This week’s Gospel reading takes us to the end of John Chapter 6 and the final outcome of Jesus’ long discourse on the bread of life. Up to this point the crowd have grumbled about Jesus’ teaching, but now the grumbling begins to infect the circle of his disciples as well:
Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.John 6.66
Because they don’t understand what Jesus is saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and it doesn’t fit with their ideas about being his disciple, they take offence. They are in effect sitting in judgment on Jesus’ teaching – making themselves the arbiters of truth rather than letting him shape their thinking. It was a common response to Jesus. When John the Baptist was having a hard time working out whether Jesus really was who he’d thought he was, Jesus sent a message listing the mighty works which authenticated his Messiahship. He then issued a gentle warning:
… blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.Matthew 11.6
Taking offence has become a favourite pastime in our culture. It’s one of the chief drivers of social media. The problem with taking offence is that it stops you from learning. Somebody else’s offensive point of view may contain truth. If you refuse to entertain what the other person says you shut yourself up in your own limited understanding of the world.
What are we supposed to do when Jesus’ teaching, or the words of Scripture, or something in a sermon or a discussion, rub us up the wrong way? Here is some advice from Calvin:
… if we judge of Christ’s teaching from our feelings, His words will be just so many paradoxes. Therefore nothing remains but for everyone to commit himself to the guidance of the Spirit, that He may inscribe on our hearts what otherwise would never even have entered into our ears.
People taking offence and leaving the church is the inevitable experience of most pastors. The fact that Jesus had the same experience should give us some comfort. It reminds us that church growth is not a simple upward trajectory of ever-increasing numbers. It involves pruning, and without pruning, growth is unlikely to be healthy.
The departure of a large number of disciples touches Jesus personally. He wants to know whether his inner circle are also thinking of leaving. He turns to the twelve and asks:
Do you also wish to go away?John 6.67
Peter’s reply is important:
Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.John 6.68
“We have come to believe and know…” In Peter’s experience faith/belief has resulted in knowledge. Taking a step of faith in following Jesus has brought him to a place where he can say that he not only believes but knows that Jesus is who he says he is. This is the wrong way round according to the usual human way of thinking. We tend to assume that knowledge comes first and then faith. Show me and I’ll believe.
This reversal of human expectations is a key ingredient in Christian growth. Augustine and Anselm encapsulated the proper Christian stance as fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. In other words, trust what Jesus tells you and over time you will come to understand. Don’t reject what you don’t understand but let the Holy Spirit be your teacher. Here is Calvin again:
… the obedience of faith is the beginning of true understanding; or rather, faith itself is truly the eye of the mind.
In all relationships this is the way things work. You only get to know somebody if you first trust yourself to them. This is true in marriage. Committing yourself to one person for life is a step of faith which leads to much deeper knowledge. Supremely it is true in our relationship with God.
Does this mean that Christian faith requires us to shut off our minds and deny our thirst for understanding? Not at all. Robin Williams famously listed “You don’t have to check your brains at the door” as one of the top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian (along with such delights as free wine on Sundays and no snake handling) but no Christian of any tradition is required to stop thinking. Quite the reverse. We are told to expect “the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12.2). That renewal requires that we open our minds to some new thoughts.