To be honest, I probably would have walked away as well.
I mean, I’m all for the man who stands up to a privileged hierarchy, especially when it is found to be oppressing the poor and needy while claiming divine sanction. And I’ve always admired a good teacher, someone who can apply old truths with fresh insights. The healing thing too, is great – even though I’m a bit of a skeptic, I admit. Pragmatism runs even stronger through my veins and if a thing is working, well, we can do the theorizing about it later.
But then there’s this: I don’t care how daring or charismatic a leader is, when they start all that pompous posturing, start carrying on about how special and different they are, when they start the crazy talk, that’s the thing that does it for me. I’m loyal, but to a point.
Whoever eats my flesh will have eternal life….I am the bread that came down from heaven….Well, what if you saw me ascending again to where I came from?
For many of those who were following Jesus around Galilee, his long, ambiguous speech in the Gospel of John chapter six was the breaking point: they turned their backs and gave up on going with him any farther.
Do my words offend you? he asks. The original Greek text renders the word “scandalize”: Are you scandalized by my words? The etymology couldn’t be more fitting: scandalize comes from a root meaning of “stumble over”. Those who have been walking with Jesus, learning what he is about and who he claims to be, have suddenly stumbled over his words, unable to find it in themselves to get up and continue.
Like the politician, his crazy talk has done him in; his poll numbers have peaked.
Inevitably, every journey of faith will require us to entertain absurdities. When these emerge from the shadows of our own mind they may be perplexing but they have at least the aura of legitimacy. We judge our own questions as honest, our own conundrums as genuine. Coming as they may from the mind of another, especially one who is a leader and should know better, they can strike us as disingenuous and fabricated, the first glimpse of a blemish in their soul.
I suppose Jesus could have kept his thoughts to himself, could have chosen words that were less upsetting to his audience. Talking points would have helped.
But there is another possibility here. The Gospel of John is, as Clement of Alexandria famously said, a spiritual gospel. To understand it, we must view it through spiritual lenses.
Jesus, like all great spiritual teachers, had achieved a level of consciousness that few others have realized. Although he was a gifted speaker, his influence rested not – like the charismatic politician – on his ability to woo the crowd to achieve his will. Instead, his power came from self-awareness, the learned clarity of understanding his own identity, his motives, decisions and actions within the widest possible framework. He had a deep knowledge of what his existence was about and how to choose his daily path accordingly. Who he was had become perfectly consonant with the mind of the divine. This is true power.
The person who has this kind of power knows it is not their own; they do not possess it, they are mere conduits of it. Their words may at first seem bold or even haughty, but taken as a whole they always come from an authentic humility – a proper understanding of one’s place in the universe, not too high, not too low – and always point beyond oneself to a greater power. The I AM of Moses, the Allahu Akbar of Mohammad, the Higher Power of the Anonymous, and yes, the Father of Jesus. Confronted with his words, some will leave, others will stay, but all are challenged in their knowledge of the holy.
Is this level of consciousness, this degree of self-awareness, and the confident, joyful humility that comes with it, reserved only for the great founders of religions? St. Paul seems to indicate that one day we will all achieve it: Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.
Most of us, however, feel far removed from this inner peace and power. Our lives are full of ignorance, like the boatload of disciples earlier in the chapter, bobbing up and down on a sea of chaos, getting brief and distant glimpses of the Presence drawing near, confused enough to mistake it for a wraith of sinister intent.
Our earnest attempt at a leap of faith results in a mere shuffle on a hunch.
Never mind. Like Peter, when asked if he too wished to turn back, we still dare to hope: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We dare to continue our journey in the expectation that it will lead us to greater awareness. The rare person finds inner unity arriving in a sudden conversion, a flash of understanding; for many more it comes gradually, through the hard slog of study and observation, failure and trashed theories.
M. Scott Peck writes: The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning. If this path is followed long and earnestly enough, the pieces of knowledge begin to fall into place. Gradually things begin to make sense. There are blind alleys, disappointments, concepts arrived at only to be discarded. But gradually it is possible for us to come to a deeper and deeper understanding of what our existence is all about. And gradually we can come to a place where we know what we are doing. (The Road Less Traveled, p. 285)*
In other words, gentle reader, your holy shuffle is just fine.
*With thanks to Dr. Peck for much of the thought behind this post. After 35 years I picked up The Road Less Traveled again this year; what a great read!