Jesus says in John 6:53-54, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Eating flesh and drinking blood? That sounds so strange, even to those of who have been around the church for a while and know that Jesus is talking about Holy Communion. To someone who is not familiar with the language of the church, these verses are absurd.
This statement caused a scandal even when Jesus first said it. Verse 60 says that many people responded by saying, “This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?” In verse 66 we are told that many people turned back and no longer followed Jesus.
A few years later, when the early church was being persecuted, one of the charges made against the believers was that they were cannibals. This was because informers who had infiltrated the worship services, heard the leaders speaking about eating and drinking someone’s body and blood. The first thing we have to do when we look at a reading like this is honestly acknowledge how bizarre it sounds.
But then the second thing we will want to do with a text like this, is, read it all the way through to the end, and see if that helps. I think it does. First, there is this difficult conversation and we are told that many people turn away from Jesus. Then, in verse 67 Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and said, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” Peter, speaking for the group replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter’s reply gives us the key to reading this strange text, and it can help us with those many other difficult verses in the Bible.
Think about this from Peter’s perspective. In this same chapter six the disciples saw Jesus feed five thousand hungry people with one boy’s lunch, and they saw Jesus walk on water. In other chapters, they saw Jesus heal the sick and the lame, give sight to the blind, restore hearing to the deaf, calm a storm at sea with a verbal command, and even raise the dead. Jesus had earned a great deal of credibility with these men. Now they heard him say something very strange and they probably were just as puzzled as the rest of the crowd. But they were remembering everything else Jesus said and did, so they were not about to leave.
However, notice Peter did not say, “Oh no, Jesus, why should we leave? We get it. Eating flesh and drinking blood?– no problem there for us.” Peter did not say that, and I am sure the twelve disciples were also scratching their heads in bewilderment. Peter did not say, “No problem,” but said, “Where else are we going to go, Jesus? You (and you alone) have the words of eternal life.”
Eternal life. Where else indeed would we go for that? It is not like Peter could say, “You are getting a little weird on us Jesus, so we are going to go find someone else that can raise the dead and promise us eternal life.” There weren’t any other offers on the table. There wasn’t then, and there isn’t now.
Peter’s words have taught me how to respond to these difficult words and others like them in the Bible. I will not attempt to sugar-coat any of this by searching the web for some lame explanation. I must acknowledge that there is much in the Bible that is still strange to me, even after all these years of reading it.
But first I must ask who am I to decide what makes sense and what sounds strange? It is not for me to stand in judgement over God’s Word. For many good reasons I, like the disciples, have come to believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, who visited this earth to die on the cross to save me from my sins, and then rose from the dead to offer me eternal life, and that there has never been anyone else like him. So when I come across something I do not understand, I am not going to walk away from Jesus. But I will acknowledge that I don’t understand it YET, and maybe never will in this life. But I am not going anywhere else, because there is nowhere else to go.
“Lord, to whom shall we go,” said Peter, “You have the words of eternal life.” (continued…)
John 6:66-68 — From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Acts 4:10-12 — Peter said, “Know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
John 14: — Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Eternal God, your wisdom is greater than our minds can attain, and your truth shows up our learning. To those who study, give curiosity, imagination, and patience enough to wait and work for insight. Help us to doubt with courage, but to hold all our doubts in the larger faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, 1993