‘After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ (John 6:66)
We often read together stories from the gospel where the Lord Jesus is revered, sought by many, and listened to. When we hear of opposition, this generally comes from outside, from the people who do not accept him and look for to his demise. John 6 – which we finish today – has so far fitted into these parameters. Jesus has worked miracles, he has been pursued by the crowd who even wanted to make him king by force (Cf. John 6:15), he has taught countless people and he has revealed himself as ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’ (John 6:51). Whilst opposition has come from the usual places and it was summarised last week in a simple question, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52).
However, as we reach the end of the Bread of Life discourse we encounter something different – an unexpected turn of events where both openness and opposition to Jesus come from among the same group, from among his disciples. The reading picks up from where we left it last week and says, ‘After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?”’ (John 6:60).
The disciples hear Jesus saying ‘my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55), they hear him talk of his body as the Bread which give life to the world (Cf. John 6:51), and they are stunned by these words. A rift opens among them. On one side, many disciples – not one or two, but “many” – are sceptic about how Jesus could ever give his own self as food, and they brand his teaching as “intolerable language” – in other translations this is rendered as “unacceptable saying”, or a “hard teaching”… On the other side, we have Peter and the other eleven disciples – whom, far from being perfect, trust in the Lord’s word and remain with him. The rift among the disciples hangs on this; Jesus said,
‘Very truly, I tell you... Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).
Think about it. Of course this is could be seen as an unacceptable saying. Many disciples thought they were following a religious leader who would have restored freedom to the people of Israel with his revolutionary ideas. But what they hear now from him is a speech about giving himself up as food and drink to those who believe… What on Earth could this even mean? As a consequence, the gospel tells us, a good number of disciples leave Jesus – they literally do the opposite of conversion; they turn away from him – and stop travelling with him.
The words of Jesus plunge disciples into crisis, and still to this day the Bread of Life discourse is the stumbling block for many Christians. The teaching about the Sacrament of the Eucharist, about Jesus’ Body and Blood, has become a visible rift within the Church for the last 500 years at least – but it has been present since the very beginning. The fact that Jesus is present on our altars with his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is an unacceptable doctrine for many but the cause of hope, consolation, and joy for others. It all depends what side of the divide we decide to go for.
‘The Eucharist is the place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on the cross (vv. 53-54), [we] called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54)’ (F.J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 224).
The words of Jesus may be a difficult saying to understand, but that should not be an obstacle to faith. Jesus calls us to believe in him and in the mystery of his Body and Blood, not to have a PhD in sacramental theology. Therefore, when he says to us ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ we have a straightforward choice. We can stubbornly rely on ourselves and our cynicism, believing only what we can prove or understand (like the many disciples did), or we can courageously embrace the faith, aiming to rely solely on the Lord Jesus and on his words no-matter-what – never ever letting go of him.
It could be that the Lord Jesus is addressing us today as he did to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ (John 6:67). But, through Saint Peter, the gospel gives us the words with which we should answer him. Kneeling at the altar rail to receive the Body and Blood of Christ it is as if we were saying, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life’ (John 6:67).