Gospel Reading for August 23rd, 2015: The Words of Eternal Life
John 6: 60-69
Then many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result [of] this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
This conversation between Jesus and the apostles follows the “Bread of Life” discourse, a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and thousands of followers where he unveils the covenant that renews Jewish Mosaic law due to his arrival as messiah. Jesus explains to them: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6: 53-57).
To a Jew, Jesus’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood must have been an affront to deeply held prohibitions against eating animal flesh with blood in it. It would be easy for non-Jew like me to miss what is “hard” about this saying because I don’t have those hang-ups with regard to dietary practices. However, the word “hard” calls to mind the famous Father Mapple sermon about Jonah and the whale from Moby Dick, portrayed brilliantly by Orson Wells in the classic movie version ( YouTube Clip). Father Mapple draws this lesson from the story of Jonah’s disobedience, punishment, and redemption before God which resonates more strongly with me. He preaches, “… all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do-remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying wherein the hardness of obeying God consists” (Moby Dick, Chapter 9).
If we take Jesus’s use of the word “life” to encompass all the dreams we have for happiness in this life and the next, then His point is the path to that happiness is only through Him; He is our only nourishment. We must surrender to Jesus, God-Incarnate, our own plans for that happiness. That is hard in any age or era, whether one is a Jew confronted by the radical teaching of Jesus, a nineteenth century whaling captain named Ahab bent on revenge, or a citizen of the dizzying twenty-first century, global society that tells us we can have our own dreams.
So in a sense we have this difficult choice in front of us. And yet, as Peter points out, once we experience the love of Christ, all other choices fade away. His question, “… to whom shall we go?” is rhetorical. We realize the alternatives simply aren’t going to satisfy us any longer. Therefore, it is not so much a hard choice as a hard acceptance of a contract to which we frequently fail to do our part. We are left struggling with our inadequacy. However, this situation, while humbling, opens us to other dimensions of God’s love, namely His grace and forgiveness. He helps us do His will and transcend our imperfections and sinfulness. Our acceptance of Jesus as our savior makes that which is otherwise hard, easy. With a simple, open heart, we say amen to Jesus and He takes over from there.
So, like Peter, I pray that we may recognize that the only path to happiness and eternal life is through Jesus.