“You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68
Reading Saint John Chapter 6, it is easy to miss details, while concentrating on the words of Jesus, it is easy to miss the background notes. The story shifts from place to place, it is a story of Jesus moving and the crowd responding. Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee in Verse 1, and the crowd follows him up onto the mountainside. Jesus crosses back across the water in Verse 19 and the crowd follows him to the lakeshore in Verse 25. Jesus then goes to the synagogue in Capernaum and the crowd follows him there, for we read in Verse 59, “He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.”
Movement, response; movement, response; movement, response: the pattern is reflected in the conversations we read in today’s Gospel passage, where we see Jesus speaking and the people responding. When we read Verses 56-58, Jesus is emphasizing what he has said to the crowds who had followed him to the lakeshore. He says to them, “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 for ever.”
When we look at the response to Jesus’ words, something has changed. The words are challenging, but they are no more challenging than what he has said on the lakeshore, when the crowds said in Verse 34, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Perhaps it is where he speaks that prompts the different response, for we read in Verse 60, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'” Perhaps it is being in the synagogue that has influenced them; out at the lake, it was easy to be a follower of Jesus, but in the synagogue, in a formal religious place where the leaders would have opposed Jesus’ claims, the followers are much more hesitant.
Jesus speaks and the response is hesitant. Are we like those followers? Do we respond to Jesus in one place and then become much more hesitant in situations where being Christian is not so easy?
Jesus speaks to his followers again. He is aware they are hesitant, that they were not happy about what they had heard, and in Verse 61, he asks them plainly, “Does this offend you?” Jesus will leave them under no illusion as to what he is saying, in Verse 62-63 he says to them, “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.”
Jesus spoke and some were hesitant, Jesus speaks again and there are now some who turn away, Jesus is aware that this would be the response, saying in Verse 64, “But among you there are some who do not believe.” Saint John sees the pattern of word and response as part of the plan, “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. Chapter 6 Verse 66 is one of the saddest in the Bible, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” They have walked with Jesus, and they have turned their backs on him.
Jesus speaks and the followers were hesitant, Jesus speaks and the followers desert him. The challenge for some people was just too much. Are there times when we have been like them? Are there times when we have decided that the Christian faith is too much for us and we are going to walk our own way?
Jesus speaks again, not to the crowd, not to the large group that had followed him, but to the Twelve, to those whom he had chosen himself. We read in Verse 67, “So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?'” What might have been going through their minds as they saw people turning away from Jesus? Were there doubts? Were there feelings among them that perhaps the complainers had a point? Did Jesus sense murmurings, grumblings even, that he asked them in such a direct way?
Jesus speaks and Peter responds, some people may have been hesitant, some people may have left them, but Peter asks the question they might all have asked, in Verse 68, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then Peter answers his own question, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Twelve have given up everything to follow Jesus, home, family, friends, jobs, money, but Peter is clear that what they have found is far greater than what they have left behind, he knows that there is no-one else who can offer the life that Jesus offers them.
Jesus speaks to hesitant people, he speaks to people who turn away, he speaks to people who remain faithful. Jesus speaks to us, through our worship, through our Bible readings, though our prayers, through our hymns, he speaks to us. How do we respond?