Year B: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Words of Eternal Life.
John 6: 56-69
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.” These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 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. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.”
- When did you first become aware of a spiritual hunger within? Do you think of this hunger as a gift from God? Explain
- There is always a healthy tension between faith, reason and understanding. In what areas of your spiritual journey have you moved from faith as a belief, to faith as understanding and knowing through personal experience?”
Example: I was taught to believe that “we” as the Church, are the body of Christ. But it has been through my experience in men’s ministry small group discussions that I have come to know this to be true from personal experience. What is your experience?
- Are there words from Jesus, or beliefs within our Catholic tradition that you struggle to understand or accept? How do you wrestle with these areas, to develop and move toward belief? Explain
- Beyond receiving the Eucharist, how do you experience Jesus as the bread that sustains your life or the life of others? Give an example.
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
We are reaching the end of the “Bread of Life Discourse”. Our opening line refers back to last week’s Gospel in which Jesus called himself the bread which gives life to the world. As we saw, his claims upset people who thought he was blaspheming as well as those who were appropriately awed/frightened by the immensity of what he offered them. The readings from last week left us pondering the meaning of all of that. Now we hear how those who heard Jesus responded.
In this chapter, we have watched the number of disciples diminish. First there were the 5,000 (men) who ate of the bread Jesus received from the child and blessed and broke and shared. Then we hear of an unknown number who sought him, and then enough to fit in a synagogue, and those were arguing among themselves because Jesus’ teaching was so difficult to accept.
Jesus knows what is bothering them and meets them head on. If they have been alarmed at the implications of God’s coming close to them through him, what will happen when Jesus is lifted up at the ascension? Every bit of what bothers this crowd has to do with God taking flesh as such a humble and vulnerable servant. That scandalizes them because it seems so un-godlike and because it portends a similar future for any who would remain with him.
The “Bread of Life Discourse” we have been hearing for five weeks presents John’s theology of the Eucharist — a theology summarized in symbolic action at the Last Supper when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. In this discourse, Jesus presents himself as God’s self-gift for the life of the world. The images of bread and flesh and blood make his message as concrete as possible, indicating that the Word of God became flesh to give life to everyone who would accept it, to anyone who would receive and take in that Word. As we noted, God’s self-offering upends traditional notions of sacrifice and undercuts any self-interested motives for discipleship. Jesus’ offer to those who would receive him is nothing less than an invitation to the adventure of unlimited love that leads to unlimited life.
Those disciples who have remained this long with Jesus understand the implications of what he has been teaching well enough to say “This is too hard.” Those who are concerned primarily with their own well-being will not be able to stay with him. He’s approaching them on the level of the Spirit of God, not the flesh. That is why he says again that no one can come to him unless the Father grants it. Only those who allow themselves to be drawn by grace can accept his counterintuitive, countercultural message.
That was finally enough for many would-be disciples. When they left, Jesus turned to the twelve, the representatives of the new community, and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” Now we see that Peter has learned something from his master. Rather than answer the question Jesus asked, Peter responded that there was no one with whom they would rather be.
Peter’s last statement says it all. He says, “We have come to believe…” Although he goes on to add more than he can understand at the moment, that first phrase said enough. They are committed to remain, to abide with him as they continue to come to believe.
Coming to Believe and Know
The last exchange between Jesus and the Twelve is very dramatic. Jesus confronts the inner group of the Twelve. Do they wish to leave as the others have done? Peter, a Gospel character not known to rise to every occasion, says there is no place to go. Jesus has everything they need. They will stay. Since we are cheering for Jesus’ revelation to be received, we soar on the emotional high of Peter’s fidelity.
The two options are leaving and staying. But the more intriguing possibility may have already happened. It is caught in Peter’s reason for staying, “We have come to believe and know” (v. 69). Coming to believe and know is a process that begins with trusting enough—and ends with understanding enough.
Every so often I assign, as required reading in a course I teach, a text that is written from a very developed spiritual point of view. The author’s point of view is not ordinary fare; and throughout the book she never lets up. The reaction of students is diverse but fairly consistent. Initially, there are a multitude of complaints. “Why can’t she give more examples?” “Is this stuff orthodox?” “She can’t be serious.” “I can’t tell you how much I disagree with this!” This is a book which, as teachers say, “You have to teach.” I go over segments of the text in class and try to articulate in different language what she is trying to communicate. The students are not impressed or appeased. I tell them, “Hang in there. “I use what little authority I have to encourage this perseverance.
About halfway through the book, some lights go on. Things are beginning to happen. There is more life in the group, even excitement. The comments change. “I think I have an example of that.” “This is the real stuff, isn’t it?” “I’m beginning to take this stuff seriously.” “This book is really expanding how I see things.” Soon many, but not all, are running with the material. They have come to believe and know. Somewhere along the way I tell them what a professor told me many years ago, “Never read a book you could write.
Spiritual teachers are more developed than those who follow them. So, what they say and do is not going to be immediately understood by disciples. The consciousness of the followers is not a match for the consciousness of old wineskins (see Mark 2:22 and parallels). The new wine of the teacher bursts them. This means the followers must initially trust teachers, believe enough in what they say to explore it further. This trust is neither absolute nor forever. It does not mean anything goes, and it is not the goal of the relationship. Followers just have to “believe enough” because at this stage they do not “know enough.
Spiritual development within a faith tradition often walks this path from belief to understanding. When I was growing up, I struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. What in the world was “one God in three persons” about? My teachers told me not to worry. “It is a mystery,” they said, “a mystery we must believe in for our salvation.” I stammered that in order to believe I had to know what it was about. They assured me that my ignorance was not an obstacle. I could believe on the authority of the Church who proclaimed this mystery under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In my own simple way of thinking, I could lean on the greater consciousness of the tradition until my own had developed. That’s what I did. I said inside myself. “This makes sense, and it is important.” This believing made me per- severe until more understanding developed. Of course, part of that understanding was the idea of essential mystery. The more I understood the doctrine of the Trinity, the more mysterious it became. Sometimes people think faith is the desired goal, and they think strong faith is an exercise of the will that fiercely holds on to what it cannot understand. However, in this way of thinking, faith is the first step. We have to find the larger consciousness to which we will apprentice ourselves. We have to trust and believe in that consciousness long enough to learn from it. Once understanding begins and grows, the external supports for belief are still appreciated, but they are no longer primary. If the consciousness is aligned with Love, if the Bread is true, if the “flesh” and Blood is nourishment, then life flows in us. We have come not only to believe but to know (see v. 69), and we stay because eternal life is flowing.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.