From the Gospel for today, John Chapter 6, Verse 61:
‘When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this
Verse 67 ‘Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?’
Perhaps you enjoyed “One more croissant for the road” by Felicity Cloake, a recent Radio 4 book of the week (other radio stations and books are available) about a bicycle tour gastronomique with special emphasis on treats from boulangeries across the French nation, rating the quality the pastry as she pedalled. Here at home, I for one am looking forward to a Sunday croissant baked by the Little Bread Pedlar of this parish.
But first, let us briefly review what has been served at St Mark’s thus far during our liturgical season of bread and whet our spiritual appetites for feasting on the two questions that Jesus puts to his followers. From manna in the desert …to the miracle of the loaves and fishes …to the lammas loaves of Our Lady in Harvest, we have savoured abundance provided by God for the physical sustenance of his people. So far, so delicious. Easy to swallow. Yet there is a more profound purpose to John chapter 6, which has been our gospel throughout August and culminates today, where the Evangelist confronts us with the essential and lifesaving truth
embodied in Jesus Christ – that he IS the bread of heaven, no less than the bread of life itself.
Life with a capital L. Not our little lives that arrive at death, but nothing less than eternal life, the life of creation, permanent and enduring connection to divine life force.
Now for the difficult part, the ‘hard saying’ of today’s gospel, taught in the synagogue in Capernaum to a crowd of Jesus’ followers. They are the ones who flocked to healings and exorcisms, enjoyed free wine and picnics, marvelled at raisings from the dead and vivid preaching, even sought Jesus to make him king to lead their liberation from Rome. They had allowed themselves to believe that Jesus was a prophet rivalling Moses; in time, this Nazarene may prove to be the one foretold as Messiah. He was shaping up as a winning bet for a better future. Now this.
“He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him.” If taken literally, the ‘hard saying’ is an invitation to a bizarre rite apparently involving co-habitation via cannibalism! They must have found the concept weird and unnatural. It violates kashrut, ancient dietary laws that ban consumption of blood in any form of meat as well as flesh from any living animal. A leap of faith is required to hear these words as something profound and metaphysical rather than deranged, dangerous and tantamount to instructing his listeners to
stop being Jews who observe the very laws set down by their God.
Whilst his audience still reels at the thought, Jesus reasserts the claim which will ultimately condemn him to death on the cross: that he lives because the living God the Father sent him. Then he goes further: if his disciples ‘eat’ of him, they too will live because of him, the true bread of heaven. The ancestors who ate manna in the desert continued to die at their appointed time. But those who take him for their nourishment will live forever. No wonder they murmured against his words. These words disrupted their minds, particularly if they hadn’t taken on board Jesus’ radical message and method of teaching. Their exposure to these concepts was brief and recent. Further, these words interfered with
tradition and flew in the face of everyday experience – people still died! They were still hungry…still diseased, oppressed and confused! What sort of blasphemy or babble were they being offered as remedy?
We can imagine that Jesus had compassion for those who took offense and grieved for those who turned away. Not only is he the incarnation of the living and merciful God; these were his people on earth. Yet he presses on and doubles down on the very words that disband his fan base and challenge even his 12 hand-picked disciples. It may seem counter intuitive as a strategy for effective team building and mission success, particularly with a completion date
looming in Jerusalem. But for Jesus, conveying his message is far more important than pleasing the crowd or assuming earthly trappings of majesty – it is the perfection of divine interaction descending in love to forgive and save. Jesus’ true disciples, his disciples in spirit, need to understand the magnitude of the sacrifice being prepared for the forgiveness of sin and access to eternal life. They need to be prepared to come to his table and witness his body broken and blood shed. They need to understand what they have been called to take up and to take comfort and community in sharing his elements.
Next in our text we hear Jesus, ever a painstaking teacher, ask if beholding the Son of Man ascending to heaven would help them understand the essential connection? Because this is going to happen in real time. Would it help them realise that he is the source of all life and the embodiment of God? He close-reads his text for their benefit, reminding his listeners that he is giving them the most profound, life-giving truth – that the words they find so difficult to
hear flow from the spirit which pervades them as it pervades his flesh and blood…and wonderfully pervades those who BELIEVE from the moment they do believe. For without belief in his word, they are “unquickened”. Literally and metaphorically, they are dead, dead women and men walking.
Furthermore, the flesh is helpless to EFFECT belief UNLESS God the Father draws them through and to his son, so that they are cleansed in him, abide in him and receive the sustenance of life from him. That, dear friends, was the final affront to many still in attendance. Jesus already knew that most followers were disciples of the flesh, investigating what was available, on a tour in search of the best croissant, the best messiah. Some of them would betray him, this man
Jesus, who claimed to have descended from God the Father to fulfil his role as Son of Man and would ascend again… claimed to have an exclusive on the gift of salvation and eternal life…and that belief in him the only way to obtain this gift.
Adding insult to injury, he also claimed that even your belief was a gift from God the Father who draws you closer only through his son. In short, flesh and all its efforts can achieve nothing that lasts, nothing of true life and value without connection by spirit through the lord Jesus Christ. Him!
The man standing in front of them – well, not for much longer, for they were out of there. How comfortable are we even now with these words? We listen to them each time we receive the Eucharist. Have they become routine or are we alive to their power? Do we truly feast upon him because our lives depend upon it and drink in the power of his sacred blood as the only way to wash away our burden of sin? When the 12 who walked and lived with the incarnate God are taken aback, how able are we in our distant, tumultuous, secular world to
accept his radical reorganisation of our very existence?
Devout minds have tried to understand and explain the body and blood of Christ down the centuries. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they, themselves, are the body of Christ, full participants in the mystery, becoming his own body and blood. St Teresa of Avila wrote that “Christ has no body now but yours…Yours are the hands through which he blesses the world.” St. Augustine’s sermon on the theology of the Eucharist repeats that unless you believe, you will not understand, because “what is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is
grasped bears spiritual fruit.” C.K. Chesterton sums up the enigma: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” It is a tall order to abide within a divine mystery that devolves Christ’s physical agency to his church and its people.
The followers whose numbers and fervour had swelled throughout the events of chapter six until they encountered the ‘hard sayings’ have departed, leaving only the hand-picked bunch. No wonder Jesus asks his disciples: “Will you also go away?” John reports it is Simon Peter who speaks up. We can imagine the brash Galilean fisherman blurting out his reaction – not ‘where shall we go’ but “TO WHOM shall we go? Who else has the words of eternal life?” Peter speaks from his immediate and precious experience of abiding in Christ, the son of the living God, and receiving his forgiveness, nourishment and life everlasting. Here is the radiant gift wrapped in the hard saying. Belief confers it in a heartbeat, here and now, ever and always, when coming to his call. Amen.