As John 6 comes to an end, the meaning of Jesus’ eloquent yet mysterious words sinks in; many of Jesus’ disciples say, This saying is hard; who can accept it? The moment of decision has arrived, as it arrived when Joshua summoned all the tribes of Israel to renew the covenant. In an in-your-face address, Joshua says, If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, foreign gods or the Lord. The people renew their devotion to the Lord, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. Recollection of the life-giving power of God leads to commitment.
Faced with shock and doubt, Jesus says that the words he has spoken are given by the Son of Man (the human one) who will return to God’s presence. That is, they possess divine authority. Somewhat enigmaticallyhaving just urged people to eat his fleshhe says, It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail and that his words are Spirit and life. John plays here on the double meaning of flesh, using it here in a negative sense as a way of viewing the world influenced by human expectations and human prejudices. Spirit is openness to God’s revelation and in that sense gives life, just as God’s creative Spirit gave life to the world and his Spirit inspired Moses and the prophets.
Many of Jesus’ disciples return to their former life, and he turns to the Twelve and asks if they want to leave. Beyond problems with church teaching and practice, beyond active engagement in social concern and even personal struggles, there is Jesus present saying, Do you want also to leave? This is acutely symbolic of the choices facing people on their religious journey. Even the most profound revelation of Jesus, that he is God’s wisdom for humanity and that all who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have fullness of life, does not take away the mystery of human freedom. God’s gifts are extraordinary and inviting, but when faced with them, people can return to their former life. Amid often conflicting claims about what it means to be a Catholic today, we must hear Peter’s words to Jesus resounding through the centuries: To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.