Portable Commentary

22 August 2021

Thought for the day  
“Do you also wish to go away” has a very contemporary feel to it, as so many have indeed gone away. It does raise questions: Why am I still here? What still draws me? Our personal response very likely takes some form of “we have come to believe and we know.” We should not be afraid to name the experiences which ground our convictions and so make sense of our continued faithfulness.

Mysterious God, your Word to us in Christ reaches deeply into the human heart, drawing us towards you. May we never lose heart and continue on the great pilgrimage of the Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 6:60
  When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

John 6:66   Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

Initial observations
“This teaching is difficult” has of course been the experience of many in the congregation. Often the difficulty lies with the ethical teaching of the Church. However, the focus here is not this or that aspect of Christian doctrine, but the person of Christ and his death on the cross. These are difficult topics. In our experience today as believing community, “many” have walked away from the community of faith, for a variety of reasons, complex and simple. For those who have remained, an inevitable question arises, “Do you also wish to go away?” We should be able to give, at least to ourselves, an account of the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

What have I come to know and believe about Jesus? In the Catholic tradition, we hold to reasonable faith. This is not to say that faith can be fully converted into concepts and logic. However, faith does not invite us to live in two worlds, the reasonable and the religious, but on the contrary to live in one world, with the different dimensions in coherent dialogue. Otherwise, as individuals we are “divided against ourselves” and cannot stand, the very opposite of a holistic, integrating experience of faith. To go back to the Markan version of this scene, the fundamental question remains, “Who do you say I am?” It may be some consolation to notice that a dramatic sequence which began with crowds and others evolved in conflict now closes with just Jesus and those who believe in him. A certain sifting has taken place.

Kind of writing
The reader is invited to glance one final time at the chart below, which outlines the sequence of this chapter. As can be seen, we are at the conclusion of the great chapter 6. A kind of summing up and a challenge are both presented. This time, the selection of the verses is quite good—the addition in these notes of the last two verses serves to point us to the cross, just as v. 62 points to the resurrection.

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Old Testament background

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Gen 28:10-12)

New Testament foreground
(a) This challenging scene, with the great question and the key response of Peter, is really the Johannine “reception” of scene on the way to Caesarea Philippi.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)

(b) Ascending and descending
And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

(c) Johannine Schism
Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. (1 John 2:18–20)

(d) Drawn by the Father
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:5)
John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. (John 3:27)
No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. (John 6:44)

St Paul
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:22-25)

Brief commentary
Verse 60 Probably reflecting the experience of the Johannine community. On account of the high Christology of the leader, it is likely that a schism took place, as seen in the First Letter of John. The teaching which gives so much trouble is that of the identity, death and resurrection of Jesus. To complain is part of the echo of the Moses theme. Cf. John 6:41, 43, 61; 7:32.
Verse 61 The message here is that if the cross “bothers” you, what about the resurrection? The Jesus of John’s gospel doesn’t make it easier but harder! A different use of the same word offers consolation at the Last Supper: “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling (scandalised). (John 16:1)
Verse 62 This unfinished and obscure sentence points to the resurrection, but in the language of John 3:11-15. Reference to Jacob is rich. The most obvious references are in the story of the woman at the well, but it is elsewhere. See the texts under NT foreground (b) above, but also: When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite (i.e. descendant of Israel/Jacob) in whom there is no deceit! (contrary to Jacob, who was full of deceit)” (John 1:47)
Verse 63 Perhaps an echo of the Synoptic saying in Gethsemane—one of the many indicators that we are to think of the end of Jesus’ life in this chapter. However, the words “spirit” and “life” have an extended and profound resonance in the Fourth Gospel.
Verse 64 Likewise, the emotive word “betray” takes us directly to the last days of Jesus. Believe is a highly significant verb in this Gospel, occurring no fewer than 98 times. The verb “to betray” is in Greek “to hand over.” In the earlier NT traditions it is God who “hands over” Jesus. In this Gospel, Jesus himself at the end “hands over” the Holy Spirit. So, it can be positive as well as negative.
Verse 65 The mystery of grace and faith—an riddle then as now. Cf. the texts in the under NT Foreground (d)
Verse 66 Not only did “the Jews” walk away, but also some of the disciples. Again, this reflects the later schism in the Johannine community, which appears also in the First Letter (see the NT foreground above). To turn back has an intriguing usage in this Gospel: When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. (John 18:6) When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. (John 20:14)
Verse 67 Astonishing freedom in the question! This is John’s version of “Who do you say I am”. It is typically oblique.
Verse 68 The answer of Peter comes in the language of John. This gospel so far has been a quest for the Messiah—John’s disciples, Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman and so forth. Peter voices the experience that the quest has come to rest in Jesus himself. In the light of Synoptic tradition, there is an edge to the confession (Mk 1:24; Lk 4:34).
Verse 69 Notice the plural—this is the credal language of the Johannine community.
Verse 70 The dark side is not shirked, in verses omitted by the lectionary. The language is very strong.
Verse 71 A sad and dramatic note from the editor to the reader, “although one of the twelve”. This is an important indication that the final Passover is also in view.

Pointers for prayer
1. In this chapter Jesus teaches that the meaning of his life, and the meaning of all human life, lies in being prepared to give of oneself. When have you learned that life was more worthwhile when you were prepared to do that?
2. “This teaching is difficult”, complained his hearers, including some of his own followers. Perhaps at times you also have wondered if you could go along with it. What helped you to overcome your resistance?
3. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” In the midst of your doubts perhaps you have held on to belief because, like Peter, Jesus offered you a more hopeful message than you could find anywhere else. How has the gospel message been more attractive to you than any other?
4. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”. Recall the teachings of Jesus have particularly spoken to you.

In every age, O God, you give your people freedom to walk in faith or turn away.
Grant us grace to remain faithful to your Holy One, whose words are spirit and life, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.