Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" ….As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him (John 6:60, 66).
They went away. Of course they did. He spoke to them not merely in parables but in riddles that baffled even the brightest among them. It was all very well for him to talk about manna. They knew that story; of course they did. Some of them were doctors of the law after all, men who lived and breathed and taught Torah. Manna was clear: the Israelites were starving in the desert, they called out to God for help—though their prayer most often took the form of grumbling “why’s:” “Why have you done this to us?” “Why did you bring us out of Egypt with its luscious fleshpots, its melons, its leeks, to starve us to death here in this desert?” And, later, after the dailiness of manna got old, “Why can’t you vary the menu?” God listened as patiently as the parent of a two-year-old who has just learned the two key words of toddlerhood: “why?” and “no!” But God didn’t send them loaves of ready-baked bread, like the ones the angel brought to Elijah in the desert generations later (1 Kings 19:5-7). No, God sent them ingredients. They woke up in the morning to find the desert whitened with dew that evaporated under the sun and left behind something that looked like “fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground” (Ex16:14). Their first response wasn’t “We give you thanks, O almighty God, for these and all your benefits.” No, their first response was another question: “manna” means “what is it?” And without even knowing what it was, they had to figure out how to gather it up, how much to gather, and how to turn it into bread. (Can’t you just imagine the unrecorded conversations back home at the tent: “What do you mean, make it into bread? Look, I learned how to make bread at my mother’s knee. That is not flour! You see if you can make bread out of it!”) The hearers who found Jesus’ words so difficult seem to have forgotten all the questions. What they remember is: God gave it, the people ate it, all was well.
But Jesus was asking them for a bigger stretch of the mind than manna ever required. He served them up a platter of conundrums seasoned with distasteful hints of cannibalism and sweetened with an unexplained promise of “eternal life.” They couldn’t make any sense of it. Remember, the “bread from heaven” to which we are accustomed draws all its being and power from Jesus’ death and resurrection, but those staggering events hadn’t happened yet when Jesus first talked to them of his flesh made real food and his blood made real drink. What on earth was he talking about? Or, more accurately, what in heaven’s name was he talking about? They couldn’t get past the bad taste his words left in their mouths. So they went away.
It isn’t any wonder they left. What is a matter for wonder is that the followers from Galilee, not a teacher of the law among them, stayed. The words can’t have made any more sense to them then than they did to the others. But they had learned Jesus’ habit of tell-and-show. They had often heard him throw out strange statements like, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” followed by startling demonstrations like a man delivered from an evil spirit, or Simon’s mother-in-law healed or crowds of sick people made well by his word (see Mark 1). The stories make it clear that they didn’t quite understand those episodes either, not till later. But faith is born blind, like a kitten with eyes as yet unopened. The kitten might not be able to write the Summa Theologiae of its universe. It might not be able to explain “Mom” and “milk.” It might stumble around in the dark for a while. But every kitten has a pretty unerring sense of where to find Mom and milk, the sustenance of its life. The disciples couldn’t possibly have unraveled, then, the meaning of Jesus’ words, but they had crossed the divide the doubters couldn’t reach: they had chosen to put their faith in the Speaker, even when the meaning of his words left them behind, panting, “What is it?”
They wrestled with plenty of questions themselves. Some they asked, some they didn’t dare to. But they got the essential point long before they grasped the explanations. They caught a glimpse of “who” before they really understood “what” and “why.” So they stayed, not because of the words but because of the person: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life—(even though, they might have added, we have only the dimmest hold on what they mean, hindered as we are by the limitations of our experience, our language, our minds.”)
Things don't seem to have changed very much, even on this Easter side of the cross that makes it all possible. Even Jesus’ question remains the same: “Do you also want to go away?”
©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga