John 6:56-69 Common English Bible (CEB)
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them.57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
60 Many of his disciples who heard this said, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?”
61 Jesus knew that the disciples were grumbling about this and he said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you were to see the Human One[a] going up where he was before? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 Yet some of you don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn’t believe and the one who would betray him. 65 He said, “For this reason I said to you that none can come to me unless the Father enables them to do so.” 66 At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.
67 Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”
Sometimes we receive words that are difficult to hear and accept, and yet it’s important that we hear them. In John, Jesus often shares words that confuse and even offend. Such is the case as the sixth chapter of John comes to a close. For several weeks now we have been moving through John 6, a section of the Gospel that has long been seen as a Eucharistic text. Bread and wine here are symbols/signs of body and blood. Jesus invites his followers to eat his flesh (bread) and drink his blood (wine) so that he might abide in them.
In this section Jesus contrasts his body/blood with the manna given through Moses. The manna may have been a gift from heaven, but those who ate it would still die. But eating/drinking his flesh and blood (in the signs of bread and wine) leads to eternal life. This word leads to deep consternation on the part of his disciples. It sounds harsh (the critique of the manna) and is off-putting (eating his flesh). Jesus hears them grumble and so he asks them rather directly – “does this offend you?”
Does this offend? Maybe you are like me and you grew up with the counsel to refrain from saying things that are offensive. It’s not a matter of “political-correctness.” It’s a matter of proper etiquette. As I write this reflection the nation is captivated by a presidential candidate who is known for his brashness. He offends left and right, but many people love it, considering it to be “straight talk.” Yes, he offends, but so what! He’s just channeling the way we feel.
I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus has any similarities to this candidate who needs no introduction, but the question of being offensive is an important one. Sometimes the offense is unavoidable. It is simply a hard word we’d rather not hear.
You might chalk up the “offensiveness” of Jesus’ words to their being misunderstood. The problem appears to be that the people are taking his words too literally. Therefore, it sounds as if Jesus recommending cannibalism, and his listeners aren’t into cannibalism. So, it’s no thanks to Jesus’ odd offer. Jesus’ isn’t into cannibalism either, and he doesn’t intend for his words to be taken with this kind of literalness. Instead, he understands them in a spiritual sense, telling them that “the Spirit is the one who gives life and the flesh doesn’t help at all. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (vs. 63). Jesus has meant all along for his words to reference the work of the Spirit. Eating bread and drinking wine are, to use sacramental language, outward signs of an inward act of grace.” The flesh is ultimately irrelevant. What counts is the Spirit. Manna provides physical sustenance, but in time it doesn’t matter how much manna you eat, you will die. But if you eat the body of Christ (Eucharistic bread) and drink his blood (Eucharistic Wine), you will not die spiritually. Ultimately, for John this is what is most important!
Apparently not everyone is convinced by Jesus’ explanation, as a goodly number of his followers drift away. They simply can’t get their heads around his message. That’s not surprising—not everyone is ready to think of life in spiritual terms. They may be firmly grounded, but they lack the necessary imagination to envision the realm of God.
Since we have been looking at John 6 through an Eucharistic lens, perhaps we can hear in this concluding section of the chapter an invitation to “discern the body” in the celebration of the Eucharist so that we might encounter the mystical presence of God’s Spirit in the meal. By sharing in this meal one is communing with Christ and thereby receives the eternal benefit of that relationship, which is symbolized by the meal. Not everyone in the community is willing to do this, and so they walk away.
Jesus then turns to those disciples who remain and asks a rather pertinent question: “are you going to join them?” To this question Peter answers on behalf of those who remain: “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (vs. 68). Does Peter fully understand the message? By no means is he full cognizant of who and what Jesus is. He simply knows that if he is going to have a share in the kingdom of God he needs to hang close to Jesus. Was he tempted to leave? I expect so, but he and the rest of the disciples who remain, recognize that Jesus is “God’s holy one.”
The Eucharistic discourse in John 6 lifts up the question of the incarnation. For John, Jesus is the Word of God incarnate (John 1:14). To experience the presence of God is to be in communion with the incarnate one. When we hear Jesus speak of the flesh being nothing and the Spirit giving life, we need to be careful that we don’t fall victim to gnostic tendencies to deny the value of the created world. The message of the incarnation is that God has, in Christ, redeemed the creation. But, when it comes to the Eucharist it is not the material elements themselves that gives life, but the Spirit who is symbolized by these elements. Taking this route is a difficult journey. It means putting trust in that which one cannot completely understand. While this true, Peter understands that there is nowhere else to go.
In recognizing that they have come to the point where there is nowhere else to go, the community becomes smaller but tighter. They have looked at their options and no other option makes sense. Here for the first time, John speaks of the Twelve. The crowd has winnowed down to a few, and have become a community in communion with Jesus. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes:
It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. It is their professed willingness to follow Jesus Christ that renders them a community of faith. What a blessed word to remember as we agonize over mission statements, budget priorities, worship attendance, or other preoccupations of churchly life. It is our commitment to follow Christ alongside others that makes us the people of God. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), (WJK, 2009), p. 385.]
The Eucharist thus becomes a point at which the people of God, the body of Christ, finds communion with God in Christ. By keeping this in mind, we can keep our priorities in the right order. That doesn’t make the journey easier, but it does help us recognize why we gather together as a community at the Table of the Lord.