A reflection on St. John 6:56-69
Well, now he stepped in it, didn’t he?
I don’t know why he used the words “flesh” and “blood.”
There were other words Jesus could have used, gentler on the ears, less offensive to his listeners, but he doesn’t concede one inch.
Flesh? Sarx in Greek. Just the sound of it grates on the ear. Jesus could have said soma, body. Much nicer, I think, but, no, he has to say sarx.
The Greek word for “blood”? We get the English word leukemia out of that one.
If no one eats his flesh and drinks his blood, they have no life because they have not fed on the Bread of Life.
There it is. He just lays it out and lets them deal with it.
The predictable reaction sets in.
“This is a hard teaching,” many of his disciples grumble. “Who can accept it?”
“Hard,” let me point out, is a wimpy translation of the original Greek. “Hard” doesn’t begin to capture the sense of scandal his words created.
Another translation has it more accurately: “When many of Jesus’ disciples understood what he was saying, they asked, ‘Who can stomach stuff like that?’”
Get it? Eating and drinking? They couldn’t stomach it.
You’d think maybe Jesus would soften it just a little bit, make it more—oh, what’s the word I’m looking for—palatable?
Jesus would say: “Let’s all just simmer down a minute and talk this over, see if we can’t reach some compromise or something. I like you folks a lot and I’d sure hate to lose you as members.”
There is no compromise.
No apologies, no explanations, no qualifiers.
Just that “hard” teaching many of them could not stomach. And they would follow him no more.
Hard teachings? Oh pish. You can find six hard-to-stomach things in the Bible any time you might actually care to open it. Things that strike right at your heart, things that are inconvenient, things you don’t want to hear, things you wish you could forget after you have heard them.
Some of the people that day didn’t like what they heard, so they walked away.
But we wouldn’t do that, would we?
The challenge Jesus gives to those who walk is interesting. “This flesh and blood is hard to stomach?” he asks. “Try this, then. What if you see the Son of Man ascend to the place where he was before?”
You know what that means, right? Crucifixion. In the Gospel of John, whenever you hear this line of conversation about the Son of Man going “back to where he came from,” crucifixion is the subject under discussion, because crucifixion is the only way he’s ever going to get there.
Whenever we hear anything about the Son of Man being glorified, lifted up, or made manifest, what you are hearing is crucifixion. That’s the way the Gospel of John is written.
What Jesus is saying is simple:
You don’t like the Bread of Heaven and flesh and blood? That’s offensive? You think that’s hard?
Suppose then you should see the Son of Man crucified all bloody hanging from a cross?
If you want to talk about what’s hard and offensive and what isn’t, let’s get real.
Yet, the emphasis of the story today isn’t upon those who walked away offended.
And the focus of the story isn’t even about why they were offended. The emphasis is upon those who remain—because they have nowhere else to go.
Peter, bold in his faith, issues his admission of helplessness. “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter spoke for the disciples yet not one of them, not even Peter, remained when the real test came. Each disciple betrayed Jesus after his arrest. We and the disciples, we stand together in our abandonment of “hard” and “difficult” teachings.
Yet even as we walk away the stubborn tug of baptism, the persistent hunger for bread that lasts, calls to us and like Peter we too are floundering. “Where else would we go?”
We have nowhere else to go except back to the Christ we have denied.
That’s why baptism is our chance for daily repentance. With repentance comes forgiveness. Sometimes it works the other way ‘round, too. Knowing there is forgiveness prompts repentance.
We walk away, yet there is no place else to go—except back to the Lord we rejected. There at the table the Bread of Life gives himself in exchange for our life. At the table we become what we eat. At the table, where Jesus knew it would be.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, and a featured author at First Things magazine web site.