A great deal is going on in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel. It’s an interesting exercise just to outline it. It starts with Jesus trying to grab a few moments to himself after miraculously healing people. Rather than rest, he was inundated by five thousand people all of whom he miraculously feeds with a few barley loaves and a couple of fish. This time he his attempt to escape the press was successful, so much so that when night fell and he hadn’t come back his disciples take a boat across the Lake to Capernaum. After what for the disciples was a stormy crossing Jesus meets them, miraculously walking on the water, just as they arrive.
In the morning the crowd commandeers boats that had blown up on the shore during the night and begin the hunt for him. When they find him they attempt to make this new found miracle worker King. Next he deals with the religious leader of Capernaum. Then, in the synagogue itself, he meets with his disciples and finally the small group which John calls the twelve.
It was because of his healing ministry and the barley loaves and fish that the masses followed Jesus. He was for them a miracle worker to whom they could look to put food in their stomachs. They asked for a sign. He told them that the bread that God gives comes down from heaven and brings life to the world. He told them that he was the bread of life and that he had come down from heaven to do God’s will. It is my Father’s will, he said, that everyone who sees the Son and has faith in him should have eternal life. They couldn’t grasp what he tried to tell them but thought he’d make a pretty good king.
What he told them riled up the community’s religious leaders. Despite the miracles he did, how could he be the Messiah? Their tradition said that the Messiah was to come on the clouds – Jesus grew up in their community. They knew his father, his mother—the whole family. When Jesus told them that he was the bread of life that came down from heaven and that he came to give his own flesh for the life of the world they could not understand. He said that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood will live. That’s the English translation of a Greek attempt to capture what someone helpfully suggested was an equivalent phrase to our ‘heart and soul’ to help us have a better sense of the phrase the word we’ve translated as ‘eat’ isn’t the Greek word for eat at all – it means to gnaw on. I think the sentence that reads “whoever dwells in me and I in him” will live is a much clearer statement of the meaning of Jesus’ message.
Regardless, it contradicted the Jewish leader’s pre set notions of how the Messiah would come – and it most certainly couldn’t be that kid that grew up in the neighborhood.
He then meets with those John calls his disciples, students who followed an itinerant teacher in the Capernaum synagogue. They were serious scholars who followed Jesus to learn what he knew. When they heard him speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood they knew that Leviticus 17 absolutely forbade the consuming of blood – period, no exceptions. They could listen to him no longer, it was more than they could stand. He tried to tell them that it was the spirit that gives life, that the flesh could achieve nothing and the words he spoke were both spirit and life. John tells us that from that moment many of Jesus’ disciples withdrew from him and no longer went about with him.
He turns and asks the Twelve “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answers for them all. He asks “Lord, to whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One.”
Let me tell you how important is this moment in the life of the church. Before Jesus’ arrest and trial, before his crucifixion and before his resurrection. Before the conversations in the upper room and before Pentecost, before meeting the little band of committed followers on the Galilean shore and before his ascension we have the beginning of the church. It is the proclamation ‘we believe and know that you are God’s Holy One’ where the church begins.
When what appeared to be the tragic end of the life of a prophet of God, despite the crucifixion, these closest to Jesus did not succumb to the persecution and propaganda directed against them, they boldly withstood wickedness and lying and after a short period of being paralyzed by sheer terror they bravely set out to make known the teachings of and reclaim the abandoned inheritance of their Lord.
To the crowd Jesus said that all who the Father gives him would come to him and anyone who comes to him he would in no way turn away. To the Jewish leaders he said that no one comes to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me. To the scholars he said no one comes to me unless it has been granted him by the Father.
Coming to Jesus for the goodies, like the crowd, or trying to understand Jesus out of one’s religious tradition, or even following Jesus because he seems to have the best way to live life might all be first steps but unless the Spirit of God draws us we will find reasons for refusing the life giving invitation to life as intended for us by God.
Simon Peter’s poignant question to Jesus comes back to me again and again – if not you Jesus, than to whom shall we go?