I know many people who put Bible verses on their phones or write them on post-it notes to stick on their bathroom mirrors, any place where they’re bound to read it several times a day. Verses such as “The Lord is my Rock and Fortress” from Psalm 18 or “Christ is before all things and in him all things are held together.” Colossians 1:17. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 8:39. Verses that give us encouragement about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and the assurance that Christ is always with us.
I could be wrong about this, but I’m going to bet that John 6:56 is not one of those verses. There’s a slim chance that anyone is going to write on a post-it note: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me” and will stick it on their refrigerator door.
It is a confusing verse and I understand why Jesus’s words scared many in the crowd to the point that they walked away. This verse, however, does convey the assurance that Christ is indeed with us and for us. Just as much as the usual verses people tend to stick on their refrigerators or end up as word art at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby.
To better understand this it’s helpful if we take a broader view of this passage by looking at earlier events prior to our passage in John chapter 6. I always like to say it’s helpful to allow scripture to interpret scripture. To take a closer look at the context of what is happening in and around a specific passage of scripture.
At the beginning of John chapter 6 is the feeding of the five thousand. A crowd of thousands came to hear Jesus teach and Jesus was worried about how they were going to eat. From 5 barley loaves and two fish he manages to feed the hungry. After experiencing that miracle many in the crowd said: “This is indeed the prophet who came to save the world.”
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus walks on water. The disciples are in a boat when a storm suddenly comes upon them. Jesus walks on water to reach their boat. The disciples are terrified when they see Jesus walk on water because they don’t recognize him at first and maybe thought he was a sea monster or a demon. He definitely could not be a human because humans don’t walk on water. But Jesus tells them “It is I. Do not be afraid.” Once Jesus boards their boat the storm passes and they safely reach land.
In both of these instances, Jesus demonstrates his power to do things that just aren’t humanly possible. In doing so he establishes his divine power and many come to believe that he is sent by God. But they’re not quite ready to accept all that he has to say.
In John 6:25, people who were a part of the crowd of the five thousand that Jesus miraculously fed, get into their own boats to track Jesus down. When they reach him, Jesus calls them out on their true motive. He says to them (and I’m paraphrasing): “You came here because you experienced a miracle that benefited you.” He is of course referring to the bread and fish he just miraculously provided and that they thoroughly enjoyed eating.
He goes on to say: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This does not sit well with many in the crowd. Many start to grumble (again I am paraphrasing): “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? He’s gone too far. (v. 41) He’s gone too far in referring to himself as “bread sent down from heaven.” They take offense that he refers to himself like the manna that God sent to their ancestors in the wilderness after God freed them from Egypt. He’s just the son of the carpenter so how can this be true? They are okay with Jesus providing food for the hungry, but when Jesus claims that he himself is sent from God, and it is only through Jesus that people have access to God, this deeply offends them.
Jesus continues to offend when he says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” At that point even more people leave after exclaiming: “This is hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
I have some empathy with those in the crowd who felt this way. What Jesus is saying is very difficult to understand. For the Jews in the crowd they find this especially offensive because according to kosher laws they are not to eat the blood of any animal. Furthermore the act of consuming blood of any animal was associated with pagan worship.
What Jesus is saying is that he himself is nourishment sent by God. Just as God sent Manna to their ancestors in the wilderness to sustain them after God freed them from slavery in Egypt, Jesus sustains us. Just as Israel was rescued from Egypt, Jesus rescues us from our own Egypt of sin and death. Those who left the crowd were offended by Jesus’ bold statement that he himself is our means to salvation.
Today the teachings of Jesus are still offensive to many. Maybe even to us. I don’t think we’re that much different from those who left Jesus when they became offended or confused by what he said. Also these weren’t just people who had been following Jesus for just a short period of time. John also refers to those who left as “disciples.” Those who were once committed followers of Jesus Christ, that is until what Jesus asked of them became too hard.
For various reasons, people don’t want to accept Jesus as God who came down to be with us as a human. Many don’t like the “exclusivity” of Jesus as the only way to God. Most likely because these same people grew up with bad theology of what Jesus is really about. We can still be accepting, opening and welcoming while also accepting Jesus as the way, the truth and the life and the only way to God.
Others don’t like the thought of Jesus being the center of our lives. For that to happen we would have to shift our priorities, which most likely would mean we’d have to spend our time and our money differently. If we are open to Jesus being at the center of our lives, then we would need to be open to the fact that how we see the world and relate to others may need to drastically change. If we’re honest such drastic shifts in our lives are terrifying.
What was more terrifying to the remaining disciples was a world without Jesus. After the majority of those who once followed Jesus left, Jesus turns to the remaining 12 disciples and asks: “Do you want to leave too?” Peter replies: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” While the remaining disciples don’t entirely understand Jesus’ teachings about himself being the bread of life, they do know Jesus well enough to trust his love for them. They realize that he is more than just a prophet and more than just a great teacher. They know that God is present in Jesus in a way that God is not present in anyone or anywhere else.
Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, who teaches at Bethany Theological Seminary, tells the story about her grandmother who immigrated to the states from Italy in hope of a better life for her children. While her grandmother grew to love her new country one thing that puzzled her was the bread at their local grocery store. Wilhelm writes that her grandmother would point to the bread on the shelves and exclaim: “Why do people eat-a these things? They have-a no taste.” Her grandmother would say that “life is too short to eat anything but good bread and to drink anything but good wine.” Wilhelm goes on to write: “It’s no wonder my family would spend each Saturday making our own bread, pizza and pasta. Why settle for bread that is not bread and life that is not life?”
When we taste the goodness of God’s love and mercy that is found only in Jesus Christ, we realize we’ve been settling for stale old bread and a life that could be lived more abundantly. For when we truly taste and see the goodness of Christ, when we stay in order to understand instead of run from the teachings of Christ we find offensive or difficult to understand, we will come to know Jesus Christ more deeply and fully. For in Jesus Christ we find true nourishment that sustains us.