I noticed for the first time ever that this story all about eating is set at Passover time. A year or two after this at the exact same time of year, Jesus will use food once again to make a point about what really makes true life possible.
In today’s story we can see that it is almost Passover and a crowd is in the countryside with nothing to eat. Then Jesus provides the feast. This would be like getting up Thanksgiving morning with nothing in the cupboards and no turkey in the fridge, then to have Jesus show up unexpectedly with boxes and bags of already-prepared side dishes and a beautifully roasted turkey. Oh yeah, we are going to follow this guy around!
But as we see, Jesus was not about to let himself be hijacked by anyone’s agenda.
When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they said, “This really is the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” So when Jesus realized they were intending to come and seize him to make him king, he withdrew again, by himself, up the mountain. (6:14-15)
Jesus’ point in this Passover story is the same it will be a year or two later when his followers are still looking for an earthly king who will overthrow the Romans: you don’t really need what you think you need.
The crowd follows, but they are just looking for more food (6:26). So Jesus decides to take a walk into absurdity to make his point. They don’t need to feast on another fish sandwich. They need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This is the point at which people think this man has lost his mind and leave (6:66). Of course, Jesus was not talking about cannibalism, and when understood in the entirety of this chapter it may also be a bit of a stretch to read communion imagery into the passage. Jesus tells us at the end of the chapter what he means by this grotesque idea:
It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is no help. The words that I have spoken to you–they are spirit, the are life. (6:63)
They don’t need food. They don’t even need Christ’s flesh. What they need is not physical. They need the spiritual. They need Jesus’ words. They need to feast on the message of his preaching. They need to be changed from the inside out by the life-changing words of this man they are so willing to follow into the wilderness. This is where they will find satisfaction.
And Peter realizes it:
Who can we go to? You’re the one who’s got the words of life of the coming age. (6:68b)