We come here to the climax of the ‘bread of life’ discourse. Even the disciples of hear it think this is a ‘hard saying’. St Augustine notes that they may well have taken it in a literal sense, since the word Jesus uses for ‘eat’ – ‘trogo’ – can also be translated as ‘gnawing’. So, they, and the other listeners may well have thought he was talking about cutting his own flesh into pieces for eating; they had not yet the grace to know the real meaning of his words. When he speaks of the ascension of the Son of Man, they should have been able to work out from what he said previously about only the one who had come down from heaven having seen the Father, that he was that person; we see here, if we understand him aright, the doctrine of what we call the Trinity
Tertullian warns us against misreading ‘the flesh profits nothing’ in a gnostic sense, meaning that flesh is worthless. This has to be read in context. The context is that they have misunderstood him to mean that actually eating his incarnate flesh will bring eternal life. It is, rightly, emphasised that only the Spirit brings eternal life – the flesh does nothing to that end. Flesh has great value when joined to the Spirit – were that not so, then the Word would not have become flesh to santify our sinful flesh. As St Ambrose tells us, where there is the Spirit, there is life, and where life is, there is the Spirit.
St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that the body of Christ was sanctified by the power of the Spirit; it is endowed with living force in the blessed Eucharist so that it can implant in us its sanctifying grace. The flesh, as human flesh alone, prevaileth not at all, but when it is the temple of the Word, it is a channel of sanctification and grace to those who receive him.
Augustine adds that Jesus teaches us that the act of believing is itself a gift, and has in it nothing of merit for us – no man can come to Jesus unless he is dragged by the Father. Note well that word ‘drags’ – violence happens to the heart and not the flesh- we are moved by love to love.
But what is this we see, Jerome asks? Here is truth from the Word made flesh. He does not change his ‘hard saying’ to make it more acceptable, he repeats it, and many walk with him no more. The truth is hard to hear, it has always been so and will be so always – and there will always, too, be those who will walk away from it, preferring their own views. There is, here, Tertullian tells us, a winnowing of the chaff. Peter and the Apostles, though there is much they fail to grasp, know he is the Word of Life, and they stay. As St John later finds, men go out even from the Church because they were never really part of it.
St Athanasius points out that Jesus does nothing to persuade anyone to stay with him; all are free to go, but those who know he has the Word of Life will stay. It is not, as St Cyril, Athanasius’ disciple, says, the number of the faithful that matters, it is the possession of the right faith – few though these may be, they are precious in the eys of God Almighty. Peter speaks for all such when he says ‘to whom shall we go?’ There is none other, only Christ, by whose name we can be saved.