For five weeks we have been reading the long discourse on the bread of life and reflecting on the Eucharist. But in today's gospel, Jesus talks about the mystery of faith.
Up to this point Jesus has been addressing crowds who followed him because they wanted more bread. Their motivation is understandable. It is estimated that barley and other grain crops provided about two thirds of the diet of ordinary people. To be short of bread was to face the possibility of starvation. In order to keep the ordinary people content the powerful often distributed bread or grain.
So when Jesus gives him bread to eat, the crowds want to make him a king because they think he is behaving like a king. These people are not are not untypical of their time and place in that they have no interest in anything but bread. But they completely fail to understand what Jesus is about. The profound significance of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is lost on them. They fail to grasp what Jesus means when he says that he is the true bread, sent to them by God. So when they realise that he is not giving more bread, they lose interest in him.
Jesus contrasts the bread which perishes with the bread which 'endures to eternal life'. The crowds were looking for something which would sustain them physically, he is offering himself, the gift which will sustain them eternally. The crowds were thinking of how, when Moses led their ancestors through the wilderness, they were given manna to eat. But here Jesus identifies himself not with Moses, but rather with the gift of spiritual food. This is a radical shift, which demands a new way of understanding what God is doing in the world.
In Jewish tradition, the image of bread was sometimes used to refer to the Law of Moses. Here the scripture is no longer 'bread', but rather the scripture witnesses to the one who is the true bread. What the scripture promises Jesus actually delivers in his own person. The crowds cannot see this for the see only their own want, not their true need. And of course, there are times in all of our lives when we are like the crowds. We may profess faith in the crucified Christ with our lips but in our hearts we want him to be the king who gives us what we want rather than what we truly need.
In today's Gospel it is those who are called followers of Jesus who cannot accept what Jesus says about giving them his flesh to eat and blood to drink so that they might have eternal life. Of course, his language suggests the crucifixion, for in order to drink blood it must first be shed. John tells us that 'many of the disciples left him and stopped going with him'.
While this language clearly suggests the Eucharist, we must remember that Jesus is also talking about faith. To eat the bread of life and to believe in the crucified Christ are presented as the way to receive eternal life. Faith in the crucified Christ is central to these passages. These followers cannot believe and go away. They had not received the gift of faith, which comes from the Father. To have the gift of faith is to be able to commit oneself completely to Christ. But this they cannot do.
Their failure to believe, and Christ's calling himself the bread of life, foreshadow a scene later in the Gospel, when crowds gathered to stare at Christ dying on the cross. We might recall the Song of the Suffering Servant which is read on Good Friday.
As the crowds were appalled on seeing him
so disfigured did he look
that he seemed no longer human
When the crowds and the would-be followers have gone, only a few remain. At the cross there will be even fewer. But here there are twelve. This is the first time that John speaks of the Twelve. Of course it is the Twelve who will preach the crucified Christ. They will preach Christ as he is, not as we might want him to be.
The passage from Isaiah continues,
So will the crowds be astonished at him
and kings stand speechless before him,
for they shall see something never told
and witness something never heard before.
It is the Twelve who will 'see something never told and witness something never heard' -- and be given the grace to preach the crucified Christ, to the whole world. They were called and chosen for this task just as we in our day have been called and chosen to continue in their steps. It is by this preaching and witness that the crowds -- men and women of every race and nation -- will come to true faith in Christ.