All Figured Out?

I suspect that at one time or another everyone comes up a bit short in having the ways of God figured out. On one hand that statement elicits a response of, ” Well, duh;” on the other hand, there is a certain reluctance to go past the specific things we don’t quite fathom. So it was when Jesus was here in the flesh, as demonstrated in this passage from John 6:60-71:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.

The particular hard saying in the text had to do with the previous statements by Jesus regarding the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood. Yes, people took offense at this, and for quite readily understood reasons. In fact, this same concept was to become a source of scorn in the early church, which was accused of cannibalism in some areas of the Mediterranean world. Offense was taken; ridicule was forthcoming. My point is not to revisit the debate over the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist/Lord’s supper/Holy Communion (another time, perhaps); my interest is in the response of Jesus to reactions fostered by his difficult statements and in the faith attitude of Simon Peter.

There is an inevitable tendency to soften the hard sayings of Jesus and of the Bible generally. We are children of a supposedly enlightened age, capable of grasping the truth about anything once it is presented to us. It is an age with a different mindset from that of Augustine or of Anselm or Thomas of Aquinas, for whom the intellectual quest was characterized by the phrase credo ut inteligam–I believe in order to understand. The modern mind says instead that I believe what I can understand. The unavoidable implication is that God and his ways, his salvation, his work in the world, are subject to our understanding before we offer them to those seeking his benefits. God can be no bigger than our mental framing capabilities. And no, it is not only theologians who fall into this pit; we all do it because it has been engrained as part of our way of thinking.

Jesus did not frantically call to those departing to come back for a better offer, one with fewer challenges to their received and preferred ways of thinking. He did not give a reduced version in hopes that they would eventually take another step at a later time. The gospel offends us at some point; we need to change our thinking about God, the world, and ourselves in some important way, though the specific issue may well be different fo each of us. And those who stay to hear more, like Peter, recognize that in spite of the offense to reason there is a life-giving word that only Jesus possesses and only Jesus can give. An oft-quoted biblical maxim applies here quite well (paraphrased): trust in the Lord and do not trust your own capacity to figure out all things.