The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes in great detail an event which was the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry. This was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by the lakeside in Galilee, which in turn led to Jesus’s discourse on the ‘bread of life’. Not all who heard the discourse reacted positively, however. Many of the crowd, as well as some disciples felt that Jesus was exaggerating, and some were turned off by his insistence on “eating my flesh and drinking my blood”. They broke with him for good.
Disappointed, Jesus turns to his group of twelve disciples: “Will you also go away?” he asks. Peter responds magnificently in words similar to another confession of faith made earlier: “Lord, to whom shall we go ? Your words are the words of eternal life. We have faith, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Why was the multiplication of bread and fish a turning point in Jesus’s ministry? For one, it was a major public event astonishing in its impact, and which couldn’t be concealed. For someone to have miraculous power like this meant only one thing: that person must be the messiah ! The crowds would make Jesus king by force.
But Jesus has another definition of what ‘messiah’ is to be, and he evades the crowd and sends his disciples off as well. The next day, at Capernaum, he challenges his audience. Do not labour for earthly food, no matter how filling, he says. Strive for heavenly food which alone satisfies forever. By ‘heavenly food’ Jesus means the plans of God. What he asks is that the crowds accept the ‘reign of God’ in their lives. The symbol for this is his ‘flesh and blood’, his very person. To accept the ‘body and blood’ of Jesus means accepting his values in our lives, and living by his standards. The one who does so is nourished by ‘heavenly food’.
But this the Jews cannot accept. They persist in understanding him literally, and they part company with him.
Saddened by this rejection, Jesus turns to the men he has chosen. Peter replies on behalf of all with a profession of faith, a commitment of trust. You are in some special way a prophet, Peter says, someone whom God has specially blessed. Your words are not ordinary; they give us eternal life. We have come to understand this, and cherish this relationship. How can we leave you now? Where would we go?
Jesus accepts Peter’s loyalty and blesses it. It’s true, God chooses us; and yet our response to his choice is also vital. Among the 12 Jesus had chosen, there was at least one who would not measure up, and who would let him down tragically when he most needed it.