When I read or hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand (which we heard proclaimed at Mass this summer), I’m often struck by how quickly the tide turns. It’s a dramatic series of events in the lives of Jesus’ disciples – a sequence that plays itself out over a matter of days.
Picture it: Jesus’ teaching & miracles had so captured a crowd counted as “5,000 men, not including women and children” that they followed Him around the countryside. Members of this crowd gave no thought to their own well being – not even thinking about what they were going to eat. Luckily for them, Jesus cared for needs they hadn’t considered (just as He does for us even when we don’t care for ourselves). You likely know the story: Jesus took the small offerings from a boy in the crowd to feed the multitude – with plenty to spare. When He moved on the next day, the crowd follows him again– setting up what should be the moment that each one is willing count themselves permanently as one of Jesus’ disciples.
But that’s not what happened. Jesus taught them, and they replied:
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” -John 6:60
And then “…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). What on earth has happened here? How do you go from forgetting your basic needs (eating) to witnessing a miracle of that magnitude to simply walking away?
It’s simple, really. The crowd who followed Jesus – who were fed by his hand – were willing to follow and listen to Jesus… but only up to a point. At the point that His teaching made them uncomfortable, they simply walked away and went home. Jesus’ error (at least from their perspective) was moving beyond miracles and beatitudes into a more challenging area of His teaching: in this case, on the Eucharist.
There are people who think the twenty-first Century Church should just stick to preaching about the love and mercy of God, pull their share of weight in charitable works, and beyond that, simply mind their own business and stick to what they know. The underlyling message: stop teaching things that make us uncomfortable. And there’s a lot of Church teachings that make people uncomfortable. From teachings on suffering to marriage & sexuality to the unborn to the expectation that we help those in need at all times and in all circumstances, you could argue that there’s no shortage of people who find Christianity “difficult.” In fact, the great G.K. Chesterton, a friend of both J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis, put it beautifully:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” -G.K. Chesterton
Those who walked away from Jesus in sixth chapter of John’s Gospel decided that they preferred their idea of Jesus (and His teaching) to the real Jesus. The real Jesus is supposed to make us uncomfortable. He’s supposed to challenge us to see the world through God’s eyes. He’s not supposed to the one who just tells us what we want to hear in the way we want to hear it: it’s quite the opposite.
The Gospel is FULL of moments where Jesus makes people feel uncomfortable. People who are presenting one image of themselves to the world while in their hearts struggling with some great sin. People living in all sorts of situations – dysfunctional and sinful alike – and people who used religion as a shield to hide their craving for power. He makes His closest followers uncomfortable and He makes total strangers uncomfortable. You could even argue that those who had Him crucified did so because they couldn’t handle being made uncomfortable – likely because Jesus’ words were hitting so close to home.
It is in the very nature of God to love us as we are – wholly and completely – but also to love us too much to simply leave us there. Entering into relationship with God is meant to make you uncomfortable. Growing in relationship with God means to embrace that discomfort on the journey, much as a married couple accept that the life’s journey is all about getting beyond selfishness and self-centeredness. If spouses can’t do that, their marriage won’t last. Likewise, neither will our faith if we aren’t willing to be challenged by God.
There will be moments when, faced with Jesus’ difficult teaching or some other hard thing God is calling us to do we feel like walking away. And in those moments it’s worth remembering the words of St. Peter, responding to Jesus’ query as to whether the disciples were going away too:
Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” -John 6:68
May we have sort of faith to cling to Jesus – especially when it’s hard.