by Jodie Lyon
March 25, 2015
John 6:66-68 (NRSV): 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I was able to attend the official debut of Max Reinhart’s “The Gospel According to Peter” and found myself, like all those in attendance, marveling at the way Max was able to make the character of Peter come alive to his audience. Max describes Peter as a “good ol’ boy,” a regular guy who struggles with faith in the midst of doubt—a man who experiences profound change through his encounters with Jesus and has a story that needs to be told.
Max’s songs reminded me of this text, which is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels. Jesus has been teaching and people are getting shocked, disgusted, angry, and annoyed. People are leaving, standing up and walking out on Jesus. You can’t blame them, honestly. Jesus has been teaching some crazy stuff, like “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” WHAT?? Christians are so used to Holy Communion rituals that we forget how weird it is to talk about eating flesh and drinking blood. In any other context, people talking this way might be arrested. In the early church, the Eucharist was celebrated in private, with only baptized Christians allowed in attendance. Those preparing for baptism (a two to three year process in early Christianity—no quick conversion after an altar call) were kicked out prior to the celebration of this “love feast.” It’s no wonder that rumors spread that Christians were baking infants into loaves of bread and forcing neophytes to slice in them before sharing in a cannibalistic meal. Christian Eucharistic talk is crazy talk—we’ve just become numb to the bizarreness of it all.
Jesus’ first century audience wasn’t used to this weird talk, so people start walking out on Jesus. Not only the crowds he was teaching, but people who had been following Jesus long enough to become known as his disciples. Jesus was losing his own people. He finally turns to his closest followers, the 12, and asks them point blank if they’re ready to walk out the door, too.
There are lots of ways to read this story because the Gospel writer doesn’t give us many clues as to how to interpret the dialogue we read. I think most Christians imagine that it went something like this: Jesus asks the 12 if they are going to leave, too, and they all look at Jesus in surprise and horror. Peter, acting as spokesperson for the group, jumps up and adamantly proclaims, “Of course not! You have the words of eternal life!” That’s one reading. It might have happened that way.
But I read this text a different way. I don’t see a group of disciples anxious to declare their allegiance with the guy who just seemingly promoted cannibalism. I see a group of disciples who are afraid and confused by what they’ve just heard. They’re really not sure they want what this guy has to offer. That was some crazy talk back there. They’re afraid they’ve signed up for the wrong team. They have their doubts, just like the crowd does, just like those hit-the-road disciples; and in the back of their minds, they’re considering walking out, too.
Peter, in my interpretation of the story, doesn’t jump onto his desk to cry, “O Captain, my Captain!” and alleviate the fears of his teacher. Rather, he timidly and perhaps despairingly asks, “Where else would we go?” Peter has left home and livelihood to follow Jesus, and in spite of what he’s heard Jesus teach today, he’s seen amazing things. He knows, deep in his soul, that Jesus “has the words of eternal life.” Peter’s proclamation is a sign of his faith, but perhaps not the resounding faith we normally credit to the disciples in this story. He’s worn out, and afraid, and yet he knows he can’t leave. This guy is the one. The one who can lead him to life.
I prefer my reading of the story to the more upbeat one because it more aptly describes my own faith life. Jesus wears me out and exasperates me sometimes and I’m not afraid to admit that. Faith in the end, is trust, not simply a belief that something is true. Faith is what you get when the rubber meets the road and you’re forced to make a choice. Peter trusts Jesus, even in the midst of his doubts. He returns to him, even when it’s hard. He has faith.
In the midst of my own doubts and struggles, I am often reminded of this story. It’s frequently a prayer on my lips when I am frustrated with God because of the things going on around me, or when I find myself questioning God in the midst of life. I hear Jesus asking if I’m going to leave, too, and I say, sometimes lovingly and sometimes with a clear sense of annoyance, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Prayer: Lord, grant us the faith of Peter. May we always return to you in the midst of our doubts, trusting that you are the way to life eternal. Amen.