Tuesday, August 24, 2010

This is a hard saying; who can understand it?

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend You? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to Him by My Father."

From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?" But Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered them, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve.

- John 6:60-71

Jesus has been teaching about the Eucharist - teaching about Himself as the bread that came down from heaven. In yesterday's reading, He said, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." See He who eats My flesh, and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. This dialogue began after those whom He fed on the mountain sought to make Him king, and has continued over the past several readings. Today, it continues, as His disciples respond to these teachings.

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, "This is a hard saying; who can understand it?" When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, "Does this offend You?" My study bible notes, "Even His disciples took Christ's teaching on His Body and Blood as a hard saying (v. 60), and many of them departed from Him (v. 66). The Lord Jesus is aware of the thoughts of men." How strange these sayings must seem! We remember that Jesus has taught in parables, and that "parable" can also mean "riddle." While this is not a "riddle" it is a teaching of Mystery. Jesus has taught us about our depth of relatedness: He abides in us and we abide in Him, because we eat of His flesh and drink His blood. He is life itself; he is the bread from heaven. We live in Him and with Him even to eternal or everlasting life. These are the hard teachings, the "hard sayings" to which the disciples are referring.

"What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life." Jesus questions His listeners. They cannot accept His "hard saying" - a strange teaching, on Himself as the bread that came from heaven. But what if they were to see Him ascend? Would they then believe and understand? The Spirit gives life - and His bread is spiritual food. The words He speaks are spirit and they are life - also our spiritual food. This bread is so much more than we can grasp; it is a Mystery that multiples just as the bread did in the wilderness, on the mountain.

"But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to Him by My Father." Jesus again displays for us His knowledge of the people who are following Him; He perceives what is within them, what they are thinking amongst themselves. I think it's important that we understand the freedom implied here; free will is absolute and inviolable. "Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him." That's quite a remarkable statement. It implies that He walked with these followers, despite the foreknowledge of what was to happen. He accepted fully that He would be rejected and betrayed by those whom He loved. Jesus accepts this with the understanding that "no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to Him by My Father."

From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. My study bible says that "to reject Jesus' teaching on the sacramental eating of His Body and drinking of His blood is to walk with Him no more." Personally I cannot speak of sacraments with any authority, but I can understand this statement as teaching us that the "hard sayings" are those that work to separate us or confirm our faith. Jesus accepts the loss of followers. Can we accept loss with equanimity? He does not make His message easier; rather He accepts what is given to Him, and He teaches His truth for those who will be able to accept it.

From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you also want to go away?" But Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." My study bible notes, "This confession of faith is a pivotal moment in the life of Peter and the disciples on behalf of whom He spoke." The twelve stay with Him. Peter's confession comes at this point in John's Gospel, that it is Jesus who has the words of eternal life, and that He is the Christ. Elsewhere Jesus responds that this faith and understanding in Peter could only have been revealed by the Father, but in John's Gospel we are given an additional understanding, as follows.

Jesus answered them, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve." Jesus' affirmation is not merely to understand the faith as expressed in Peter's confession, but also that He will be betrayed by one of His own. This is quite an exceptional twist in this story, this emphasis on betrayal even by one whom Jesus has Himself chosen - a betrayal, we understand, by someone who lacks this faith, this bond, a rock "against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail."

In John's Gospel, we are given an understanding of betrayal and of faith, the twist that teaches us the reality of our condition in the world. This is not a stunning success on Jesus' part, but a man who has denied the people's wish that He be made king. This is a man who tells the truth, despite the fact that He knows it will alienate His followers - that it is a "hard saying" for which many will fall away from Him. And it is a man who knows, despite the confession of Peter, that even one of the twelve whom He Himself has chosen will betray Him. It is a picture of our world in its darkness and its light, with nothing taken away or covered up to make it more palatable or acceptable. Jesus will be betrayed. He is not received by all. He wants those who can take all that He offers. He accepts the reality of that rejection. This Gospel does not flinch at the reality of our world in its complexity and pain. Can we accept it? Can we take the "hard saying" as well as the "hard understanding?" How do we take betrayal - and can we stand for the spiritual truth we find here as well? Jesus has said that He will give His flesh for the life of the world. Can we follow Him to that end? He has taught that he will be "lifted up" as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Jesus does not flinch from the realities of a world in which betrayal and murder are also a part of our lives, but goes forward "for the life of the world." He is here because of love, for love of us and for the world - despite betrayal, despite rejection, despite faithlessness. Can we accept the "hard sayings?" He stays with us through it all. Do we stay with Him?