Teaching the mystery

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When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘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.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him. — John 6: 60-71

Jesus has been teaching again, this time not just the twelve disciples but other Jews gathered around him. He was speaking in metaphor, talking about himself as the bread of life that had come down from heaven. The crowd was confused and so were the disciples, so confused that they complained that the teaching was too difficult, too hard to understand much less accept. The usual twelve seemed to have that problem quite often, but this time, some disciples and even some of the crowd found it too much to handle and beat feet.

Maybe it’s trivial, but I had the same feeling in algebra class in high school. The teacher might as well have been talking Hittite or declaiming in Greek pentameter for all the sense I could make of equations. If I could have beat feet myself, I would have, and for much less a reason than having my teacher proclaim himself as having come down from heaven and would return there. No, my adoptive father said I had to take the class, the school said I had to take it and so I sat in algebra and tried to make sense of the incomprehensible. I have full sympathy for the disciples who must have felt the same but under very different and more life-affecting circumstances.

Why would Jesus deliberately speak so metaphorically? In a way, it’s like free kittens. Just because something is advertised as free doesn’t mean it isn’t going to end up costing something — or even a lot of something. Free kittens need cat food, litter, toys, trips to the vet, all things that cost money. Jesus knew that lessons that came too easily didn’t allow for growth and growth was what the disciples had to do in order to understand and then to teach others. Like the algebra teacher, Jesus had to make the brains work because parroting answers without understanding how they came to be the right answers didn’t help anybody. There were going to be questions asked, and the students would have to understand the subject in order to teach others.

You know, it’s still a hard teaching. Every time we take the Eucharist we are taught that this is the Body of Christ, yet how can the body be a thin, flat, cardboard-like wafer? It’s a mystery, yet we believe that somehow, some way, it really is what we are told it is. We, products of an advanced scientific and literate society, can’t figure it out, yet we look somewhat scornfully at disciples more than 2000 years ago who couldn’t figure it out either. We, like Peter, can profess our faith, but as far as really understanding intellectually what it is we are professing, we don’t always understand it any more than most of us can figure out quadratic equations. Still, it is the belief that matters, whether we fully understand it or not.

Come to think of it, life without a few mysteries would be awfully dull, wouldn’t it?

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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