Faith Seeking Understanding
We’ve come now to the end of John chapter six. At the beginning of this chapter, we find Jesus multiplying loaves and fish to feed the five thousand, demonstrating that He is the new and greater Moses (like Moses who fed the people of Israel manna in the wilderness); then, we moved into the Bread of Life Discourse, where Jesus makes that connection explicit: I am the living bread that came down from heaven, He says; He came to give Himself for the life of the world; and He then makes the shocking statement that to receive that life, we must eat His flesh and drink His blood.
Our text before us this morning highlights the various reactions to Jesus’ words; the reaction of the Jews, the reaction of the “outer ring” of disciples, and the reaction of The Twelve; and it puts before us the question: How will you respond to the word of the Lord? Jesus pointedly asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” That’s the question put before us: you have heard the word of the Lord. How will you respond?
The Response of Incredulity
To see this first response, we need to back up a bit in the discourse. The previous day Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand, and now the same crowds have returned, searching for Jesus. He tells them, “you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” They came back looking for Jesus because they liked the fleshly benefit that came, thus far, from being with Him: a miraculous food supply. And they liked the prospect of the kind of messiah or king that meant He might be for them.
But they didn’t see the sign. We might think, well of course they saw the sign; but what Jesus is saying here is, they didn’t perceive that what Jesus was up to was demonstrating, not that He’s going to give us fleshly food to fill our stomachs, but that He gives food greater than the manna in the wilderness. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
Jesus isn’t just giving more manna. He’s giving Himself. ““I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” It’s in response to this statement that we first begin to see the response of the Jews: “41 The Jews then complained [grumbled, murmured] about Him, because He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” 42 And they said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
We know this guy. His family is here among us. He says He’s the bread of life come down from heaven, but we all know He’s just the carpenter. The Jews dismiss His claims because of the scandal of the Messiah’s familiarity. But then, Jesus gets even more explicit: “the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” To this they respond now with quarreling: “52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”
This is the response of incredulity. What Jesus says to them is decidedly not what they were looking for; and more, it’s beyond belief. So they refuse to believe. They reject His word outright. This is the response to the Gospel we will encounter in the world: disbelief, mocking, incredulity. St. Paul tells us that the message of Christ crucified is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness…” Yet, to us, “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)
That’s the response of outright unbelief. The next response may hit closer to home. It’s the response of a doubt that isolates.
The Response of Isolating Doubt
Remember, among Jesus’ followers are the Twelve, who we usually think of when we hear about “the disciples,” but also a larger group of disciples. We hear of seventy disciples sent out on mission in Luke 10, for instance. There’s a larger group, outside of the “inner ring” of the Twelve (and among the Twelve there’s another “inner ring”: Peter, James, and John).
It’s this group’s response we hear of next. After Jesus declares that eternal life is given through eating and drinking His flesh and blood, they respond, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” And, if we’re honest, we can understand. Is what Jesus has said “a hard saying?” Is it shocking? Hard (even impossible) to wrap our minds around? Yes!
But pay attention to not only the content of their response, but how this response is handled. They respond with their complaint, “This is a hard saying,” but the indication is that they keep this to themselves. They’re not looking to Jesus to help them through this. Jesus is aware of their complaint and responds, but it’s not because they brought it to Him; He is aware simply because He “knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this…” This isn’t a doubt that seeks resolution, but rather doubt that finds a good reason to back away. And that’s precisely what many of them do: “66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”
Now, it’s significant to note, this does not tell us the ultimate fate of these disciples. We know from Jesus’ Parable of the Soils that there will be some who exhibit a lively, enthusiastic faith, only to fall away when persecution or trials (or doubts?) arise. That sounds like what we see with these disciples. But, despite their response of faith we’re about to consider, when Jesus is arrested even the Twelve abandon Him. Peter, who responds with bold faith, later betrays the Lord three times. It’s through Jesus Cross and Resurrection that they’re forgiven and brought back.
And the same is true, it seems, for many in this “outer ring” of disciples. Many turn away here in John 6; by the end, all have abandoned Christ. But look at Acts 1, leading up to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost: “15 … in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty)...” Whatever else this tells us, this is good news to any and all who doubt. In fact, not only for doubting disciples, but for enemies of Christ as well. The doubters have been brought back into the fold in Acts 1, then in the next chapter, Peter addresses the “men of Israel” and tells them they crucified the Lord Himself, Whom God has now raised from the dead. He preaches the Gospel to them, calls them to repentance, and “gladly received his word were baptized.” “that day about three thousand souls were added to them.”
The crowd of Jews respond with incredulity; many of the disciples let their doubts drive them away. But the Twelve model for us the implicit faith with which we are called to receive the word of the Lord.
The Response of Implicit Faith
After the complaints and the departure of many of these disciples, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks, ““Do you also want to go away?”
Where do you think they were in all this? Do you think they were unphased by Jesus' words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood? Do you think, in contrast to those disciples who described this as “a hard saying”, it was all clear to the Twelve? I think not. And yet, how do they respond?
Peter answers for them all: ““Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the response of implicit faith. They may not fully understand; they may not be completely comfortable with what He’s said. But they trust. They trust Him. They know that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” so they cling to His word.
This is the response to the Word of the Lord we are called to embody: the response of implicit faith. Think about what we say in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is a training ground for us, as well as the time we actually exercise this faith. When we hear the lessons read from the Scriptures, and I proclaim to you, “The word of the Lord,” how do you respond? “Thanks be to God!” When you hear Scripture that you can’t really wrap your mind around, or that might even trouble you: Thanks be to God! When you hear Scripture about God’s goodness and mercy, but you’re experiencing loss or pain, or going through trials: Thanks be to God! You hear the Good News, the Gospel of Christ, the good news of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection: Praise be to You, O Christ! This is how we respond to the word of the Lord. Does that mean we never have questions or doubts? Not at all. But here’s the difference: doubting in disbelief drove the disciples away from Christ, whereas faith seeks understanding.
Listen to the prayer of St. Anselm, the medieval theologian: “Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You to exist, and that You are what we believe You to be.” This is to be our posture: faith seeking understanding. This is the faith exhibited by these disciples. In Luke 17, in response to warnings from Jesus, they respond, “Increase our faith.” This is the faith exemplified by the disciple in Mark 9: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
This is to be our response: “ to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That’s an echo of what Jesus Himself has just said a few verses prior: ““Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Jesus is not simply offering more food to fill our bellies like the mana in the wilderness: He gives His own life-giving flesh and blood, the true, spiritual food and drink that nourish us to everlasting life. We receive Him for our life just as we receive His word in faith. We no longer live under the curse of death, received from descent from Adam; in Christ we have eternal life through body and blood: St. Paul tells us, “‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor. 15:45) Jesus’ resurrected, glorified, ascended body is our life, by the work of the Spirit. We receive Him, His body given and His blood shed for us, His word of promise, with implicit faith. Trust, obey, and abide in Him.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.