Gospel: John 6:56-69
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus be with you all.
Today’s Gospel reading includes one of the most arresting questions in all of Holy Scripture. In verse 67 Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Let’s sit with that question for a while rather than move too quickly past it. Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
The “also” is in there because, as we learned in the verse that comes just before this, “many of the disciples of Jesus turned back and no longer went about with him.” Can we imagine what that must have been like?
What I mean is this: on the printed page, the Gospel of John moves from one verse to the next without any space whatsoever. Verse 67 follows verse 66 in no more time than it takes to read the words. But if we listen carefully to the language of verse 66, we hear about things that must have taken some time to happen. Neither the action described as “turned away” nor the action described as “no longer went about with him” are things that happen immediately. These actions and the end of John, chapter six are things that develop over time. We find something like the mirror-image of this at the beginning of this chapter.
At the beginning of John, chapter six, we learned that “a large crowd kept following him.” (v. 2) “Kept following” is another action that takes time to happen. How many times would a large crowd have to gather around Jesus before the language “kept following him” would fit? More than once or twice, I would think.
It has taken our lectionary five weeks to move through chapter six of the Gospel of St. John. Let’s not imagine that the actions described there took any less time. For when we slow down to imagine the growth of the large crowds that kept following him and the waning of the crowds that turned away and no longer went about with him we will hear a word of grace and a word of hope.
As the Gospel opens, we find evidence that Jesus’ followers were a pretty small group. The wedding at Cana in Galilee, in chapter two, for example, is one of these hints. “Jesus and his disciples had been invited to the wedding,” (2:2) we are told. As anyone who has made up an invitation list for a wedding knows, you don’t include “large crowds” on the list!
Again in chapter three, where we read that “Jesus and his disciples” moved from Galilee into “the Judean countryside” where John was baptizing, (3:22) it seems pretty clear that this move did not include the large crowds. In chapter four, when the group is moving back to Galilee, and they encounter Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman at the well, we read that the disciples had gone into town to buy something to eat (4:8). This clue tells us, once again, that the group of disciples that traveled with Jesus at this point in his ministry was small enough to go into town together.
It’s towards the end of chapter four (4:45) that we see the first hints of crowds starting to gather around Jesus, on account of his teaching and healing ministry. As chapter six opens, with the feeding of the five thousand, John tells us that the presence of a large crowd gathered around Jesus had become familiar (6:2).
As it took time, for this reality to develop, we might expect that it took time for the opposite to happen. Jesus spoke strong and difficult words to the crowds of disciples following him, words about seeking the bread that endures, words about being the bread of life that came down from heaven to give life to the world, words about giving his own flesh and blood for their food and drink. As Jesus’ teaching became more and more challenging, John tells us that the crowds began to raise concerns, and to find his words challenging, so that over time many of them “no longer went about with him.”
Now it was into this context that Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” The Twelve had had plenty of time to ponder this question before Jesus even asked it.
They had seen the crowds growing in number, and they had seen the crowds fade away. As any of us would have done, no doubt they weighed their personal thoughts about Jesus against the collective actions of many others. But there they were, still with him. So when Jesus asked the question, it seems clear that they had already worked out the answer.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?” they said; “You have the words of eternal life.” We know these words. We have sung these words hundreds of times in church.
We sing them with alleluias attached, as the Gospel book is carried down the aisle into the center of the congregation to be read from there, if we are more formal in our liturgy; or we sing them as the preacher moves to the pulpit to read the Gospel from there, if we are a little less so. We say these words when we are restrained from singing by a global pandemic, or if we don’t happen to have an organist that Sunday. But we know these words. We say or sing them often. They have become our words.
But listen! Listen!
Before we even begin to entertain the proud thought that we must therefore be a little more faithful than those crowds who turned away and no longer went about with Jesus, listen! We must hear two things tied tightly to these words since we affirm that these are our words too.
First, every one of the Twelve ended up abandoning Jesus at the end. Hear that. Hold that thought in your heart and in your mind. Singing or saying these words in the liturgy as our own words is not evidence of our unwavering faithfulness to Jesus. There is something else happening here.
And also, listen to Jesus’ response to the Twelve. In verse 70, just past the end of our Gospel reading for today, Jesus replies, “Did I not choose you?” If it is faith in Christ that has kept the Twelve close to Jesus while all the crowds turned and went away, remember that faith itself is a gift. We confess that the Holy Spirit gives faith as a gift when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached. There is something other than our faithfulness at work here.
Listen again, very carefully, to what the Twelve said, when Jesus asked them that profoundly arresting question: “Do you also wish to go away?” They answered, “You.” Their focus was on Jesus, not themselves. “You have the words of eternal life,” they said. This confession is true without respect to the number of people around Jesus at any given time.
Jesus has the words of eternal life. This is true when large crowds gather around him and when only the Twelve are left. Jesus has the words of eternal life. This is true when the Twelve are with him and when he is alone on the cross.
Jesus has the words of eternal life. And what are those words? In this immediate context, Jesus says, “I chose you.” Our baptism into Christ, our being joined to him in his death and resurrection, is the action of God for us and for our salvation; it is not our work that saves us.
Widening our view just a bit, in the larger context of John, chapter six, Jesus says “I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” The words of eternal life that Jesus speaks come to us also through the Holy Eucharist, in which we receive his true body and his true blood for our salvation.
Taking a wider view yet, all through the Gospel of John Jesus speaks the words of eternal life. He says, “I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Vine, I am the Light of the World, I am the Way, the Truth, I am the Resurrection and the Life.” There is no end to his words of eternal life.
What has brought us here this morning to join his disciples of every time and place in saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” It is their joyful confession and ours: “You!”
“You, Lord Jesus Christ! You are the Bread of Life. You are the Holy One of God. You are our hope and salvation.”
In every situation of life we learn again to confess our faith with hope and joy. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”