“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? ” John 6:60
The complaining disciples would feel very comfortable living today. In our culture, if anything is difficult, if anything is testing, if anything is hard, then there must be questions raised about it. If examinations are too hard, people complain, but isn’t that the point of examinations? If standards are high, people complain, but why have standards at all if they are not high?
Jesus asks much of his disciples, and, like people today, there are some who want an easy path to follow, who are looking for a part-time faith, a discipleship where one can pick and choose the bits one wants. Our whole consumerist culture tells us that we can take what we want and leave what we don’t like, and when it comes to following Jesus, people, shaped by that culture, take the same attitude to their faith as to everything else.
Among those who followed Jesus, there were those who simply could not show the commitment needed, John Chapter 6 Verse 66 tells us, ’Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. It seems a very sad comment. Our inclination today would be to tell people they could take a gentler path, that they could follow Jesus in their own way, except that Jesus doesn’t suggest such a path is possible—one is a disciple, or not a disciple. There are some things where you do things or you don’t do them, and doing them requires discipline.
My first attempt at learning to ski was a disaster. On the second day, I took off my skis, picked up the poles that were in the ground at acute angles, gathered the lot under one arm and began to trudge towards the lift station.
‘Where are you going?’ called Marianne, the instructor.
‘Back down the mountain, I’m not really cut out for this and I hurt from falling so many times’.
‘Nein, nein, nein. You will come with me!’
Confused, I followed her to where a small cluster of people stood propping each other up. ‘You will be with Erich’, she said.
Erich did not look like an instructor. They wore smart red suits and were young and athletic with sparkling sets of white teeth. Erich wore the red trousers of the ski school, but on top he wore a baggy old brown sweater and a very worn brown woollen bobble hat.
Erich became a good friend, insofar as that was possible with my complete lack of German and his functional English. He shouted at us, made fun of us, ridiculed us, picked us out of the snow constantly; held his head in his hands, winced, laughed, grimaced, smiled. He told us that he had never, ever met people who were so useless. Erich was the best teacher I have met.
Erich was 70, he had learned to ski when he was 15 – very late for an Alpine born Austrian – and had spent his working life as a mechanic and as a truck driver. He had begun teaching skiing when he retired. He was called in to help out when the school was busy and worked with the no-hopers. He still did mechanic work and kept a few cattle.
Eating one lunch one day, I asked Erich what he did to keep so fit. (The instructors were all expected to be at very high levels of physical fitness).
‘I play music’.
Left slightly confused by this answer, feeling he perhaps had not understood my question, I said, ‘What sort of music do you play?’
‘I play in the town band. I play the tuba. Every week I go for a lesson and my teacher does this’.
He took his knife and tapped it on the table at a speed which was maybe 120 beats per minute.
‘If I have not done my exercises, if I have not practiced. My teacher knows. I cannot keep up’.
Music required discipline; skiing required discipline; yet Christians, the people who claim to believe in the most important thing in the world, the people who talk about eternal life, the greatest thing anyone could possibly possess, behave as if faith were a menu where one could select the things that looked nice. Christians behave as if discipleship were something easy, something that would never make anyone say, ‘this teaching is difficult’. We have to ask ourselves, what sort of Jesus we believe in if we think that following him can be just about choosing the easy bits.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis in World War II, wrote a book called ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. Bonhoeffer talks about ’cheap grace’.
‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ’.
Grace without Jesus Christ is obviously no grace at all, but isn’t that what those disciples wanted when they decided to stop following Jesus?
‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ it was a valid question; it had to be answered.
The answer given by many of the people then and by many of us now is that we cannot accept a Jesus who makes demands of us. Bonhoeffer contrasts the ‘cheap grace’, which was offered by the church then (and is offered much more by the church now), with the costly grace offered by Jesus,
‘costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’.
Discipleship is not easy, it asks much of us, but what is the alternative?
Jesus notices that people have drifted away, no longer able to accept the challenge and he turns to his friends in John Chapter 6 Verse 67-68’ So 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.’
‘To whom may we go?’ It’s a question for us as well as for the disciples.