Gospel for Twenty First Sunday (23 August 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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.” (John 6:60-69 – NRSVCE)
It is not only ‘the Jews’ - see Notes for Gospel of Nineteenth Sunday - who are unwilling to ‘believe’ in Jesus, it is his ‘disciples’ as well. Distinctions are not to be made on the basis of ethnicity or social standing or geography or education or any other such common dividing line. The key of John is the response a person makes to Jesus.
We should not assume that ‘disciples’ here refers simply to ‘the twelve’. It is a much broader group referred to here by the term ‘disciples’. ‘The twelve” designates a specific group of disciples.
“This teaching is difficult.” The Greek word here translated as “difficult”, is sklēros (σκληρός). We get our English word “sclerosis” from it. Some versions translate it as “hard”. Francis Moloney notes: “(It) does not mean ‘difficult’ in an intellectual sense. The expressions “unacceptable, hard, offensive” best capture its meaning.” (Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 230.)
“Does this offend you?” “What was it that offended their sensibilities? Judging by the preceding discourse, there were four features in Jesus’ word at which they took umbrage. (1) They were more interested in food (v. 26), political messianism (vv. 14–15) and manipulative miracles (vv. 30–31) than in the spiritual realities to which the feeding miracle had pointed. (2) They were unprepared to relinquish their own sovereign authority even in matters religious, and therefore were incapable of taking the first steps of genuine faith (vv. 41–46). (3) In particular they were offended at the claims Jesus advanced, claiming to be greater than Moses, uniquely sent by God and authorized to give life (vv. 32ff., 58). (4) The
extended metaphor of the ‘bread’ is itself offensive to them, especially when it assaults clear taboos and becomes a matter of ‘eating flesh’ and ‘drinking blood’.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 300.)
“If the disciples find Jesus’ claims, authority and even his language offensive, what will they think when they see Jesus on the cross, his way of ‘ascending’ to the place where he was before? That is the supreme scandal. However offensive the linguistic expression ‘eating flesh and drinking blood’ may be, how much more offensive is the crucifixion of an alleged Messiah! The very idea is outrageous, bordering on blasphemous obscenity, ‘a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1:23). Yet this stands at the very heart of the divine self-disclosure. The moment of Jesus’ greatest degradation and shame is the moment of his glorification, the path of his return to the glory he had with the Father before the world began (17:5). The hour when the Servant of the Lord is despised and rejected by men, when he is pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:3–5) is the very portal to the time when ‘he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted’ (Is. 52:13).” (D A Carson, op cit, 301).
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. We find echoes here of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus; “Unless you are born from above you cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is “not of this world” (John 18:36). This requires a special way of ‘seeing’ which leads to ‘believing’ which is an ‘abiding in love’. The way of ‘the flesh’ cannot get you there. We can only ‘come’ if we are drawn by the Father: “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father”. For a further discussion of the apparent contradiction between believing as gift and believing as work, see Notes to Eighteenth Sunday, #5.
Peter’s response to Jesus’ question is like a very concise summary of what it means to be Christian: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
In John’s First Letter we hear a similar statement: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16). The First Letter of John then adds: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Everything comes back to our relationship with Jesus. And that relationship is not the result of an argument or a piece of abstract knowledge. It is rather an experience born of an encounter with Jesus himself. It is being in love. We “know” him as he “knows” us (see John 10:14).
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”. We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive irection.” [The opening words of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus caritas est.]