This post is written by Michael Kimpan, our Associate Director at The Marin Foundation.
Often, we remember Jesus calling the twelve, saying, ‘Follow me.’ I’ve heard countless sermons on his calls to become ‘fishers of men‘ and can picture the growing crowds that chased after him in nearly every town he entered. The gospels tell us of times Jesus couldn’t even enter the cities, because the common people clamored for just a glimpse of this man and his band of misfits.
But I’ve rarely heard a sermon preached about the time Jesus lost nearly all of his Twitter followers – and didn’t seem to care.
Lots had happened.
Jesus had just fed the crowd of over 5,000 people, creating a miraculous buzz around this rebellious rabbi. The disciples gathered the leftover bread as the Christ had requested, filling twelves baskets of barley loaves. It appeared the excess was even more than what they had started with.
It was a miracle.
When the crowds had finished eating the bread, they began speaking to one another, wondering if he was indeed the Prophet foretold by the ancient sages of Israel. Jesus had just become the most popular teacher in town in a matter of moments. Handing out free food seemed to generate quite a following. The disciples wondered what Jesus would do with his newfound popularity boost. His new followers had multiplied just like the bread, and there was talk circulating in the crowd of crowning him king.
Knowing this, Jesus withdrew to a solitary place on the mountain and later crossed to the other side of the sea to Capernaum. He wasn’t one to seek fame, and didn’t particularly care for a large multitude of followers. Instead of continuing to perform tricks for the people, he escaped before their very eyes.
When the crowd realized that Jesus and his disciples had left, they searched after him. Upon finding him on the other side of the sea, Jesus interrupted their inquisitions with an accusation of their motives – he said they sought him because they were hungry. ‘You’re looking for more bread – more handouts – but I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not hunger, and whomever believes in me will never thirst.’
They were indeed hungry – and all this talk of bread wasn’t exactly helping their appetites. Besides, it didn’t make sense. The crowd began grumbling at his audacious claim. ‘Isn’t this the son of that carpenter, Joseph? He says he came down from heaven – #sheesh!‘
Jesus again replied, ‘I am the bread of life. I’m the living bread that came down from heaven – if anyone eats of this bread, they will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the whole world is my own flesh.‘
Was Jesus promoting cannibalism? The crowd began to argue with one another.
‘Eat my flesh, and drink my blood – whomever does will live forever.‘
This was getting weird. ‘Who can listen to such nonsense? This teaching is too difficult to understand.‘
‘Does this cause you to stumble?’ Jesus replied. ‘The spirit gives life – the flesh profits nothing. These words I have spoken to you are both spirit and life…but there are some who don’t believe.’
The crowd began to thin out. Many withdrew from Jesus and were no longer interested in hearing his spiritual riddles and deciphering his teachings.
Jesus looked at his closest of friends – ‘Are you leaving too?‘
Peter was the first to respond. ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.’
This passage has puzzled a great many theological minds, with multiple plausible interpretations of Jesus’ words to the crowd (as is the case for a good number of other passages). Most folks point to Jesus’ continued teaching of a kingdom not-of-this-world, with spiritual implications that far outweigh the physical realm we so often concern ourselves with. Others point to the rejection of the masses due to the fact that Christ refused to be a political revolutionary and instead emphasized the need for personal faith and salvation. The connection between the emphasis of bread on both his miracle and this ‘hard teaching’ should not escape our attention, but if we’re not careful we’ll miss another valuable lesson in the story.
There’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Regardless of the interpretation of Jesus’ mysterious words regarding eating the flesh of his body and drinking his blood in John chapter 6 – and their implications for our celebrating the Eucharist – what strikes me about this passage is his refusal to chase after the crowds. Multitudes followed him, even across the sea – and yet Jesus didn’t seem concerned when he was ‘unfollowed.’
In terms of the 21st century, it’s as if his Twitter account had thousands of followers and then dropped down to a dozen. With one or two tweets of 140 characters or less, the masses bolted.
Eat my flesh! Drink my blood!
— Jesus_H_Christ (@Jesus_X_tweets) May 8, 2013
His KLOUT score would have plummeted. And he didn’t seem to care. Jesus didn’t check who.unfollowed.me or raise a stink about the local celebrity who unfollowed him because of his most recent tweet or teaching.
He just carried on.
In the succeeding chapter, Jesus is again confronted with the grumblings of the masses. Some were saying he was a good man, while others were claiming he was leading the people astray (John 7:12). Not even his own brothers were believing in him.
And yet Jesus’ response was, in effect, ‘If you knew God, you would recognize Me.’ He didn’t attempt to convince or persuade the crowds that were leaving that he was indeed worthy to be ensued. He didn’t complain when he lost the majority of his followers, and he didn’t chase after those who had left.
Instead, Jesus continued to do the work he came to do, bringing grace and love and restoration and reconciliation in the least likely places to the most unlikely individuals.
Jesus understood who he was, and what he was doing. What everyone else thought was of little consequence.
That’s a lesson I often need to be reminded of. Particularly in the bridge building work that we do here at The Marin Foundation, the spaces of tension can often bring a pressure to capitulate to one ‘side’ or the other. Activists from both directions demand declarative statements in order to have a better understanding of whether we’re one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them.’ Some days, it’s tempting to give in.
Yet our mission of building bridges between the LGBT and conservative communities is more important. I am inspired by the example of Jesus, who knew who he was and what he came to do – and gave little thought to what others thought about him, even when he lost a bunch of followers.