The question in this morning’s Gospel is one that every generation of believers has had to face at one time or another: will you also go away?
Some, in fact, have gone away and left our church. I suspect that there are some of us here who know of someone, even members of our own family, who have left. Some have gone quietly and privately. Still, others have just drifted or faded away. Some have found the message of Jesus too hard to take. Others find the message beautiful and compelling, but cannot stand His church, cannot abide the Church’s leadership. Others have just moved away, perhaps to other churches.
Then there are others who have responded to Jesus’ question with Peter’s words, “To whom shall we go?” For all its limitations and its many problems, this is the church where we have touched God, and God has touched us. The reasons we stay are many and varied. Perhaps, it is the spirituality of our church, its prayers and sacramental life, especially the Eucharist.
Why we stay may be hard to put into words. I could give you some lofty philosophical and theological reasons, but I could also give you stories and experiences about people, lived reasons.
One is Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was a quiet and traditional cleric when he was consecrated Archbishop of San Salvador. In fact, he was deemed so safe by the authorities, someone who would not cause any trouble for the government, that the number of government-sanctioned murders increased.
The Archbishop saw injustice and corruption, so he began to speak out. First to his priests, that they must stand with the people even though they are surrounded by wolves. Like Jesus, he earned the hatred and fear of the establishment, but as he said, he was compelled by the Gospel to speak out.
The shadow of the cross began to cast itself over his life and ministry. And so it happened on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero celebrated mass at the Chapel of Divine Providence in San Salvador. As he came to that part of the mass that we all know so well, he lifted up the host and said as we shall say at this mass the ancient words, “This is My body given for you. This is My blood shed for you.” At that moment a rifle shot rang out, a single bullet pierced his heart, and he fell dead over the altar. He became the Eucharist. Like Jesus, he became a martyr for the truth, a prophet of justice, a man caught by the Gospel. One who would not go away, or change his message.
People did not always believe Jesus. They did not always receive His teaching willingly. In the Gospel, Jesus has just told the people about the Eucharist. This crowd had been following Him for days because he had just fed five thousand people with just a few loaves and fishes. The crowd is eager: this man can feed thousands, He can produce bread out of nothing. The crowd came to Jesus because of a visible value He offered them – free bread – combined with the political possibility of a viable, miracle-working leader – over-throw the Romans.
He wants to give them His body and blood that they will have eternal life. They took offense at His words. He was teaching something new and it sounded strange. And they began to drift away, not only the uncommitted but also those who called themselves disciples. Finally, all who were left were the twelve and Jesus asks, “Will you also leave me?”
There is no thought on the part of Jesus of changing His teaching or making it more acceptable or watering it down. He was even willing to see the chosen twelve leave rather than change what He had to say: He was not very popular that day. No doubt He could have chosen a message that would have satisfied the people and made them want to stay, but Jesus was offering them more, much more. He was offering more than visible miracles, He was offering them the bread of life.
He tells the crowd in the Gospel today that he has much more to give them than just bread. For Jesus, it was not enough to be popular. Jesus would probably not have said that the most popular religion was the best religion, nor that the best religion must be popular. The popular thing among many people of Jesus’ time was to despise Samaritans, hate Romans, and look down on Gentiles while all the time performing the rituals of their religion.
But Jesus did not reflect these ideals. He spoke of the Good Samaritan. He cured the Roman centurion’s servant. He ate with sinners. He taught love of one’s enemies and how to live a good life. He reached out to those who did not quite fit into society, trying to get people to go one step further, teaching them that many things on this earth are precious, many are holy, but humanity is holy of holys.
The Church must say what Jesus said and do what Jesus did. It is not always easily accepted by people who do not want ideas changed or viewpoints questioned. Always there is tension in the process of making ourselves and the world into the new creation of Christ. Very often we may feel alienated from the Church, either the church universal or our local church.
The twelve apostles in the Gospel were just as confused as the rest of the crowd. They did not understand what Jesus was talking about – body, blood, the bread of everlasting life – none of it made sense. But they had something none of the others had: a commitment to Christ. They wanted to be like Him. Even though they did not understand, they could trust him, and they stayed and experienced the last supper, and then they knew what this bread was.
Christ is the bond that holds us together, even in our differences. It is Christ who forgives us our sins. It is Christ who teaches us, corrects us, challenges us. His teachings are not always easy. Very often they exact from us some painful changes.
But it is Christ who also feeds us with His own body and blood, so that we, as members of Christ’s body, reach out to those around us. We seek to draw them into His presence. We do so because we hear and echo the words of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”