I confess: as a preacher (especially one who trained as a therapist), I can sometimes be overly concerned with how people will receive what I say. Preachers must speak the truth, but the truth can be hard to hear. I have to think carefully about my own motivations: am I using the pulpit to grind my own private axes? And I have to imagine the cares and concerns of the people listening.
All of this because, frankly, I don’t really know who I’m dealing with.
Jesus apparently didn’t suffer from that limitation. And that might be one of the reasons why his words could be so pointed.
John reports that after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, some of the people sought Jesus out, hoping that he was God’s answer to their physical needs. As we’ve seen in previous posts, the conversation didn’t go well. When he tried to tell them that what they really needed was the Bread of Life, they seemed miffed that he wouldn’t promise them an endless supply of earthly bread.
Jesus pushed back and said (figuratively) that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. For some listeners, that was just too much. John writes:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:60-62, NRSV)
As the larger context makes clear, John is referring to Jesus’ larger band of followers, not the Twelve. Jesus knows that some of them are grumbling over what he said, just as they had earlier over his claim to have come down from heaven (vs. 41). They’re “offended”; John uses a Greek word from which we get the English, “scandal.” (The noun is sometimes translated as “stumbling block.”)
So he prods them with a further question: “What if you were to see me ascending back to where I was before?” John has already made much out of the fact that the gospel is the story of the Word made flesh. Many of Jesus’ followers, however, don’t see him that way. He is the divinely appointed bread-giver (“Hooray for us!”), but not the Bread from Heaven (“Say what?”).
The question is left open-ended. It implies that if they don’t like hearing that he came down from heaven, they won’t like it a bit better to see him go back up to heaven. John has already shown us how people don’t always respond as expected to miraculous signs. A bodily ascension should make people say, “Wow, we were really wrong about this guy!” But Jesus seems to imply that the reaction would still be, “Well, of all the nerve! Who does he think he is?”
Signs are supposed to point us to who Jesus is. But what if he’s not the Jesus we want him to be?
More on that in the next post.