Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” … 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.” From John 6
One Wednesday evening at a church supper I sat beside a five-year-old. The only child at the table, she turned over the decorative placemat after she’d finished eating to discover games on the back: a word find; a crossword puzzle; a maze. I hadn’t worked a maze in years. Together we tried to figure out which way to draw a line through the confusing pathways so the bear could find the honey. As a child, I always found the maze the least satisfying of all the games. It usually became messy, with my pencil lines backtracked over each other. No matter how hard I tried to see ahead, the pathways were so tightly packed it was hard to tell where they led. There were so many dead ends, so many turnarounds. It wasn’t neat like the other games that could be figured out in your head before writing the answers. You may have guessed by now that I’m the type of person who likes things to be orderly in my mind, on paper, in my life. You will have also guessed that I am often disappointed, because real life is messy.
In the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus feeds five thousand plus, and compares this windfall to the manna the Israelites had received centuries before when they wandered the wilderness. It seems the listeners’ ideas about manna had been all neatly organized and placed in a theological box, a nice straight-sided crossword where everything fits just right. Manna was God’s way of looking after the people of Israel. They received the blessing every day until they finally reached the land of promise. The end, Amen.
Then Jesus has a very long monologue about bread of life, which starts out nicely but ends with the command to eat his body and drink his blood. Now that’s anything but neat and orderly. It’s frightening and messy. “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” Obviously, the cannibalistic references didn’t help, but I think they also just did not like the way he was messing with the old stories, scribbling outside the lines, making the sensible puzzle of life they’d imagined into a much more complicated maze. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
These were not mere hangers-on who walked away. The writer calls them “disciples.” They were real followers who had probably been around for a while. They’d liked the talk of Jesus, the idea of Jesus, but this messiness of Jesus was too much. “Does this offend you?” he asked. Apparently, yes.
Then Jesus turned to the twelve. The closest, most constant group. “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter’s answer is my favorite quote of his in the gospels. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
If they’d really taken the manna story to heart, they’d have remembered what a meandering story it was. If those long-ago Israelites had walked in a straight line to the holy land it might’ve taken them a few weeks. But they struggled with each other, fought with their leaders, didn’t like God anymore, couldn’t agree on anything. And they wandered in a very messy way for a generation.
The followers of Jesus, at their best times, have understood that life does not travel in straight lines. It throws us curves of one kind or another all the time. No matter how hard we try to make things straighten out, we don’t have that kind of power. Cancer. A broken relationship. A sick child. An accident. A job loss. Conflict. An international financial crisis. An abusive spouse. Bad news. Bad memories. A death. These are not straight line problems. They are a maze.
The words of eternal life aren’t just the ones that fit on a desk plaque or that get tossed into political campaigns. They are not always simple, cute, easy to hear. The words of eternal life remind us that life is not always plain; solutions to our problems are not straightforward.
It is exactly because the words of eternal life ring true that we cannot leave. Where would we go? Who else will tell us the truth about life? Who else has lived the truth about life so fully?
John’s gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For Christians, there is something about the Word that we cannot seem to find anywhere else. The gospel words of eternal life go straight to the soul. The words don’t straighten the maze, really. But when we are winding our way around it, retracing our steps, losing our way at times, stumbling around outside the lines, we try not to feel utterly lost.
We are often on a winding and convoluted path, confusing, frightening, difficult, maze-like. But we have come to believe that somewhere on the path, truth can be heard.
So we stay and listen.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2012