In the gospel stories, I do not recall any occasion when the disciples complained of being hungry, or tired, or of pain. As followers of an itinerant rabbi, they were prepared to hike for miles over rough terrain, sustained by meager fare and perhaps suffer violence at the hands of their detractors. We see stories where the disciples note a lack of food ("send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves"). We even see them falling asleep from exhaustion, as in the Garden of Gethsemane. We see them plucking grains out of hunger as they pass through a field on the Sabbath. There is no shortage of occasions when they argue among themselves. But we never see them complaining about it. One interesting story stands out as an exception to this rule. Their complaint is not about the hardships of disciple life, but about the challenge of accepting difficult teaching.
In the sixth chapter of the gospel of John (vv.53-71), a discourse with the disciples reveals the limit of their endurance. Jesus says, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them... So whoever eats me will live because of me."
To good men who knew what Kosher meant, this was gross. They believed in Jesus, but what he was saying clashed with what they understood about being clean. The disciples complained, and as I read the scripture, I can almost hear the voices of my own children whining about their homework. "This is haaard! I don’t like this!" (Actually, the NRSV renders it as "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But I like my version better.) Many of Jesus’ followers began to leave. As those on the fringe of his movement began to trail away, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, "Do you also wish to go away?" The disciples replied, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." They would have left, but they had already burned the bridges back to their fishing boats and tax collection booths. They saw the truth in Jesus, but could not accept where he was taking them.
As disciples of Christ, we often find that the sacrifices we have to make are easy compared to the demands of the difficult teachings of the master. It is easier to believe in Jesus than to abide in him. It is easier to say the Lord’s Prayer than to live it. It is easier to parse our rules to accept or reject someone else’s behavior than to attend to the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.
The Pharisees were intent on following the letter of the law, no matter how cumbersome or onerous their interpretations became. But while this seems difficult, it is nothing compared to the piety of heart which the law demands. "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees..."
We can follow Jesus as long as his teachings lead us where we already want to go. We cheer him on as long as his words do not challenge other values we cherish, like patriotism and self-reliance. If we take discipleship seriously, it should not surprise us when our spiritual walk suddenly becomes uncomfortable. This is the Master’s way of reminding us who is leading and who is following. As others drift away, Jesus poses the same question to us: "Do you also wish to go away?" We have more options than the early disciples did. There are many attractive truth claims competing with his. But our answer is the same. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.