Can We Do Hard Things?
This is not going to end well.
“When they heard [his words], therefore, many of his disciples said, ‘This word is hard; who shall be able to hear it?’ But, Jesus, because he knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling concerning this, said to them, ‘This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?’” (John 6:60-61, my translation).
The “disciples” mentioned here include more than the Twelve. Rather, this is the whole entourage – many of whom have been part of the conversation at least since the Feeding of the Multitude at the beginning of the chapter. They react to “this word,” presumably a description of the entire Bread of Life Discourse.
That being said, the portion of the Discourse that produces grumbling among the religious authorities is noted in John 6:41 – “Therefore ‘the Jews’ were grumbling about him because he said, ‘I am the bread which has come down out of heaven…” As we have noted previously, this potentially blasphemous self-identification has the potential to drive any Jew right around the bend – not merely Jesus’ opponents.
When Jesus states in John 6:52 that “the bread I shall give is my flesh for the sake of the life of the cosmos,” he raises the stakes even higher. The religious authorities enter into a full-blown argument about the meaning of this statement. “Eating” is “escalated to “chomping” or “masticating.” The bread the Father has sent from heaven, the Word made flesh, is now standing in the midst of the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus declares.
Yes, I would say that is a difficult, challenging, uncomfortable “word” – for first-century disciples and for twenty-first century disciples.
We should always watch in the Gospel of John when the word “word” is used. The term the writer uses here is “logos,” the same word used to describe the Word that was in the beginning with God and is now made flesh among us. John’s irony is often so clever that it can be easily missed. It’s not only the “word” of teaching in the Discourse that is a source of stumbling. It is the astonishing impossibility of the Incarnation – the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus.
“English translations say ‘teaching’ or merely ‘this,’” observes Jaime Clark-Soles, “but logos is a key word in John from the start. From the Prologue on,” she continues, “we know that Jesus is the logos and, crucially, that the logos became flesh (sarx; 1:14). The author expects us to recall,” she concludes, “what we have heard before chapter 6.”
They emphatically describe this “word” (Jesus’ assertions in the Bread of Life Discourse) as “hard.” The word used here is “skleros,” which means not only hard, but stiff, rigid, and unyielding. That word finds its way into English usage especially in medical domains. Hardening of the arteries is arteriosclerosis. Heart vessels that require bypass are often not only clogged but also sclerotic – inflexible and unable to flex and expand. Therefore, this word means more than “difficult” or “complicated.”
What is it about Jesus’ teaching, asks Susan Hylen, that the disciples find difficult? She questions the suggestion that the resistance comes from a sense that Jesus is referring to literal cannibalism.
Instead, she suggests, they find Jesus’ claims about himself in the Discourse as more than they can stomach (I can’t resist a pun, no matter how poor). “The response of the disciples to Jesus is an example of the irony for which John is well known,” Hylen argues, “the disciples reject the idea that Jesus is manna, but in doing so they display that Jesus is manna by responding to him just as the Israelites responded to manna.”
Jesus knows that the disciples themselves are now “grumbling” about his assertions, just as the religious authorities had grumbled earlier in the account. “As in the Exodus story, the issue is not simply the grumbling of the people but the lack of trust in God that it represents,” Hylen continues.
“The difficulty in John 6 is not simply the cognitive content of believing something about Jesus,” she writes, “but also the lack of trust that the disciples display. Like the Israelites, they have experienced God’s miraculous provision,” Hylen observes, “but they do not trust that God will continue to provide for them in the wilderness.”
The “word” may be difficult. But it is the listeners who are becoming stiff, rigid, and unyielding. This is, I think, another part of the ironic method and intent of the writer of John’s gospel. The more I read and study this gospel, the more I think the writer employs a kind of “you spot it, you got it” sort of strategy. Often, in this account, Jesus’ opponents (and sometimes disciples) accuse him of precisely what afflicts them.
As Jesus challenges his disciples to go deeper into the mystery of the Feeding Miracle and its meaning, their resistance grows. Jesus is pushing the limits of their worldview to the breaking point. Either that worldview will burst its bounds and be opened to a whole new way of seeing, hearing, thinking, and trusting, or it will snap back with all the violent energy that pushed it to the edge of insight.
This is the really hard thing – to see something new. “Here, the problem seems not so much that the disciples have difficulty understanding what Jesus is saying,” Brian Peterson notes, “they understand quite well, but cannot believe and follow what Jesus has said. How often,” he wonders, “do we find the same to be true about ourselves?”
One question which the text puts to us is this. Can we do hard things? More accurately, are we willing to do hard things? The hardest thing of all, it would seem, is to trust Jesus completely in life and in death. That’s what it means to have someone or something as a god, Martin Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism. The hard thing is to allow ourselves to be displaced from the center of the universe and to open ourselves to the presence of Jesus as that center.
A hard thing requires “hearing.” The disciples use such a simple word in their reaction in John 6:60. Who can hear it? Of course, they heard the “word” with their ears. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be reacting as they did. But can they take that word into themselves, their hearts, and their understanding of the cosmos? Can they allow that word to change everything in them and about them? Most of all, can they obey that Word in their lives – in the face of some really hard things?
We may not find the gospel in John’s account to be such a hard thing anymore. After all, we have domesticated the Incarnation almost beyond its capacity to shock us. But perhaps we can grapple with the hard things the gospel seems to require of us in order to experience the sclerotic responses of those first disciples.
In the face of change, challenge, and chaos, we tend to harden up and hunker down. This is especially the case when we are in danger of losing something – something like power, position, privilege, and property.
Will we do hard things in the Church, such as attacking and dismantling our centuries of white supremacy? Will we be, as Jemar Tisby asks, courageous Christians or compromised Christians? Will we do the hard things even though those things may get us thrown out or even killed?
Will we consider deeding church property back to Indigenous peoples and nations – the first “owners” of the land? Over the next decade, it is clear, a number of Christian congregations will cease to exist as corporate entities. They will dispose of billions of dollars’ worth of property in that process. Will that simply go into the pockets of the white “shareholders”? Or might it be given to people where the value could really do some long-term good?
Just when we need curiosity, creativity, and courage, we lock down into fight, flight, or freeze mode. I think we can see the early church dealing with this issue in the second readings for last Sunday and this one.
We see the Church wondering how to manage the egalitarian impulse of Pauline Christianity in the face of a hierarchical, powerful, and violent Empire. I think that in Ephesians we see a Church that is backing away from some of the hard things – attacking slavery, dismantling patriarchy, and treating children as human beings rather than property. The egalitarian impulse caused enough trouble in Paul’s generation of the Church. Now, in the second generation, survival is becoming an institutional priority. As a result, some people will suffer rather than being set free.
Yet, perhaps, the writer of Ephesians holds out hope for real change. In the second lesson paired with our text from the Gospel of John, we hear about the “whole armor of God.” Just as Jesus will note the power of the Spirit in our Gospel passage, so the writer of Ephesians expresses confidence that we Jesus followers can access the equipment we need in order to do battle with the principalities and powers.
What does that mean for us, especially as white, American, rich, and powerful Christians? It means that we are challenged to trust enough in Jesus to release our death grip on the power, position, privilege, and property in which we have placed our trust for so long. As we see in this gospel text, faithful congregations may well shrink rather than grow numerically. And those “successful” congregations experiencing numerical growth will need to examine closely the reasons for that growth. Those reasons probably don’t include doing the hard things.
Does this sort of talk scandalize you? Well, then I may be on the right track.
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