One of the things John draws our attention to is the fact that Jesus is here to do more than to just witness to the truth. He is the truth, as he points out.
Because of that, John pays a lot of attention to what happens when Jesus confronts people who, to borrow Jack Nicholson’s phrase, “can’t handle the truth.” Like here, for instance. We join the tail end of a story that starts with Jesus feeding the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes. As you might imagine, this has drawn the crowds. Which would seem to be a good thing, right? More people around means the message spreads more quickly, and that’s what we want, of course.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to want the same thing, because he immediately begins teaching about himself in such strange and almost offensive terms that even some of the disciples who had followed him for some time decide they’re done. The ones who stay say, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
We don’t see that the same way, of course, because whenever Jesus speaks about his body and his blood, we think of communion. We’re familiar with the idea, and we’re familiar with the symbolic characteristics of what he says.
Not these folks, though. First, they’ve never heard of communion. Second, they have a bunch of laws about eating human flesh and drinking any blood, let alone human blood. Their holiest teachings, from God himself and given through Moses, condemn those practices in no uncertain terms. Drinking blood, the life of the body, offends God, the creator of life. Eating human flesh mimics the pagans surrounding Israel who sacrificed their own children on idol’s altars and ate parts of them afterwards.
If you want to get a sense of what they’re feeling, think of something that’s really repulsive to you. Now imagine Jesus telling you that following him is somehow like doing that very same repulsive thing.
No wonder people walked away. If following Jesus meant turning their backs on what God had always taught them, then they would have nothing to do with it.
Some stayed, though. Jesus looks at them, and asks if they will leave him also. Peter speaks for them. “Where else could we go? You have the words of life.”
Somehow, Peter understands something the walkaways don’t. He knows what he’s heard makes no sense according to what he knows about God, and about what God wants from his people. It makes no sense according to his way of looking at the world. In fact, it makes no sense according to the way Jesus was supposed to look at the world, either, since Jesus was as much a Jew as the disciples themselves.
But Peter has the faith to believe that there is somehow sense behind the nonsense that he’s hearing. Jesus hasn’t yet told the disciples that he is the way and the truth and the life, but Peter and those who stay seem to have some awareness that he is.
We might think that’s pretty good, and in many ways it is, but look at all of what Peter says. “Lord, where else would we go?” Are those the words of someone who’s checking out the seven habits of the highly purpose-driven life? Do they sound like someone who believe’s he’s found a quick and easy prayer to say to get all he wants out of life?
They don’t to me. They sound like a man who’s drowning in the ocean and has found exactly one thing he can cling to to float on. They sound like someone who doesn’t care how undignified or weird or crazy or even bizarre he has to be in order to hold on.
And if any idea in the history of ideas is weirder than the gospel, I couldn’t tell you what it was. The idea that a God who could make the universe would care about us? Or that he’d love us enough to let us reject him and everything he’d done? Or that he’d still love us after we did that and wouldn’t even let our own sins and limitations keep us away from him? Wonderful, but weird.
We sometimes have too many options around us, so we don’t realize we’re in the same position Peter and the rest are in. We’re able to handle a lot of what life gives us most of the time, so we can overlook our desperate need for those words of life. Every now and then, though, stuff hits us that that makes us turn to God and say, “Leave you? I’ve got no place else to go.”
That’s when God awakens us to the difference between “no place to go” and “no place else to go.” In words, it seems small, but in reality, it’s the difference between hope and despair, between life and death.