Inside the Madding Crowd: How People Respond to Jesus in John 6

What are the typical responses to Jesus’ actions?  In John 6, which is just over seventy verses, most of which are devoted to the miraculous multiplication of bread or Jesus’ comparison of himself to bread; we’re able to observe a whole range of reactions to what Jesus says and does.  By and large, this extended excursion into the world bread, metaphors, and spiritual nutrition is indicative of how most people, from that point forward, acknowledge Jesus. I want to be specific.  I’m not only talking about how those in John’s gospel or the New Testament respond (positively or negatively) to Jesus.  Embedded within those seventy-one verses I think we’ll see and hear ourselves.

The first reaction to Jesus we usually find in John 6 (in the initial story I shared a few weeks ago) is the “Ocean’s 11” response.  In the movie “Ocean’s 11”, the main character, Danny Ocean is trying to recruit a group of men to rob a Las Vegas casino.  He can’t tell them about the job or any of the specifics.  Because of their relationship, he needs his friends to trust him.  As such, Ocean asks the ten men he recruits, “Are you in or are you out?”  They can say yes or no.  They receive no other information.  Are you in or are you out?

If you’ll remember, Philip got the question from Jesus.  Where are we going to get the bread to feed these people?  That’s the “are you in or are you out” question.  Jesus needs his friends to trust him.  He can’t tell them the specifics of the miracle, the job, or how it will work.  He needs to know: are they in?

We don’t know how it’s all going to work out.  We’re not aware of where the resources are coming.  From where we stand, we can’t see a path.  Yet standing in prayer and faith, Jesus asks, “Are we in?”  This question will come up in multiple times and ways.  How will we answer? Yes or no.

There’s another quintessential response to Jesus in John 6:  disbelief.  Sometimes I refer to it as the “you’ve got to be kidding me”.  Wasn’t there an infomercial back in the 80’s that used “you’ve got to be kidding me” as a tag line? There are people, people who’ve benefited from Jesus’ miracles and those who are opposed to Jesus who’s only response to Jesus actions is disbelief, or to put it another way, “you’ve got to be kidding me”.  It’s got to be a magic trick, a bread truck hidden behind the hill, or some other explanation.  They will always say, despite anything you try to say or “prove” (and I don’t like the word prove) “you’ve got to be kidding me”.  Why do they do this?

Some of them didn’t believe Jesus because they knew him and they knew him well.  John 6: 42 says, ‘They were saying, “Is this not Jesus, son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’”.   It’s hard to picture someone whose family you know, whose grandparents you know, who you might have seen grow up, suddenly make grandiose claims about being the Son of God.  I don’t want to be too hard on these people.  That’s a tough jump to make, emotionally and psychologically.  I know, as John recounts it, it’s a reasonable reason to account for their disbelief.  They are too close, unable to see the Jesus forest for the God trees, something is lost in translation.

It’s easy for us to lose our beliefs within an intricate web of family relationships.  Are we coming to church on our own terms or our family’s preconditions?  Are we too quick to place limits on what God can or cannot do in our lives or the lives of others?  Have you ever looked at someone’s life and said he’s too drunk, too screwed up to be any better?  Look at how bad off his momma and daddy was.  That’s John 6:42.

A third classic response to Jesus is disbelief on steroids.  We call that doubt.  You may think that’s a distinction without a difference but it’s not.  In John 6, there are both doubters and disbelievers.  The doubters, unlike the disbelievers, take it up a notch.  As I said at the beginning, it’s a chapter that never ends.  Ten verses on, in John 6:52, a group of Pharisees who’ve heard, seen, and witnessed the miracle of the feeding still can’t shake their doubt.  “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  Ah, they fell for the old, “Is he talking about cannibalism joke?” again.  No, of course he’s not.  Doesn’t that sound like some kind of weird Alex Jones 1st century conspiracy theory?

Doubts rooted in ignorance move people from realm of the rational to the specter of the ridiculous.  One reason I believe the sixth chapter of John is so long is Jesus’ lengthy explanations of the bread of life and what this metaphor means.  He goes out of was way to explain his understand of bread as a spiritual food, much like the manna from heaven which fed the Israelites in the time of Moses.  It’s so long, in fact, it’s almost redundant.  It borders on boring.  Jesus does this so he can’t be misconstrued, misquoted, and misunderstood.

What happens?  “So, he’s claiming to be a cannibal.  That’s his take away.”  No matter how hard we try to proclaim our truth about Jesus and what Jesus represents some people are still going to see all Christians in the same narrow light.  That can’t stop us from doing the right things and preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Probably the most normal response to Jesus’ teaching in John 6 comes straight out of the disciple’s mouth.  It’s almost at the end of the chapter in verse 60. All the bread stuff is over, the exchanges about cannibalism are done, no more water to walk on, and the questions about his are finished.  “When many of his disciples heard it (that’s everything said up to this point) they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Don’t tell anybody but this is my favorite verse in the Bible!  I know I say Micah 6:8 but I love this verse.  It’s so honest, true, and real.  “It is difficult Jesus, will anybody be able to do it, live it, and accept it?”  The disciples respond to Jesus teaching by admitting it is difficult and they find it difficult how will others pick it up?  Here’s the truth we often forget, acknowledged by the Bible:  Jesus’ teachings are difficult.  Do you feel better now?  This isn’t supposed to be easy.  If it feels easy, we need to work harder.  If it looks easy, read the chapter again.  Ask more questions.  Be Phillip, be Andrew, be a Pharisee, be an anonymous disciple, read the story and witness it through their eyes.  Embrace the difficulty of standing in someone else’s shoes.

I’ll take difficult any day over doubt or disbelief.  Difficult we can do.  Difficult is my brier patch.  Difficult means we work together, buy a cup of coffee, open our Bibles, and start talking out Jesus’ words, word by word.  Difficult is not a permanent state in the universe like chaos.  I say yes to difficult and Jesus, I thank the disciples for having the courage to say “I’m in” to the difficulty you’ve just presented.

Richard Lowell Bryant