TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2018)
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21
Five Sundays ago we began the proclamation of John’s momentous Chapter Six. This portion of John’s gospel not only contains the miracle of the loaves and fish, a story recounted by all four evangelists, but it also contains the great Bread of Life discourse, John’s profound teaching on the Eucharist. When John 6 was first proclaimed five Sundays ago there was a “large crowd” following Jesus, who appeared to not only desire that their basic hunger be satisfied, but who also wanted their curiosity satisfied. They wanted to know who this Jesus of Nazareth was, and they stuck with Jesus right up until He told them what they didn’t want to hear. In today’s gospel, after engaging in some additional murmuring, the crowd all but disappears, appearing to leave only the Twelve to listen to Jesus.
What was it that caused the crowds to disappear? Surely Jesus’ bold assertions about eating His flesh and drinking His blood were difficult for a good Jew to hear, and they might have caused some to make a decision to leave Jesus’ company. Some might like to suggest that the crowds dwindled because they were unable to accept some profound theological truth, like what we call “real presence,” but it is unlikely that a sophisticated theological understanding of the Eucharist existed at this point in the Church’s history, and without it no great offense could have been taken.
The statement that the crowd reacted to causing them to state “This saying is hard; who can accept it?,” is the very end of last week’s gospel: “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. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” It is Jesus’ assertion of His divinity, His bold confession of His connections to the Father, that people found hard to accept. Jesus wanted to reveal more to them, words of “Spirit and life,” but they could not be forced to “believe.” It is no single thing said by Jesus that caused many of His disciples to “return to their former way of life” and no “longer accompany” Jesus. To believe that the God of their ancestors, the same God who gave them manna to eat in the desert, sent His only Son into the world, and that that Son is this Jesus of Nazareth, was just too much for most of the crowd to handle.
The Twelve, however, stand in stark contrast to the crowd. In spite of the numerous examples of individuals returning to “their former way of life,” the Twelve are steadfast. We are lead to believe that Peter spoke for all, even “the one who would betray him,” when he answered Jesus’ inquiry as to whether any of them wanted to leave His company: “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.” What a marvelous profession of faith!
How is it that the Twelve differed so from those who chose to leave? What insights did the Twelve possess that enabled them to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity? Somewhere beneath the dusty roads and long days of travel, in the midst of the large crowds pressing in on Jesus, and beyond the challenge of unappreciative religious authorities, the Twelve were able to see in Jesus the fulfillment of all human longing. There would still be moments of confusion, and denials and betrayal could not be prevented, but the Twelve could not imagine themselves leaving the company of Jesus. Jesus had “the words of eternal life,” and if the Twelve ever hoped to share in that eternal life they had to leave their former way of lives behind and follow the Master.
The question addressed to the Twelve in today’s gospel is addressed to us as well: “Do you also want to leave?” Perhaps there are moments when we tire of following in the footsteps of the Lord, when the challenge of modeling our lives after Christ becomes too difficult. But after having a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus, is there any one else with whom we would prefer to keep company? Each and every Eucharist provides us with the opportunity to renew our commitment to follow the Lord Jesus. In the sacrament of His Body and Blood Jesus shares Himself with us, and He teaches us with “words of eternal life” how to live our lives. May our “Amens” at communion be our answer to Jesus’ question about leaving, and may they echo the words of Peter in today’s gospel: “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!”