During these past 5 weeks, we’ve been reflecting on chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel, starting with the multiplication of the loaves and the feeding of 5,000. In the last 3 weeks, we’ve focused on our Lord’s dialogue with the Jews regarding the miracle of the manna in the desert and the True Bread from Heaven, which is the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. This bread which, unlike the manna, gives true and eternal life to him who eats it. What a wonderful gift and a profound expression of our Father’s love for each of us, that He would make Himself so radically available and present to us. Today brings us the conclusion of this extraordinary chapter of St. John’s Gospel and the response of the listeners to this gift of our God.
We know so well the response: first, some of the disciples questioned, This saying is hard; who can accept it? as if to suggest that it’s too much; God could never be so generous. Or, perhaps, God would never ask us to eat flesh & blood, let alone HIS Flesh & Blood! In an almost insidious manner, they ask: who can accept it? to kill any possible faith in the heart of any listener, who might possibly think there’s something to this teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, by a subtle peer pressure which insinuates that such faith would be nothing more than an absurd madness!
And then, simply: As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. This should give us reason for pause; it’s the disciples of our Lord, those who professed to be His followers and had presumably done so for some time! They returned to their former ways of life, they stopped following and listening to Jesus. The wisdom He had imparted and the faith He had instilled by countless miracles were now no more than a memory. Most particularly, the miraculous multiplication of the loaves just a day before, wasn’t enough to keep them around! When He began to challenge them to go deeper, they refused! They decided that they knew better than this man who showed signs of God at work within Him. Now, we know this truth, which our Lord presented, was so necessary that He was willing to let them walk away rather than take back His gift; He’s more interested in authentically loving them than in the ratings or in the opinions of others.
BUT then there’s the Apostles, whose response deserves our attention as well. Jesus simply turns to the 12 and asks: Do you also want to leave? Jesus Christ was willing to let even these 12 men, whom He had hand-picked, walk away. How beautiful, how brutally honest, how trusting and faith-filled is the response of Simon Peter: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. Unlike the skepticism of the others, whom the 12 watched murmur, doubt, scoff and walk away, St. Peter, speaking on behalf of the others humbly acknowledges he doesn’t understand how all this fits together, but he’s convinced of one thing, which makes all the difference: you are the Holy One of God.
What I wish to reflect upon is: what’s the difference…between the crowds and the 12? Why do many of the disciples walk away, seemingly as easily as they had begun? Why do the 12 not walk away in spite of the doubting & scoffing of the others? Why is the simple acknowledgement by Peter, that Jesus is the Holy One of God, enough to keep them at our Lord’s side?
Let’s consider the 12 for a bit; what had they been doing prior to this event? To put it simply, they’re spending time with Jesus Christ…LOTS of time, building a relationship. They’re talking together, getting to know one another, sharing their lives; most importantly, Christ is demonstrating His love for them in countless concrete ways. There was this bond that is forming between Christ and them, a friendship. In those moments, they are seeing the unfathomable depths of God’s love for them, experienced in so many ways, and they are beginning to understand there’s something categorically different about the good of God’s love over and above the goods of this world, however good they are! So that when push comes to shove, they’re not going anywhere. In fact, in their own words: there’s nowhere else to go. There’s a conviction deep in their hearts, forged by this time spent with Him daily that keeps them from leaving. How valuable the example of the 12, these first authentic disciples of our Lord, for teaching us how to have that unswerving fidelity to Christ and His teachings, given to us through the Apostles.
It’s certainly without coincidence that we have also a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It might seem intimidating and/or near impossible to achieve such a bond of friendship with Jesus Christ, but the example of the love been a man and a woman, a husband and wife should give us hope. I was recently speaking with a woman whom I’ve known for most of my life, a woman who is now taking care of her husband as he suffers with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s lots of little tasks which she continually has to perform for him, and yet she would never dream of leaving him. Why not? Because there’s a bond of deep and abiding love that has formed between them, a bond that makes me want to give something to and for this person, that makes me want to give everything! There’s also a beautiful example of the faithfulness of a good friend of mine, which he had for his wife, even while they were engaged. You can check out their story here.
The more committed one is to a relationship, to making it work in good times and bad – spending time together, talking about life, talking with each other, daily investing time and energy into that relationship, looking to the needs of your beloved over and above your own – the stronger that bond of unity becomes.
If the following is unfortunately true for you, please accept my apologies, but in all the weddings I’ve participated in, I’ve never seen a bride or groom, when asked to say: I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life, refuse to say those words or say them grudgingly or sadly. I’ve never heard: this saying is hard, who can live according to it? NO! They’re willing to do or endure anything that might come their way as a result of their total commitment of themselves to their beloved. St. Paul writes: This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church. His understanding, and subsequently the Church’s understanding, of Marriage is as a sign of Christ’s love for His Bride and, more specifically, for each of us, so we can take a lesson from those beautiful married couples that we know, who model for us that total commitment, and prove also the possibility of our total commitment to JC by spending time together, talking about life, talking with each other in quiet prayer, listening to Him speak in the Scriptures and in the depths of our hearts, daily investing time and energy into that relationship, looking to do His Will rather than our own.
We’re challenged, as Joshua once challenged the Israelites: Decide today whom you will serve. Just as it was for the Israelites, so it is for us; it will not be easy to be faithful to God. There are consequences for serving Jesus Christ, sometimes unpleasant ones, such as mockery. The famous philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said: religion is the opiate of the masses. Others have said that religion is a crutch or a tool for oppression. While we may not be familiar with these thinkers or their ideas, their work has certainly had a devastating impact on the modern world.
As the Popes of late have repeatedly reminded us, however, we are not merely dealing with a list of rules, do’s & don’t’s. Nor are we dealing with something to give us false hope or keep us from having fun. We’re in a relationship with our Father in Jesus Christ thru the Holy Spirit; we are the Father’s sons and daughters. It is, sadly, a relationship that is not understood, experienced, or lived in a beautiful way by many in our culture today; if it were, the Church would look much different as would the world. More importantly, it’s a relationship He’s started, we are merely responding; He’s given Himself totally to us in the Incarnation, and the gift was made total, complete, and perfect by His death on the cross. That same gift of Himself which is present in the Eucharist, and which He offers to us as He once offered it to the crowds at Caphernaum.