Summary: Instead of removing barriers to faith, Jesus erects them. Why?
The story we have read together today is surprising in many ways. The way Jesus handles this situation is confusing, because some of the things Jesus are saying are upsetting his followers, and it seems that he does not make it easier, but harder for them. Our natural instinct is to take down any barriers in people’s way and help them get past those barriers. If someone finds something hard to understand we want to explain it. If someone finds something difficult we want to make it easier. If there is something in their way we want to move it. And certainly this is what we would expect of Jesus. But what is surprising is that this is not what Jesus does. Instead of making it easier to believe, he seems to make it harder. Instead of opening a door, he seems to erect a barrier. Earlier in the chapter Jesus has fed the multitudes. They follow him because they have experienced the miracle. They believe in him. It is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to add to the number of his disciples. They appear to be on his side. But Jesus says to them, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27).
He begins gently. He has healed them and fed them, but now he points them beyond the satisfaction of their physical needs to their eternal, spiritual needs. He promises to give them the bread of life of which he is speaking. But this is not the kind of bread they were thinking about. Jesus said, “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They respond by saying, “Sir, from now on give us this bread” (John 6:33-34). They still do not understand what he means, and he explains that he is the bread he is talking about, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). But they do not understand the metaphor and are offended. It says they, “began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (John 6:41).
If they are upset by what he is saying, maybe it is time to move onto something else, but he not only repeats what he said, but adds to the offense. He says, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51).
At this point you have to understand that the Jews had very strict dietary laws. There were Kosher foods and foods they would never think of eating. Pork was one meat they would never eat, and if they did they would be unclean. And cannibalism, well, that was in another category altogether. So when he said that the bread he was talking about was his flesh, it offended them greatly. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?,” they said. Now this would be a good time to soft-pedal it. But Jesus makes it worse by saying: “I tell you the truth, 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 him up at the last dy. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56). I think you would have had to actually be a part of that culture, and be in that crowd at the time, to realize the provocative impact this had on the people there. If you read this in the original language of the New Testament you realize that Jesus makes things even worse by a change of verbs. When earlier he talks of “eating his flesh” he uses the simple word for “eat” (esthio). But then in verses 54 onward, he uses the verb trogo, which not only means “to eat”, but in the sense of “to chew, gnaw or crunch”. They were already offended and he makes his statement even more offensive. At this, the Bible says that the people said to each other, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.