Encounters with Jesus: You Have the Words . . .
“Do you also wish to go away?” With this question, raised by Jesus with his disciples in chapter 6 of John, the fourth gospel reveals something of the underside of Jesus’ incarnational presence. By this point in John, Jesus’ teachings are at times beginning to come across to them as oblique, demanding, extreme, and unrealistic. Some of the disciples voice their concern: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
So much in the narrative encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel can easily be perceived by the 21st century reader in a somewhat stylized way: A religious leader meets Jesus in the night—maybe under the stars? Jesus encounters a Samaritan villager at a water well—it could be a wishing well. In the coming weeks, we’ll witness a blind man being given his sight; immediately after, he performs an impressive sequence of verbal acrobatics as the religious establishment rigorously examines his claim to have been healed in an encounter with Jesus.
The lyrical tone of John’s descriptions and narration can belie the developing intensity in Jesus’ relationships with disciples, religious authorities, and finally Rome. Words we find in the early pages of his gospel account foreshadow what is to become an increasing source of vexation and threat: “. . . and people loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:9).
François Bovon, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, writes of “the incipient tension between God’s plan and the will of the people.” We want life, but on our terms; freedom, according to our definition; light, but not too brilliant; truth, but tell it slant.
“This teaching is difficult,” the disciples bemoan—just as we might. “Who can accept it?” At this point, we are told, many disciples turn away and no longer follow Jesus. Turning to those who remained—specifically his twelve disciples—he asked the obvious question: “Do you also wish to go away?”
Readers, brace yourselves. This is a defining moment. Depending on the answer, the story either dissipates in a discouraging conclusion or moves toward a more promising path. Which will it be?
In what I consider perhaps the most human, most stirring faith expressions found in John’s gospel, Peter answers for the twelve: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He seems to be saying, “Do we also wish to go away? Believe me, Jesus—we’ve thought about it. This is becoming excruciating at times. And yet, what are our options? If we want a life a life of meaning, of scope, of purpose and hope, then here, with you, is the only place we’ve found it.” How about that—they chose Jesus by process of elimination. Then again, in a certain way, don’t we all?
Grace and peace.
Rev. Paul L. Escamilla, Senior Pastor