This passage brings the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to a climactic conclusion. Jesus has fed a large crowd with bread and fish; he has revealed his divine identity as I AM by showing his power over the sea; in the synagogue at Capernaum he has revealed that he himself is the bread of life given by the Father–as the bread of his teaching and as bread of the Eucharist. Now upon completion of his teaching, many of his followers murmured, saying, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jesus responds that human nature alone (the “flesh”) is of no avail in coming to believe and to have life in him. This faith and life is possible only as a gift of the Father.
After the exchange in the synagogue, many of his disciples left him. Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered, “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.”
Faith and life in Jesus is a gift beyond human expectation and understanding. This is the implication not only of this passage but of John’s entire gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The gift of eternal life is NOW; it does not begin after we die. In faith we can live without fear: “Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side” (Ps 23:4). The saints of every age witness to the reality that faith is participation in the joy, the prayer, the gratitude of Christ’s life now: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18).
Today we hear the good news that the Risen Lord is present among us sacramentally as the bread of life given by the Father–as the bread of his teaching and as bread of the Eucharist. We too may be inclined to murmur, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Our gospel passage does not tell us why many of his followers refused to believe Jesus and left him. We do know, however, the countless factors in our own culture that dissuade us from giving ourselves to the Lord in faith. Suffering is often experienced as incompatible with God’s love. Our “subjective-value” culture reduces faith to no more than “religious preference.” Nobel Prize winners tell us there is no God.
There are likewise moral decisions that lead to belief or away from belief. After her lecture at a university, a student asked Flannery O’Connor how he could be certain that God exists. She replied, “Give alms.” Jesus himself said, “How can people like you believe, when you accept praise from one another yet do not seek the glory that comes from the One” (Jn 5:44)?
Today’s gospel passage alerts us to the fact that faith is not primarily assent to a creed about God but a personal covenant with God. Like friendship, faith is mutual self-giving; it can become stronger or become weaker; it can begin and it can end. Jesus emphasizes the radically personal nature of faith by using the word “betray” and by asking whether the Twelve will also decide “to leave” him. Jesus knows that the human commitment of faith is not so steadfast as God’s commitment. He knows that his refusal to let the people make him king (Jn 6:15) and Judas’ love of money (Jn 12:6) will lead to a loss of faith in him and to betrayal.
In the Last Supper Discourse Jesus knows that the faith of his followers will be tested again, not by his teaching as in the synagogue at Capernaum but by his death on a cross. “Do you really believe? You will be scattered, leaving me quite alone” (Jn 16:31-32). His followers of weak faith did leave him–Judas betrayed him, Peter denied that he had ever known him. The story of Judas and Peter is both a warning and a source of hope. Like Judas, we too can finally choose to place ultimate, suicidal trust in something other than God. Like Peter, we too may grievously sin; yet trust that if we return, the Lord will welcome us with the joy of steadfast love.
Campion P. Gavaler, OSB