Many Disciples Desert Jesus
60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life. 64 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. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
For people who have been raised in the Christian faith, one of the real challenges is trying to keep in mind how strange and disturbing many of the teachings of Jesus would have been to those who were hearing them for the first time. We’ve been hearing these things all our lives, so we sort of take them for granted. But some of the things Jesus said would have been shocking to people. And this reading from John points out just how shocking.
This passage comes at the end of a section of the Gospel of John where Jesus has been talking about himself as “the bread of life.” He reminds his Jewish listeners of the part of their history when their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness. And now, he says, God has sent a new kind of spiritual food – the body and blood of Jesus himself. And that food, he says, will nourish them for eternal life. Jesus has been telling his listeners that to have that eternal life, they will need to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood.’
Those of us have been raised in the church, we read these words and we just think, “Well, sure, he’s talking about communion, he’s talking about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” The liturgy we use when we celebrate that sacrament specifically refers to the elements of communion as representing the body and blood of Jesus. We understand that the real point Jesus is making here is that his followers need to be ‘fed’ spiritually by his teaching. The words of the liturgy also point us toward his death on the cross, when his body would be broken and his blood shed as a sign of God’s great love for us.
So this is all pretty familiar ground to us. Hopefully it doesn’t get to be ‘old hat’ to us, but at least it’s a core belief of the faith that we’ve been raised with, so we don’t find what Jesus says to be particularly surprising.
But as for the people who heard Jesus saying these things for the first time – they would have found them startling. Maybe even shocking. They would have been shocked to hear this friendly, charismatic rabbi stating so matter-of-factly that he would soon be tortured to death by the nation’s religious leaders. In fact, it’s pretty clear that lots of those who heard Jesus say these things were freaked out by them. And if the things Jesus was foretelling weren’t shocking enough, the bit about eating his flesh and drinking his blood would have been like fingernails on a chalkboard. Almost all of those listening to Jesus were Jews, and Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood. So all this talk about eating flesh and drinking blood was more than most of them could handle. The bottom line, this passage tells us, is that many of those who had been disciples just walked away. They stopped following Jesus.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly phased by this development. In fact, John tells us that Jesus had also predicted that some of those following him would turn away.
There are Christians who insist that once you start following Jesus, everything becomes crystal-clear and the decisions of life all become black-and-white. But this passage, it seems to me, helps to illustrate the fact that the way of discipleship has never been easy, and it’s never been crystal-clear. Even among those who heard Jesus speak in person, some people have struggled to wrap their minds around his teachings. (Maybe if we’re really honest, all of us sometimes struggle to understand them clearly.) And some people give up in frustration.
But then Jesus turns to Peter and the other core disciples, and he asks if they’re going to leave, too. And Peter gives a great answer: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It wasn’t that Peter and the others understood everything Jesus said. They got confused, too. They misunderstood Jesus all the time. But they saw one thing clearly: that Jesus was unique – that Jesus was a one-of-a-kind voice through whom God was speaking into the world. And clinging to that one simple belief would get them through all kinds of mistakes later.
This passage says that many left. But a few stayed. And that little remnant, empowered by the Holy Spirit and their belief that Jesus was “the Holy One of God,” would go on to become the most powerful movement in human history.
It’s pretty inspiring for people like us who still wrestle to wrap our heads around some of the teachings of our master, don’t you think?
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for that faithful remnant who knew that Jesus alone had the words to eternal life, and who stayed with him when others were walking away. Let their example inspire and empower us to follow in faithful discipleship.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 146; Job 6:1-21; and Acts 9:32-43.)