamoosed, I slink away, I sense the metaphoric footsteps of Jesus alongside, as silent as an honest prayer, as eager as a father welcoming a wayward child.