Commentary on John 6:56-69
For the fifth Sunday in a row we find ourselves in John 6, but as this long account comes to its end, there are some disturbing surprises.
Throughout this chapter’s discussion about the bread which gives life, Jesus’ words have been greeted with misunderstanding, confusion, and objection from the crowd, referred to either simply as “they” or “the Jews.” In verse 60, we hear about the reaction from the “disciples” (in John not to be equated with “the twelve”; see verse 67). We may expect better things from them. After all, they were the ones who sat together with Jesus at the beginning of this text, who followed Jesus’ instructions in gathering up the leftovers of the bread and fish, and who were rescued from the storm at sea by Jesus. Perhaps most importantly, we expect that “the disciples” belong to “us,” and not to “them.”
Thus we may be stunned when we hear that the disciples are now the ones who are bothered by what Jesus has said. We may have been tempted to simply write off the rest of the crowd as stubborn and obtuse, but the reference to “the disciples” sounds uncomfortably close to home. In verse 61, the disciples begin to grumble (NRSV “complain”), just as “the Jews” did in verse 41. Here, the problem seems not so much that the disciples have difficulty understanding what Jesus is saying; they understand quite well, but cannot believe and follow what Jesus has said. How often do we find the same to be true about ourselves?
As has been Jesus’ habit throughout this conversation, he meets objections by sharpening the point of his message, raising the offense rather than softening it, and thereby bringing the conversation to a crisis. In verse 62, Jesus points to his “going up” (NRSV “ascending”). We may think first of Luke’s ascension scene, but we need to remember that this is John’s story, and in John’s telling Jesus returns to the Father by being lifted up on the cross. If the disciples have been scandalized by what Jesus has said, what will happen when Jesus “goes up” via the cross? Will they be able to see the glory of God there?
Jesus’ statement that the “flesh” is useless (verse 63) cannot be read as a rejection of bodily life or a denial of creation’s goodness. After all, this is the Gospel which joyfully declared that “the Word became flesh” (1:14). Rather, “flesh” here indicates the normal way of seeing reality, the way of viewing life judged to be “sensible” by the world, which cannot see that eternal life comes through the exaltation of Jesus on the cross, and which cannot believe that the way to life is by participating in the death of Jesus. It is only the Spirit that can give life by making faith possible. Luther boldly reflects this same reality in his Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith…” (Translation by Timothy J. Wengert). In verses 63-65, Jesus points to his own words as life, to the Spirit as the one who gives life, and to the Father as the one who brings people to Jesus. Faith itself is here presented as the work of the Triune God.
The issue raised in this text revolves around a division between those who believe and those who do not. The text makes clear, however, that unbelief can be found not only among “them” on the outside, those we so easily forget or write off. The pain of unbelief is found among us (and within us!), reflected in this text both in those disciples who leave and in the one who stays to betray Jesus. Where will we find ourselves in this narrative? Are we the disciples who turn and leave, or those who with Peter confess that Jesus is the one – the only one – with the words of eternal life?
Chapter six begins with a huge crowd that needs to be fed and is interested enough to track down Jesus across the lake, but soon becomes disenchanted and grumbling. Even many of his disciples who stay around through the long sermon, in the end, cannot accept it. At the end of the chapter, only twelve are left, and even one of them will betray Jesus. The direction of chapter 6 is not, as far as “flesh” is concerned, a promising trajectory.
Yet God is working life in the midst of apparent failure and rejection. The church is still called to see that it is in such places that the Word of Life is doing its work around us, among us, and within us. The presence of Peter the denier, and even of Judas the betrayer, at the end of this text is a striking note of hope. Our natural inclination is to turn and leave, to avoid the difficult call and above all to avoid the cross. Yet the Word, the Spirit, and the Father continue to call, and enlighten, and draw us to life.
Peter’s response to Jesus is not a word of despair or a statement that they will have to settle for Jesus because there is nothing else. Peter and the others who remain have been given the gift of knowing that Jesus is the one who can give genuine life. Here, as elsewhere in this chapter, the paradox remains: faith only comes as the Father draws us, and yet Peter and the others (and we too) are asked for our response. Peter and the other twelve “choose” to remain, and yet the greater and prior reality is that they have been chosen (verse 70). The mystery of faith and unbelief is not answered by supposed solutions to the paradox, but by grateful confession that the Father has indeed drawn us to faith in Jesus, and thus to eternal life.