Did you know that only once does the Bible record Jesus’ disciples leaving Him over something He taught?
It wasn’t like there was a shortage of opportunities. Jesus didn’t respect the strict Sabbath restrictions of the day. He went around forgiving sins. He claimed that to disobey Him was to incur the wrath of God. He claimed, in fact, to be the God who had revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. His behaviour was scandalous and His teachings contentious.
Yet none of these things made His disciples grumble, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” None of them led “many of his disciples to turn back and no longer walk with him.” None of them threatened His earthly ministry, including even the loyalty of the Twelve, like the claim, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
There’s a YouTube video I show my students, one that always has an impact on them. One girl even wrote afterwards in her journal that it left her “speechless.” It’s a talk called “The Hour that will Change your Life,” by Fr. Mike Schmitz, and it’s all about the intimacy Christ offers us – His body, blood, soul, and divinity – in the Eucharist.
In that talk, Fr. Mike looks closely at John 6, the passage in which Christ speaks at length about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Fr. Mike does a great job of explaining it, and it inspired me to pass the richness and truth of that passage on to you.
Protestant interpreters claim that Jesus is speaking metaphorically in John 6. After all, later in John’s gospel, the Lord says, “I am the vine,” “I am the gate,” and “I am the good shepherd,” and nobody disputes that He means those metaphorically. Protestants argue that the same goes for “I am the bread of life,” and, “This is my body.” What’s more, when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” He adds, “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn.6:35 ESV). They conclude, then, that the eating and drinking of Christ’s flesh and blood are merely graphic pictures of coming to Jesus and believing in Him, of the faith that unites us with Christ.
This interpretation carries water, though, only by focusing on Christ’s words and ignoring what’s actually happening in the passage. The Apostle John doesn’t give us a monologue of Christ’s. He gives us a dialogue between Christ and the Jews, disciples, and Apostles who were His audience. Most importantly, John shows us how Christ’s audience interpreted His words, and how Jesus responded to that interpretation. And when we pay close attention to that interaction, it becomes clear that John 6 is no metaphor.