Did you know that in all of scripture there is only one place in the Bible that Jesus’ disciples leave Him over one of His teachings? It’s important to note that these weren’t just people who were curious about Jesus, these were his disciples who left everything to follow Him! So what was the one thing Jesus taught that sent His disciples packing back to their former ways of life? Let’s take a look…
It all starts in John 6:27 where you have the the crowds looking for Jesus to perform another multiplication of loaves. They wanted their fleshy appetites filled, and selfishly were pursuing Jesus to satisfy their earthly hungers. Jesus answers back to them in Jn 6:27-28 by saying, “Amen, amen I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not look for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
Jesus is obviously trying to get them to stop thinking of their bellies and earthly appetites, so they can be ready to accept the truth of His mission that ultimately will satisfy their deepest hunger for the true source of nourishment and life, which as we will see is His very self.
The Jews then say, “what sign can you give that we may see and believe. Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written, He gave them bread from Heaven to eat.” Looks to me like they're still wanting the goods of this world over the source of all that is good, and that is why Jesus responds by saying, “Amen, Amen I say to you it was not Moses who gave the bread from Heaven; my father gives the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world.”
They respond quite excitedly by saying, “Sir, give us this bread always.” They are obviously very enthusiastic to receive this miraculous bread that Jesus is speaking of so much so that they want it always.
Jesus then goes on to say, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from Heaven; “whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Is it just me or did Jesus just tell everyone there they had to eat His flesh? Nope…not just me, because listen to what his disciples say next in Jn 6:32, “The Jews quarreled among themselves saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?‘ ”
Does Jesus back down from what he’s saying they must do or tell them that they're misunderstanding His teaching? No, he actually clarifies it in an even stronger statement by saying, “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.”
Wow…those are some strong words especially when you consider the various forms of the Greek verb for eating. In Jn 6:50-53 Jesus uses the Greek verb Phago which means to consume, but later after the Jews begin to express their distaste for Jesus’ teaching, Jesus intensifies His language by using the Greek verb Trogo which is MUCH more graphic because it literally means to “chew on” or to “gnaw on.”
But Jesus doesn't stop there. He keeps going! He continues to say, “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. This is the bread that came down from Heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Jesus’ disciples are in shock and repulsed by this teaching as we can see when they say, “This saying is hard who can accept it?” A good question to ask ourselves at this moment is... if Jesus was speaking symbolically would it have been a hard saying? What’s so hard about saying that Jesus wanted us to remember him in the breaking of the bread? Didn't He say similar things other times in scripture where He would use symbolism and metaphors to get a certain point across to His disciples and the apostles? Just look at Jn 15:5 where Jesus refers to himself as the vine. His disciples didn't actually think Jesus meant to say that He was literally a plant. In Jn 10:9 Jesus refers to himself as a door, but you never had any of his disciples question him on that, or ask Him if He really meant to say He was an actual door, as they did when Jesus told them that He is the bread of life and they must eat His flesh. They took Him very literally and that’s why you have them asking the question, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So if Jesus was speaking symbolically this teaching would have been a non issue, because It would have been EASY to accept along with all Jesus’ other metaphors and symbolism, but Jesus’ disciples know this is not the case, and that is why in the end they end up leaving Him, because what He is teaching IS a HARD SAYING!
Jesus knows His disciples are murmuring about His teaching. He knows that they don’t understand, that it seems incomprehensible to them. That is why He then tells them in Jn 6:61-63, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is like Jesus is trying to make them see that He was here before time began! He created the universe out of nothing and put it into in motion! He formed man from the dust of the earth! Can He who is ALL POWERFUL not change bread into His very body if He so wills it? Of course He can, and that is what He is trying to get across to His disciples here.
Jesus then goes on to say, “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.” It is so important that we get Jesus’ meaning right when He speaks of the flesh and the spirit. First, notice that Jesus said that flesh was of no avail, but what He did NOT say is that HIS flesh was of no avail. We know that Jesus was not referring to His flesh being of no avail, because earlier on He talks about how His flesh would be “given up for the life of the world.” So we can see that without Jesus taking on human flesh and sacrificing His body on the cross for the sins of the world, there would be no salvation. Obviously, Jesus’ flesh has much to avail. By this we can see that Jesus is speaking of the flesh in terms of our human nature apart from God’s grace. For example, when it says in scripture that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. It’s referring to our weakness apart from God’s grace.
When Jesus speaks of the spiritual He does NOT mean that we should not take Him literally, because the spirit is indeed REAL and living. As I’ve heard it said before, “We do not pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy symbolic. When Jesus says that “It is the spirit that gives life, and the flesh is of no avail” He is saying that only the spirit of God can produce the miracle of the Eucharist, and it is through the spirit that we are able to believe in this mystical meal of love.
Just like the manna that reigned down from Heaven to nourish God’s chosen people on their way to the promised land, so God feeds us with the supernatural bread from Heaven which is Jesus Christ Himself (Jn 6:51) to nourish us along the way to our promised land; Heaven!
After Jesus finishes speaking about His body being real food for us, it says in scripture that, “As a result of this many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.”
Wow… These disciples left Jesus over this one teaching! Even after all the healing and miracles they saw Him perform. They just couldn't accept it. Think about it, this one teaching was so important to Jesus that He let them go! He didn't water it down or make it sound more appeasing to their ears or appetites. What about us? What will our response to this teaching be? Will we too walk away from Jesus’ body that He offers us at every sacrifice of the Mass that He instituted at the Last Supper when He said, “Do this in memory of me?” Or, will we be like Peter? After Jesus’ disciples leave him He asks His apostles in Jn 6:67, “‘Do you also want to leave?’ And Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’” What will your answer be?