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? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
Sadly it is a feature of virtually all spiritual movements and organisations. It eats away at the foundations, causes disunity in the framework and ultimately prevents the building reaching its full stature. It is ‘discipleship discontent’, grumbling, complaining, and conversations in corners. It happened to Moses in the Wilderness, it will happen to Paul on his journey and here it happens to Jesus. It has happened to me in every church I have been involved with, and it is something, sadly, that I have contributed to when I should have been a better follower. So if you’re ever a leader of a church, children’s project, admin team or house group, and the members are grumbling, then at least you know that you are in good company.
Most of us start out imagining that the disciples in the New Testament were very special, very different from us, very much better than us. They live next to Jesus and have been preserved in a million stained-glass windows. We often imagine Jesus’ disciples as being wonderfully together, resolute and deeply spiritual whilst seeing ourselves as shallow and second rate. In fact the truth is that they were much like us, broken and human. Equally truthful is the realisation that we ourselves are often much more faithful than we give ourselves credit for.
Even worse than ‘disciple discontent’ is ‘follower fall-out’. Some time ago I arranged to meet Sarah in a Costa Coffee shop. Sarah was a bright 18 year old member of our church and youth group. Full of enthusiasm, keen to help, learning to read her Bible, Sarah is great, except we hadn’t seen her for a while, well not at church anyway. On the odd occasion that she had been there she had developed a sort of bored looking, not engaged, facial expression.
It turned out to be a very painful conversation as Sarah explained her situation. Actually she didn’t explain, she had no explanation of why she had suddenly ‘had enough of it all’. Sarah had grown up, grown out of or just moved on from church, God, ‘the whole thing’. The sad thing was looking at her and seeing that a sort of light or flare had disappeared out of her eyes. I remembered how alive and smiling she had been a year or so earlier when she told me about how the Holy Spirit had touched and moved her, about how she was reading her bible and getting involved. Suddenly the joy, the enthusiasm and the interest in other people as well as God had gone.
I have to confess that sometimes I rather envy the ‘can’t be bothered crowd’ and could easily join them. So what stops me? I think it is my love of life, of reality, my need for a purpose and meaning, my hunger for joy, my love of light. Ultimately the ‘Spirit’ has so set me alive that I keep on wanting to live.
I wonder what it felt like for Jesus when ‘many of his disciples turned back’? These were not simply members of the crowd, but real disciples. My guess is he must have felt at least two things. Firstly, a sadness for them, that they are losing something very special. It is the classic story of the person who throws away their lottery ticket, only to discover a few days later that it was a winner.
Secondly, Jesus must have felt a bit of a failure, that somehow he had not done a proper job in discipling them. As leaders and discipleship builders, we are never supposed to take it personally, but we all do, and I suspect Jesus did too, because in ‘turning back’ they no longer ‘went about with him’.
When I became a disciple I made a decision to follow him. I am free to go on following him or to follow myself. Over the years I have known so many who have lived great lives of faithfully following the one who has the words of eternal life. I have known quite a few who have given up on Jesus and gone back to an earthly life. I have never known one who Jesus himself gave up on.
It sometimes feels like it is too easy to give up,
And too hard to keep going.
But in you I have found the words of eternal life,
In you I have placed my belief,
And have come to know that you are the Holy One.
So help me this day,
To lift my head to see,
Lift my heart to believe,
Lift my feet to follow.