The sheep have been gathered by the shepherd. He has led them into the sheepfold of his wonderful teaching and his astonishing miracles. He has led them through the gate which always stands open behind them. This is not a shepherd who traps his sheep; they are always free to leave him. Only those who know the shepherd and listen to his voice will remain.
But they grow more and more tense, more and more puzzled, more and more uncomfortable. What is he saying? Am I hearing correctly? Can he mean what I think he means? Is there something I’m missing?
Jesus had miraculously fed them the day before. If the wine from the water of Cana was ‘the best wine’, what would the meal of the loaves and fishes have tasted like? Now he was offering them bread from heaven, living bread, and telling them that anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.
Of course they are interested, keenly interested. Wouldn’t you be? When Jesus offered the Samaritan woman ‘living water’ she had eagerly responded (John 4:15): 'Sir,' said the woman 'give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty and never have to come here again to draw water.'
It would not have been fair to say that the woman had ‘misunderstood’. This was not about ‘understanding’. No more than the people listening to Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum could be accused of misunderstanding. Jesus’ logic was not that of earth but of heaven – the logic not of the flesh but of the spirit.
The movement is clear enough: bread for the stomach – bread from heaven – living bread – I am the living bread which has come down from heaven – eat this bread – this bread is my flesh – eat my flesh and drink my blood – and back to the beginning: you will live for ever.
I have spoken at other times of suicide bombers who stand among the people and cause horrendous destruction. The explosion Jesus detonates causes immense ‘construction’. Instead of bringing death to those who stand around him he brings life.
Of course the people are in no way ready for what Jesus is telling them. They are caught between their desire for the promise of eternal life and the bewildering proposal that they must eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus in order to achieve it.
Let us not forget, though I imagine you are in no danger of doing so, that Jews were strictly forbidden to consume blood, or even flesh with blood in it. To eat human flesh and blood was even more out of the question.
Then the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they said. I am totally sympathetic to the confusion and frustration of these Jews. Perhaps the modern youth would say, ‘I feel you, brothers.’ But then, on reflection, our faith is littered with such questions?
How can God become a baby? How can a woman give birth and remain a virgin? How water turn into wine? How can the bread and wine become the Body and Blood? How can a man rise from the dead? How can a priest forgive sin? How can the pope say he is infallible?
Jesus answers such questions with a question of his own (John 9:35): Do you believe in the Son of Man? This is the pivotal question, the one which puts all other questions into perspective. The answer to this question will determine our response to all the others.
Some want a God without mysteries and miracles and incomprehensible truths because, deep down, they live in the lie that God must explain himself to their intellect or suffer rejection. They have made of their minds a kind of judgment seat before which God must kneel in order to prove himself.
But Jesus is not judged by what he puts before us; we are. We are in the dock, not the Master. The words of Jesus are certainly moments in which God is revealed to us but also moments in which we are revealed to God, and to ourselves.
And what is it that is revealed? To put it as simply as possible it is whether we believe, or not; whether we are sheep of his flock, or not. As Jesus said to those who opposed him (John 10:26): you do not believe, because you are no sheep of mine.
Next week, as those wayward sheep wander away shaking their heads at Jesus we hear Peter exclaim (John 6:69): Lord, ... we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.'Let me conclude by reiterating the basic opposition which becomes apparent in this chapter of the gospel of John, the opposition between the status we give Jesus in our lives (Is he the Christ of God?) and the status we ascribe to our own judgment (Is it only true if I can understand it?). Those who trust the Lord will stay with him; those who rely solely on their understanding will eventually walk away.