Gospel: John 6:60-69
Reasons for Leaving, Reasons for Staying
Why do you like to go to Church? What holds you in weekly worship when there are so many other things to do on Sunday?
Why do people leave the Church? Maybe this is the wrong question to ask. Shouldn't we pose a different question? Why do so many people go to Mass when there are so many other things to do on a Sunday? Doesn't sleeping in, reading the Sunday paper at a leisurely pace, sharing a relaxing brunch, or watching an exciting NFL game sound so much better than Sunday worship? But people still show up for Mass, week after week. Why?
Does Mass just fulfill a personal need? Or, does the need run deeper? Does the need begin and end with Jesus?
Jesus told the crowd his flesh was the bread God sent from heaven. He also said that anyone who ate of his flesh and drank his blood would live forever.
60 After they heard what Jesus said, many of his followers complained, "The words of Jesus are hard to accept. Who can stand to listen to what he says?"
61 Jesus already knew they were grumbling. "So, what I said bothers you? 62 What would you say if you saw the Son of Man return to heaven where he came from?
63 It is God's Spirit that can give you true life. You
can't get that life by yourselves.
My words bring you God's Spirit and his life.
64 But, there are some of you that don't trust me." (From the start, Jesus had known some followers didn't trust him. Jesus also had known the follower who would hand him over to the leaders in Jerusalem.) 65 "This is why I have told you no one can be my follower," Jesus continued,"unless he receives an invitation directly from my Father."
66 From then on, many of his followers left Jesus. 67 So, Jesus asked the Twelve, "Don't you want to leave, too?"
67 "Lord, who else would we want to follow?" Simon Peter answered. "You speak the words that lead to eternal life. We have trusted you all this time. And we have come to know that you are God's Holy One."
Relationships come go in life. But real friends remain faithful through thick and thin. John's gospel presented the problem of fidelity in a very straight forward way. Some will leave. Some will stay.
60 Having heard (what JESUS said) many of HIS disciples then said, "This word is hard. Who is able to hear it?"
6:60 "Having heard (what JESUS said)" referred to Jesus' discourse in John 6:25-59, not a particular phrase he used.
"This word is hard. Who is able to hear it?" In this context, the word "hard" means "difficult" or "hard to accept." The verb "to hear" in the question does not refer to the ability to understand what is said but to fully acquiesce to the statements made. At the time of Jesus, the student or disciple was to accept and absorb the teacher's content. Only when the student mastered all the teacher provided could the student become a fellow teacher. Only then could the new student make judgements on his old teacher's content. So, implicit in the rhetorical question "Who can hear it?" lay the rejection of Jesus as a teacher (and as Lord). By asking the question, many who followed Jesus left him.
The gospel today presents us with the problem of faithfulness.
John's focus turned from the general audience to the followers of Jesus; some of Jesus' disciples had a hard time accepting his message. Indeed, their comment and rhetorical question already indicated they would leave the company of Jesus. This represented a significant breach of social value. Beneath the social standards of honor and shame stood the virtue of loyalty. Jesus' culture was built on fidelity to family and country. Such loyalty carried over to personality-dominated groups like the following of Jesus. Followers had an intense commitment to a charismatic leader, while their commitment to each other was superficial, at best.
Such intense loyalty could only be rejected by a higher social value: shame. Remember the words of Jesus to the crowd in John 6:53-58:
53 So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever." (RSV)
Jesus spoke words that so scandalized his Jewish audience, those words implicitly brought shame upon followers whose social status could be hurt by their association with the Nazarene. (See last week's study for details.) So, not only did the words of Jesus cause division and scandal. Following Jesus brought scandal and shame.
In the end, discipleship required total commitment, total loyalty.
61 But, JESUS, having known on his own that his disciples grumbled about this, said to them, "This offends you? 62 (What would happen) if you saw the SON OF MAN go up where HE was before? 63 The Spirit is the one giving life. The flesh gains (the person) nothing. The words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. 64 But, there are some of you that do not trust (ME)" [JESUS had known from the beginning who were the ones not trusting (HIM) and who was the one handing him over.] 65 HE was saying, "Because of this, I have told you that no one is able to come to ME, unless it has been given to him by the Father."
6:61 " having known on his own that his disciples grumbled about this" This statement was a reference to a "supernatural" knowledge, a way John hinted at Jesus' divinity.
6:63 "flesh" refers to human nature. Without the Spirit, we cannot understand God's ways, much less believe.
"The words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and life." Jesus' words are God's instruments. They bring the listener in relationship with the Father. Since a Christian can only have such a relationship through the power of the Spirit, Jesus' very words communicate the Spirit to the believer. In addition, the result of a relationship with the Father, through his Son, and in the power of his Spirit is eternal life. Jesus' words are conduits to life everlasting. Hence, Jesus can rightly claim his very words communicate Spirit and eternal life.
6:65 "unless it has been given to him by the Father." is a passive construction. It can be translated "unless the Father gives him the power."
Jesus replied to the rhetorical question of the fallen away Christians with one of his own. What would you do if you witnessed the return of Jesus in glory to the Father?  Of course, a true Christian has already seen the glory of the risen Christ through eyes of faith. So, witnessing God's power and faith were intertwined; someone could not see the glory of God without faith. Faith came from God (i.e., the Spirit and life in 6:62 and the will of the Father in 6:65), not from culture (the "flesh" in 6:63). When faith and culture collided, there would be controversy and apostasy [64, 66].
As a final note, faith involved trust. Those followers who fell away only did so because they did not trust Jesus. Their reasons for joining the Christian community could have been temporal (i.e., prayer and fellowship brought temporary relief from a personal problem or excitement from spiritual ecstasy). Or, their reasons could have been social (i.e., fellowship in the community brought honor or certain social advantages.) When prayer did not bring spiritual relief, when the spiritual "high" was gone, when fellowship did not satisfy one's social agenda, when social pressure against fellowship became so great, leaving became a viable and desired option. Given a choice, those who wanted to leave would leave.
For all the reasons people gave for leaving the community, trust in Jesus would not be listed. Those who stayed remained because of Jesus.
66 From this (time on), many of his disciples went off, away to (other) things, and no longer walked about with HIM. 67 Then JESUS said to the Twelve, "Do you not want to leave?" 68 Simon Peter answered, "Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have trusted (YOU) and have known that YOU are the Holy One of God."
In the face of controversy, why should a Christian remain faithful? From a practical standpoint, one remained faithful even through persecution because the alternatives have such a greater price. The ones left remained simply because they had found their hearts' true desire and there is no other place to go . For the Christian, the words of Christ led to eternal life. And the One who spoke them was God's Holy Son. Nothing else could replace Christ or his words.
Catechism Theme: Wounds to Christian Unity (CCC 817)
Faith in Christ does indeed bring scandal. But many leave the Catholic Church or Christianity itself because of sinfulness. Power, possessions, and position can drive more away than the scandal of faith. Each must take responsibility for his or her actions and their consequences, no matter which side he or she may stand.
But, just because one leaves the Church or joins another congregation does not mean God has rejected him or her. Those in other Churches and ecclesial communities offer their followers means of sanctification: God's written word and a life of grace (the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, along with the gifts of the Spirit). Those washed in the waters of Baptism and living a life of faith have the right to be called Christian. Even those who reject Christ and his Church are called to return by means we may never know. So, those who leave the Catholic Church for another community, and those who leave Christianity altogether need to be treated with respect and charity, not distance and disdain. For our actions may be part of God's plan that will eventually bring the lost back to Christ and the fullness of Christian life.
Do you know of someone who has left the Church or rejected Christ? What sort of relationship do you have with that person? How can you help them return?
In an era of "cafeteria Christianity" let us remember why we are Catholics, but let us also empathize with those who have doubts. Let us lead those in a faith crisis by prayer, compassion, and honesty. Finally, let us remember that faith and faithfulness are gifts from God. We cannot impose them on others.
Take a moment to reflect on your relationship with Christ. How has your trust in Jesus grown with your maturity in the Christian life? Where would you like to take that relationship? Where do you think Christ wants to take that relationship? Take a few steps closer to Christ this week.