[This article is a part of the politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to david.true@Wilson.edu.]
In my church we often greet the gospel with the words “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. When the Gospel text is “easy” these are equally easy words to say. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into the arms of the Good Shepherd? To drink of the font of eternal life?
John’s gospel is replete with splendid imagery of the saving power of Jesus, so much so that it can be easy to wonder how the disciples could have even considered turning away from Jesus, even at the cross. But here we are, still a far cry from the cross and Jerusalem, long before the last supper and the cock’s crow, and rather than the masses that we’ve grown to expect to see coming out towards Jesus in droves, we are told that many who were following him turn away from Jesus en masse. How could this happen? What motivates those who leave? And what’s more, in the face of such harsh words–of inevitable tribulation ahead–what motivates those who stay? These are the politics of today’s gospel text.
No more and no less than the in groups and out groups that elections create today, the Jews in first century Palestine were trying to align themselves with the right candidate. Those who were anxious for reform (both religious and political, as these two went hand in hand) would follow and even support out of their own (often limited) livelihoods the person–in this context, always a male–whose platform best aligned with their own. And so, Jesus had many followers because he proclaimed a new hope and healing for Israel. As I asked already above, who wouldn’t get behind that kind of candidate?!?
But, of course, ‘pie in the sky’ dreams do not an instant reformer make. In order for him to command a following, people also had to believe that Jesus was capable of the job. This is what the first part of John’s gospel is about–recording the signs that Jesus performed so that we might believe. But even this combination of confidence in his agenda and belief in his ability is not enough, as today’s gospel illustrates.
There are plenty of people in this world with whom I can agree on basic political strategy. Some of those people I even have confidence might have the wherewithal to get the job done. However, that doesn’t mean that I am going to spend my personal resources or wager my reputation backing any of them in an upcoming political race. Why not? Because as agreeable as they are, even as right as they may be, I am not convinced that they have what it takes to win.
Perhaps a similar doubt is what motivates many of the disciples who turn away from following Jesus in the gospel text today. What he is predicting doesn’t exactly sound like a winning end-game after all. Maybe for some the stakes were simply getting too high, or the pay off too far down the road. Whatever the case, they leave–they turn away–and I imagine they have good solid reasons behind them. It is the rational thing to do. So, why then, do some followers remain?
One almost gets the sense that Jesus is wondering this very thing himself, if his question is not set up to test the disciples who choose to remain. “Aren’t you going anywhere?” he muses aloud. To which the Peter responds, “Lord to whom shall we go?”. For those who believe this is where some of the parallels begin to break down. Jesus isn’t just one candidate among many. He isn’t a reformer they can choose to support or from whom they can choose to withdraw as it becomes politically expedient. He has “the words of eternal life” and at least in this moment, these disciples understand that, easy or not, like it or not, their lives and their hopes are tied up with him.
I wonder how often today we are willing to make a similar claim. How often do we cling to Jesus as our hope–hard words or not? Or, how often, do we turn to and away from Christ and his gospel as it is politically expedient to do? How often do we try with the masses to find an easier lord to serve?
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.