21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 26, 2018
Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
So we finally made it to the end of the bread of life discourse: our five week trek through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Back at the end of July we began this journey with the account of Jesus feeding the five-thousand—that miracle which called to mind the plan the Lord had from the beginning to “share a meal” with us (the meal being the great metaphor for his plan to be in relationship with us), a plan which included him becoming man to make this relationship possible. Then we had the account of the people seeking Jesus out, running after him because of that great miracle he performed, seeking yet another sign, seeking to be truly satisfied; and this was topped off by the revelation that he is the “true bread” they seek. After that, we had the account of Jesus trying to convince the incredulous Jews that if they were ever going to understand what was really going on they would need to drop their preconceptions and allow themselves to be taught by the Lord…because what he was about to say next would be a little difficult to understand if they didn’t. And so last Sunday, of course, Jesus made the profound statement that it is through his flesh and blood that this relationship the Father has been seeking, that this meal the Lord wants to share with us, is made possible; through his own gift of his flesh and blood we are given the life that we so desperately want; through his sacrifice on the cross the “fullness of life” (c.f., John 10:10) that he promises will be ours.
And so today we arrive at the final scene: Jesus with his disciples after all these events and interchanges and miracles and teachings have taken place. Just imagine it. After a few days of miracles and teaching and arguments, people coming to Jesus left and right, probably not a lot of sleep—after all of these events, it is just Jesus and the disciples. And like the crowds of Jews had done before, the disciples start murmuring amongst themselves. Even they have become a little incredulous, a little skeptical.
Stop and think about that! At least for myself, whenever I have a difficult time with my faith, I always immediately think, “If only I could have been there with Jesus, this would be so much easier. If only I were there and saw the miracles, or heard him preach, I wouldn’t have any problems in my faith.” But no! Here are the closest followers of the Lord, men who have left everything and followed him. Even they are a bit incredulous. And many of them abandoned the Lord, “many…returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” When things got tough, when the reality and events they were experiencing started to run-up against their preconceived ideas of who Jesus should be and what he should do and say, they left. And so Jesus is left alone with his twelve closest companions, those he chose to follow him from the beginning. And when push came to shove, they stayed. Why? What was it that made them stay?
This past week I attended what all of us new priests affectionately refer to as “New Baby Priest School.” We spent five hours discussing practical, day-in and day-out duties of being a priest. One of the things we spent a significant amount of time doing was learning about the marriage preparation process. And our presenter talked a long time about how one of the biggest issues we are going to see in meeting with couples who want to get married—and couples who are struggling in their marriage—is a lack of communication. And it’s not so much that these couples stop talking to each other. Oh no, they usually spend plenty of time talking or arguing with each other. But even though they may be talking, they are not communicating. The communication stops when they stop listening, and instead are only thinking about how they are going to respond, or trying to defend themselves, or trying to prove the other person wrong.
So many people left Jesus because they stopped the communication, they stopped listening, really listening. Instead of being open to the words which came forth from the mouth of the Son of God (c.f., Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4), instead of truly opening their minds and hearts to be touched by these words, they instead only looked at them through the narrow lens of their own preconceptions and ideology. And since Jesus’ teaching didn’t jive with how they saw the world, they said, “He’s mad. He’s off his rocker. He has an unusual way of speaking. We don’t have to listen to this.”
So why did the twelve stick around? Well, to understand that, we only really need to listen to the words of Peter. Hearing from Peter is like hearing from that person who never really thinks before they speak…we all know someone like that. And though it can be a bit annoying in life, in this case it’s actually really great. Because just like that person, Peter is honest and lets you in on what is going through his head. Unlike me who would sit and ponder a nice response, weighing the pros and cons of different responses, Peter just says what everyone is thinking and feeling.
It is this confession of faith of Saint Peter that is so crucial for us here and now. Because by the very fact that we’re here at mass today, by the very fact that we come Sunday after Sunday, it shows that we are in no different a position than Peter. When Jesus asks, “Do you also want to leave?” we would expect the first pope, the leader of the twelve, the chief of the apostles to have a careful and calculated response, right? Wrong. What Peter says is what everyone who stayed was thinking. He does not say, “No, Lord. We do not want to leave. We understand perfectly what you are saying. No problem here.” No, not at all. When Jesus asks, “Everyone else is gone, aren’t you going too?” Peter responds, “Lord, you’re right, we don’t fully understand you; we don’t even totally understand why we follow you! But we are sure that you are the only one who takes us seriously, takes seriously our need for complete and total fulfillment. Only you have the words of eternal life! Only you have the words which correspond to my heart. Master, to whom else would we go?” (c.f., John 6:68).
The difference between the people that left and the disciples who stayed is not that the teaching of Jesus made sense, or they understood perfectly. Rather, in encountering and following Jesus Christ, everything had changed and continued to change. Peter and the twelve could not deny the fact of Jesus in their lives; the fact that being with Jesus, listening to Jesus, following Jesus, changed everything.
My dear brothers and sisters, we may not always “get it.” We may not always understand. But I think each and every one of us is here today because somewhere inside of us—and maybe a bit deeper down for some than others—we know and are convinced that it is Jesus Christ who has the words of eternal life; that Jesus Christ, for reasons we may not be able to explain, has the words which correspond to the deepest desires of our heart. Our task is to remain open, to continue to listen, to continue to communicate and pray. I can guarantee that we won’t “get it” overnight, and that some questions may take a lifetime to understand…and to be honest, if I can let you in on a further mystery, for some of these questions, “It may take longer” (1).
We don’t need the answers to everything and we can’t always get the answers or the reasons. But far from being irrational, our belief in Jesus is truly reasonable because in this faith we allow him to work in ways we cannot even ask or imagine, we acknowledge that we ourselves cannot be what satisfies. And so today and everyday we confess with Peter and make his prayer our own: “Lord, not even we understand. But still we are convinced. You have the words of eternal life.”
- Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 54.
- Also, listen to Gregory Alan Isakov’s newest single, Caves.