Some years ago, I was leading a discussion of this morning’s gospel (John 6:56-69) with a group of youth. After each person had taken turns reading a section of the gospel, I asked how they would have reacted to the opening sentence, Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
“Gross!” was the first response from a young woman. She was not alone, either that Sunday morning or in Jesus’ time. The gospel tells us that, When many of Jesus’ disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
For many of us Jesus’ words are still difficult and confusing. How does one get beyond the revulsion at the implication of cannibalism? Was he speaking metaphorically, or did he mean it in some literal fashion? If so, was there not some other way of describing the kind of intimate relationship?
The larger context of this morning’s gospel was the feeding of the five thousand, that we had read at the end of July. The week after that, we heard the story of how the crowd had followed Jesus to Capernaum where many wanted him to give them more bread. Basic food was what they were after, but Jesus offered himself as spiritual food.
Just before the opening words of this morning’s gospel - Jesus had told the people that I am the bread of life. Your father ate manna in the wilderness and died. This (I imagine that he gestured to himself) is the bread that came down from heaven that people may eat and not die. The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.
Jesus had pointed to eternal life. He wanted the people to extend their horizon from the prospect of the next meal to something immensely greater than their human life. A loaf of bread could support a person for hours or days, but Jesus wanted people to think bigger… and more intimately.
If it is true that ‘we become what we eat’ then it is truer that we become more like Christ when we consume his words and life. Food is more than fuel for activity. The nutrients become part of us, help animate our thinking, movement and well-being. Jesus’ invitation was to food that nourishes in an analogous, spiritual sense. He was inviting people to share his energy, perspectives, joy and his life with the Father. Vitamins and minerals are inanimate, unconscious elements of life. But here Jesus was offering people intimate union with himself in a way that joined their consciousness to his… abide in me and I in them.
By way of explanation he said, it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. He wanted the people to look beyond the bread that he had given them to a larger, eternal life. He wanted people to incorporate his words and example into their own lives. He was inviting them to live as he did, in the undying love of the Father.
Then, in a reflective comment, he turned to the difficulties that some people had with what he was saying. “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.”
In a somewhat ambiguous statement, the evangelist tells us that, Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
The word this could refer to the immediate antecedent statement that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. If that is the case, then the sentence means that ‘because the Father has not invited them the disciples turned back’
However, most read the comment as referring to the theme of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In this sense, the evangelist means that many people were repelled by the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Many, but not all.
One imagines Jesus’ made this comment with a sense of defeat and disappointment that his words, intended to express his love and an open invitation to intimacy with the Father for eternal life, were rejected.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter had grasped the essence: You have the words of eternal life. He did not say, “I understand.” Jesus demanded and offered so much more than experience, practice and intelligence could comprehend. But Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples who had remained with Jesus, gave voice to the desire to share this exciting new offer that Jesus had put before them.