You have the message of eternal life, and we believe! (Jn 6:69)
With today’s gospel reading we conclude the five weeks of reflection on the Bread of Life from John 6. This conclusion offers a mixed sense of reaction to whatever has preceded in Chapter 6. On the one hand, some disciples have found the saying of Jesus, “Whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (verse 57), very hard to accept. They say, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” (verse 60). As a consequence, “many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him” (verse 66). On the other hand, this crisis offers Jesus an opportunity to test the commitment of the Twelve: “What about you, do you want to go away too?” (verse 67). As a response to the pensive question of Jesus, we have the confession of Peter, according to the Gospel of John – which takes place in a different setting as compared to the synoptic gospels: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (verses 68-69).
I would like to focus on two very important related concepts that are mentioned in the gospel text of today, which are very dear to the Evangelist John: the contrast between spirit and flesh, and the expression, “Eternal Life”.
Spirit and Flesh: Layers of Desires
St Augustine famously prayed, “Oh Master, give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Most of us have similar sentiments about most desires of our hearts, not merely about chastity. It is only that St Augustine is so humorously vocal about it. What we see in this prayer is a tension between spirit and flesh. We could interpret “flesh” as not just the body, but as referring to the short-sighted mundane tendencies with us that pull us towards immediate gratification, whereas, “spirit” is the transcendent-God-given desire within us to go beyond the self to commune with the God made visible in Jesus.
What Augustine is expressing is a desire to be chaste (which perhaps is at a deeper level), but there is also a desire to be wayward. If one gets constantly swayed by the shallow desires then they might end up being sucked into a downward spiral. The result is emptiness, and in due course, frustration and unhappiness. That is why Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer” (Jn 6:63).
This expression of Jesus invites me to examine the layers of desires within me. My heart is like an ocean with different currents. Even if they are related, they are operating at different levels. For instance, there could be, at a deeper level within us, a desire to leave a legacy behind, but at a shallow level there could be a desire to be popular and famous. Both are related, but if I focus on the shallow desire I might lose myself in overworking and getting burnt-out, or in putting down others in the competition to be popular. On the other hand, if I focus on the desire to leave a legacy, I might achieve what I want more gracefully, including the legacy of good relationships.
The prayer of St Augustine typifies the tension with us between the ever-present movement towards God and a counter-movement away from God. The tension between the spirit and flesh is so real. There is the constant struggle within me. There is a tension between the choice for the Living God and the gods of the Amorites (as proposed by Joshua in the first reading of today); there is a tension between stopping to go with Jesus and declaring like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” Yes, it is only when I recognize the deepest desire:
to be one with God forever, and make choices towards that desire, that I fulfil the very purpose of my life. The outcome is eternal life. What is eternal life?
Eternal life: Life in God
It is not rare in Christian conversations to pick up a perception that most Christians have: that eternal life equals heaven. Pope Benedict XVI in his book, Jesus of Nazareth (Vol.1) says,
‘Eternal life’ is not – as the modern reader might immediately assume – life after death, in contrast to this present life, which is transient and not eternal. Eternal life is life itself, real life, which can also be living in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death. This is the point: to seize ‘life’ here and now, real life that can no longer be destroyed by anything or anyone. Eternal life is thus a relational event… Through relationship with the one who is himself life (God in Jesus), man too comes alive.
Let us try to understand this. We say God is eternal. So, communing with God, that is, sharing in the life of God, is eternal life. And St Augustine defines eternity as “a continuous now”. For God, there is no past and future but only the now. And God is here. Therefore, eternal life is here and now.
There is a story told of Swami Vivekananda, an Indian sage and philosopher who lived in the 19th century. Once, when Swami Vivekananda was due to deliver a lecture at a university, an atheist student had gone well before time and had written on the blackboard, “GOD IS NOWHERE.” When Vivekananda came to the hall he saw the sentence. He walked up to the black board as if to begin his talk, he simply separated the words, “NOW” and “HERE” from the word “NOWHERE” and wrote “GOD IS NOW HERE.” He was accorded a thunderous applause from the entire gathering which was thrilled by his wit.
Do we really believe that God is now here? He is here and now!
What Chapter 6 of John has brought to our attention is that it is possible to commune with God, to share in eternal life, by eating the flesh of Jesus! This is quite straight-forward: when I eat the bread which is the body of Christ it becomes part of me, and I become one with Christ. So I become one with God! Here and now! At this point the tension between the flesh and spirit disappears into eternity. Yes, Jesus says, “Whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (Jn 6:57).
So, we pray, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.