Jesus’ complicated discourse in this Sunday’s Gospel reading makes sense when one considers human life as ancient Israelites understood it. Human flesh was ’adamah, “clay.” Moving air, called ruah, or “spirit,” animated this clay when it entered the bloodstream. The fusion of blood and breath happened in the nephesh, a word that means both “throat” and “soul.” The clay, thus literally “inspired,” exhibited a quality called chai, “life.” In this way of thinking, the flesh needed food to function, but it needed ruah, spirit, to live and move.
‘The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.’ (Jn 6:63)
What hopes drew you to Christ?
Does Christ challenge or fulfill those hopes?
How have you “gnawed” your way to the Spirit?
A special type of ruah came from God, and this “holy” spirit marked out individuals who served God in a special way. God’s spirit made Israelite leaders fierce in battle and wise in judgment. Divine spirit also filled the prophets’ nephesh, their throat, and allowed them to speak divine words.
Prophets were human and could garble the transmission of God’s message. Jesus was different. He was fluent in divine language and could communicate God’s word exactly. The Gospel is not inspired by divine breath, it is that breath in concrete form. Whenever Christ’s disciples conform their lives to it, they encounter the divine ruah that sustained Jesus through life and brought him back from the dead.
A desire for encounter with God was not foremost in the minds of many of the people in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. They were hoping for more of the miraculous bread that Jesus had served them the day before. Jesus challenged them to think beyond food: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” His shocking language was intentional. When he taught people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he invited them to “gnaw” their way through his example to the same divine ruah that gave him life, to take it in and make it their own.
Not all were ready for these words. Some heard only disturbing gibberish. Peter was among those who caught a glimpse of the deeper meaning. A disciple who believed in Jesus would not just be rewarded at some future point. To believe in Jesus and savor his teachings allowed one to start sharing immediately in the divine spirit that conferred eternal life. This, he realized, was the true bread that Jesus offered.
Peter believed but still struggled at times to follow. Disciples must reinforce their act of faith daily by living according to the Gospel before its words will have any effect. Every time Christ’s disciples conform their lives to the Gospel, they draw more deeply from divine ruah that will sustain their nephesh and chai even in the face of death.
In every age, many of Christ’s disciples reached a point at which they too said, “This saying is hard, who can accept it?” Like the hungry crowds seeking miraculous food, it is easy to pursue Jesus for reasons that have nothing to do with divine love. Discipleship can provide power, status, knowledge and feelings of righteousness. None of these are true bread. Instead, we are called to be like the one who places himself each day as a simple piece of bread into the hands of countless others.