Then Joshua said to all the people, ‘If you will not serve the Lord, choose today whom you wish to serve.’
Last week Jesus finished unwrapping the gift he was offering the world in the synagogue of Capernaum. It left his listeners stunned, distressed, outraged. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life.
If I had been Jesus, excuse me for this silly hypothesis, I would have unveiled this mystery a few moments before the Last Supper. It would then have made much more sense and would have spared the apostles the misery of seeing their Master humiliated by the desertion of so many followers.
So I would have begun, ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life’, and then very quickly I would have taken the bread and said, 'This is my body which will be given for you.’ And then with the wine: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’
See how smoothly the transition could have been accomplished? A tiny moment of puzzlement, a little reflection, and then the ‘aha!’ moment. ‘Oh, I see what he means. Whew! He had me worried for a moment.’
But the inscrutable wisdom of the Master cannot be questioned. It was apparently some months before the apostles could put Jesus’ words at Capernaum together with his words at the Last Supper, the first Mass. For them it must have been a happy moment. They had believed without seeing and their faith in the Lord was not disappointed. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe (Jn 20:29).
Sadly, many of his followers could not believe and they left him, saying: This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? And, of course, according to human logic they were right, as are many Christians today who simply cannot believe this doctrine. Jesus did not call them back. He did not say he was only speaking in metaphors. He did not say all would be made clear at the first Eucharist. As I have discovered, to reason with someone who has lost his faith in Jesus’ words is impossible because the heart of our faith is our belief that what Jesus says is true, always and everywhere, for all time, whether we understand them or not. Our faith is in the man, the person of Jesus.
I recall a longish conversation I had with a colleague at one of the schools I was teaching in. We read through John 6 together and I explained, as best I could that Jesus’ teaching was literally true, that he was teaching us that he was going to give us his body to eat and his blood to drink, and this promise was to be fulfilled in the Eucharist. At the end of our discussion he said he could not believe Jesus was speaking literally and insisted he was speaking metaphorically the same way as he was when he called himself a vine or a gate to the sheepfold. He argued that Jesus himself indicated this when he said: It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit... .
Well, no one walked away when Jesus described himself as vine, or when he told them he was the gate to the sheepfold, or that he was the way, the truth and the life. There is one thing at least that we do know. Those who walked away were taking him quite literally, and if that were the case, surely Jesus would have called them back and explained his metaphor to them. But he didn’t because he wasn’t.
Jesus meant every word he said and he meant them literally.
Moreover, the spirit/flesh dichotomy is well known in the scriptures. It refers most commonly to the opposition between the human and the divine as, for example, Galatians 6:8 from the King James 2000 translation: For he that sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
Jesus did not explain the doctrine he taught because there was nothing to explain; there was only something to believe.
‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
This is the first mention of Judas Iscariot and, interestingly, it has to do once again with faith in the trustworthiness of the words of Jesus. Judas did not believe and perhaps we might imagine that in his heart he ‘left him, and stopped going with him’ at that moment.
We must finish with Simon Peter’s affirmation of faith in Jesus. Like all those present he too did not understand what Jesus was saying, but he believed in the person of Jesus. Listen carefully to his words as, in so many words, he says, ‘Jesus, we trust you.’
Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.’Or to put it in the words of Joshua: As for me and my House, we will serve the Lord.’