John 6: 60 – 71 Many disciples desert Jesus
Almost the whole of Chapter 6 has been about bread. We read about the feeding of the five thousand, then about the crowds following Jesus because he had fed them, and yesterday’s passage reached a climax with Jesus’ statement that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life. Not surprisingly, many of his listeners were disturbed.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!
My first thought was that surely a miraculous ascent into heaven would be convincing rather than otherwise. But I had misread the words Jesus had spoken. He had asked, “Does this offend you?” Perhaps St John is referring back once more to Jesus being a prophet ‘like Moses’. Let’s remind ourselves of what Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 19 has to say:
‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see his great fire any more, or we will die.’
The Lord said to me: ‘What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.’
The people Moses was leading had been terrified of what they saw of God at Horeb, so much so that they didn’t want to be anywhere near. They sent Moses as a go-between. If Jesus’ listeners were like those of Moses, the sight of Jesus ascending to heaven would have been equally frightening.
‘The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.
I need to wrestle with the meaning of this sentence for several reasons:
- If the flesh counts for nothing, why do we exist at all as material creatures?
- Science suggests that our conscious personalities are very substantially formed by our physical experiences.
- My personal experience encourages me to believe that physical form has a great effect on personality.
- Our human experiences of love are almost all mediated primarily through touch, from our mother’s touch at birth, through the intimacy of marriage, through nurturing our children with cuddles. This is how we learn to love, and to understand the nature of love. Our knowledge of love is something we learn in our flesh.
For the moment I am going to suggest that the sentence is a typical Hebraism where you exaggerate contrasts to their limit. I think that part of how we should understand this teaching is not that the flesh counts for nothing, but that it is subordinate to the Spirit. In any conflict between the life of the Spirit and the life of the flesh, the Spirit must come first.
I confess that it is all too easy to give priority to the flesh – by which I mean everything that makes up normal daily physical life. It is very important that we put the Spirit first, and that we are diligent in looking out for when the life of the flesh might obstruct our spiritual life.
‘The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
It is through the words Jesus has spoken that we are fed, because they are full of the Spirit and life. But not everyone can receive them. “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
I find this teaching very hard. I know many people who are more loving and more generous than I, who are not followers of Jesus. Some, indeed, are strongly anti-religious. I find it hard to imagine that a loving God wants any of his creation to be lost. I have to accept that this is one of the (many) places where I have to say, “I’m sorry, Lord, I don’t understand. I know you will make it clear to me in your time, and I believe that it will be for the best of all.”
‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’
I find this one of the most comforting and inspiring verses of the bible. Peter’s affirmation absolutely sums up how I feel as a believer.
- Who is there apart from Jesus?
- Jesus has the words of eternal life.
- I believe and know him as the Holy One of God
Then Jesus replied, ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!’ (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)
From a theological standpoint, this is prophecy. From a writer’s point of view, it’s foreshadowing. It prepares the reader to accept what is coming later in the narrative, and makes it more believable.
What is it here to teach us, though?
Jesus chose the Twelve, including Judas. All Jesus’ actions are prompted by the Father, so God meant him to choose Judas as one of his inner circle of disciples. The betrayal was God’s plan, and Jesus knew it.
Heavenly Father, Thank you for calling me to follow Jesus. Please help me to walk more closely with him every day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.