From John’s Gospel:
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 the Daily Office Lectionary – John 6:67-69 – August 28, 2012)
Several years ago, when I still earned my living by practicing law, I represented a man who was a sculptor; that was his hobby, not his profession. He was really very talented at carving stone. One of the pieces he showed me was a crucifix; the face of Jesus was contorted in rage. I told him that I had never imagined that look on Jesus’ face at that time. He referred me to Luke 23:34 in which Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” He told me he’d imagined that Jesus was angry at that moment, that the import of his words something like, “Father, you forgive them! I can’t, not right now! They have no idea how stupid and cruel this is!” It was an Aha! moment for me, a moment when I had an insight into Christ that has stuck with me all the years since. That artist and his crucifix forever changed the way I hear Luke’s version of the Crucifixion, and to be honest I think I hear the story more clearly as a result. (Accompanying this meditation is another “angry Jesus” from a Brazilian artist who had been tortured. The picture links to another person’s blog post, a sermon about images of Jesus that is really quite good.)
In the first of several eucharistic prayers in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, the presider at Holy Communion gives praise to God for the mission of the Son, sent by the Father, “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” That phrase, “to share our human nature,” it seems to me, picks up on a theological point made by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the description of Christ who “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15) It is the same point made in the Nicene Creed when we insist that the Son “by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It is the same point made in the Chalcedonian Definition that insists that Christ is not only “truly God” but also “truly man.” Jesus was a human being! And what human being undergoing the intense and excruciating pain of crucifixion would not be angry?
So you wonder (I’m sure), what has that to do with Jesus asking the Twelve if they, like others offended by his bread/body metaphor, want to turn away from him?
John’s portrayal of Jesus has always troubled me. He’s just a little too divine for me. He knows ahead of time what is going to happen; he seems to read the minds of the people around him. In fact, elsewhere in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we are told that he was “aware that his disciples were complaining about” the bread/body allusion and that “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.” This Jesus actually isn’t a whole lot like me; he’s not in every respect as I am or as most other people in my experience are. We are not aware of what those around us are thinking and we generally do not know “from the first” the way things are going to turn out. And if Jesus is as we are, then he wasn’t as all-knowing and all-seeing as the Gospel of John seems to make him out. But if he is like us when he questions the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” then I suspect there might be a little irritation, a little frustration, a little anger in his tone of voice.
Not, perhaps, the outrage portrayed by my sculptor client in his version of the Crucifixion, but the everyday peevishness of hard-working human beings who have done their level best only to see things go not quite as hoped for, the simple annoyance of someone who has patiently explained things only to find him- or herself misunderstood, the vexation that accompanies the common experience of unrealized expectations. That’s what I hear in Jesus’ voice in today’s reading.
And I hear it, too, in Peter’s reply. (I hear the same exasperated tone of voice in Peter’s response to Jesus when he makes the comment about rich people getting into heaven in all three of the Synoptic Gospels: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” [Mark 10:28]) “To whom can we go?” he asks. The whole conversation just sounds like the tired, worn-out men who have traveled far, done much, worked hard, and still don’t quite see the fruits of their effort they had hoped to see. They are frustrated with the situation and they are ill-tempered with one another. And you know what? I love that! I love it that Jesus and Peter and the others are that real, that human, that honest with one another that they can show their feelings and vent their frustrations. These are not superheroes; these are not emotionless automata; these are not people who are always in control. They are, in every respect, as we are. Peter, and James, and John, and (most importantly) Jesus have been there where we often find ourselves, ill-tempered, snappish, and a bit out of sorts.
“To whom can we go?” To whom else would we want to go than to someone who knows us as we are because he’s been there, who knows us as we are because he’s experienced even worse?
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.