I personally don't understand God as being this exclusive. I believe that God desires a personal, deep relationship with all of His creation and it is through the depth of that relationship that we're spiritually nourished. As I see it, the purpose of our lives is to provide us with opportunities to grow into that deeper relationship. If there is any exclusivity, it's our resisting the deepening relationship with God; excluding Him from our lives.
At the end of our time together that evening I privately shared how this particular passage spoke to me with someone who seemed particularly troubled. That's what I'd like to do below in an expanded form.
For me, it's helpful, to start with a larger context for this reading. Jesus (John 6:1-15) had just performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000 men with 5 barley loaves and 2 fishes.
Further in the Gospel (John 6:26-35) Jesus begins to provide some clarity:
26 ... “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. 27 Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.... 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.” ... 32 So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
Then the shocking message begins to be revealed in John 6:47-59:
47 Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 50 this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” ... 53 Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
As his audience hears this they react as I imagine anyone who is thinking about a purely physical existence would:
60 Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” 61 Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? ... 63 It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. ... 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.”...65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” 66 As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. 67 Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
I've highlighted the words that help me make sense of this. Jesus differentiate between our physical and material needs (the flesh) and our deeper, internal needs (the spirit). I don't see Jesus saying that the physical and material needs are unnecessary (many of his miracles are about taking care of people's physical needs such as the feeding of the 5,000 that beings this chapter of John) just that our attachment to satisfying them is overly exaggerated!.
To me, Jesus is saying that spending all our time and energy taking care of physical and material needs is insufficient, we need to feed our interior, spiritual selves which supports our authentic life at a deeper and more satisfying level and which allows us to share in this authentic life with others thus sustaining them and us.
We can, and must, have physical nourishment to exist physically and have to take care of our material needs. However, we all know that we eat and after a while we'll eat again when we're hungry. When we get something new materially (perhaps a new car or a bigger, nicer house) we're satisfied with it and then that satisfaction wears off and we begin to pursue something else. This is an endless pattern we follow until our physical bodies age and wel eventually die.
When we feed our spirit (our inner self), we are nourishing the part of us that gives us deeper existence and satisfaction. This satisfaction is something that deepens and, overtime, satisfies us in a richer way. Unlike our physical existence, which is temporary, our spiritual existence continues into eternity. So nourishing and developing this self has lasting value. It sustains us as it also sustains those in the world ("the life of the the world.")
Furthermore, I understand this spiritual food to be beyond Jesus' words or even just his actions, it's his very life. For me, the life of Jesus' (his being and how he lived) is the "bread that comes down from heaven" . "Eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood" is his complete offer of the entirety of his being to us. We are called to take him in completely and in so doing be transformed into Christ fully alive in us. (As described in Symeon the New Theologian's writing in my last Blog entry.) This is our awakening to Christ living through us, with us and in us in our daily lives and actions. This intimate union with Christ is so that we become his flesh and blood in the world and realize his spirit into eternity.
As his listeners in the Gospel (and perhaps us as well) say : "This saying is hard, who can accept it." and "as a result many of his disciples returned to their former way of life". Jesus asks "Does this shock you?". He provides the necessary clarity which leads to the point that is perhaps most often misunderstood: "For this reason I have told you, no one can come to me unless granted by my Father."
Jesus is helping us recognize the truth that we cannot live the "shocking" demands of a deeply Spiritual life by ourselves. To do so requires God's grace and intimate relationship. It's easy to have an external faith based on receiving God's outward, physical assistance and consolations ("you are looking for me ... because you ate the loaves and were filled") ; this, however, requires little transformation from us.
But, to live our live the radical example of the life Jesus lived, requires us to develop an intimate relationship with God and the help of his grace. Through the consent and surrender of our will we open ourselves to be able to embrace the life Jesus exemplified. It's through the power of God's grace that allows us to commit and follow through.
As Jesus shows through this Gospel, there's no backing down from this striking truth, and most of us are not ready, willing or able yet to surrender and accept it. For many of us, radical consent and surrender requires some event or life circumstance that completely challenges our own belief and reliance in ourselves and in our ordinary physical and material experience of reality. This "dying" to what we have taken as certain, necessary and comfortable, helps us to know the words of Simon Peter in this Gospel: "to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
It's at the point of crisis in our lives when we are most open to a genuine relationship to God and his graces. Those moments are when our real spiritual life begins and when we begin to receive genuine spiritual nourishment. These moments of opening to God graces occur at different points in people's lives. We only embrace these opportunities we're ready for them, until then we "return to our former way of life" once we get past the issue at hand. However, I believe God is patiently waiting for us, inviting us and ready to deepen His relationship with us and share his graces whenever we're truly ready.
The Contemplative teaching and my own experiences of True Self / false Self are very helpful to me for exploring and informing my understanding of this particular Gospel passage further.