To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 23, 2015
Josh 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Ps 34; Eph 5:2, 25-32; John 6:51-58

Have you ever thought about one of the teachings of the Catholic Church: “That teaching is hard! It doesn’t seem right. It seems impossible. It seems shocking or offensive!” Maybe you have thought this sometime in the past; maybe you are thinking this right now, as you are here at Mass. I’m sure you have known others who have thought this.

Well, if you have had this reaction, you are in good company—because, as we heard in the Gospel reading, people sometimes had this reaction when they heard Jesus teach them something directly, in person. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Even his 12 apostles may have had that reaction at that moment. But, as we heard, different people who were present that day responded in two very different ways.

We are now in the fifth of the five Sundays that we have been spending working our way through the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 6; and we have gotten to the place where the people listening are responding, after Jesus has done and said many things over the past four sections. It all began when he miraculously multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed a crowd of maybe 20,000 people total. And then the next day the crowd came looking for him, hoping he would do it again. But he tried to direct them onward, to the truths that that miracle showed, about himself and what he wanted to do for them:

  • that he was the living bread that came down from heaven;
  • that he wanted to give them life: eternal life and also abundant life beginning right now;
  • and, above all, that he was going to feed them by giving them his own flesh and blood.

Now, last week, we looked at the answer to the question that the crowd asked: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And we saw that the answer came when he later instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper: that his priests would take bread and wine, and would speak his own words of institution, and that he would change the bread and wine into his own body and blood, though without changing their appearance or feel or taste. This is how he would give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink.

But do you notice that, on that day itself, he didn’t answer their question? He didn’t explain. He emphasized that he really meant it—“my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”—but he didn’t explain it. He just left it out there.

Now, as he saw them reacting against it, he gave a hint at what that explanation would be like, when he said: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” Here is what I think he meant by that. The crowd knew, as we know, how it normally works with food: it is a laborious process, day after day. You plow, you sow seed, you weed, you water, you fertilize; you harvest, you process, you transport, you sell, you prepare, you cook, you serve it, and it’s gone. Step after step, day after day, right? And you only ever have so much. Well, this is the world of the flesh. But the crowd had seen that Jesus had taken five loaves and two fish and multiplied them to feed 20,000. He brought in a new power, new life, and broke down all the boundaries, all the limits, so that suddenly there was this outpouring of plenty. That’s Spirit and life. And so I think he’s saying: when you try to understand what I have taught you, don’t limit yourself to imagining the limited world that you know; remember that I can bring in an abundance beyond what you know, and that’s where the answer is going to be.

But, while he hinted at what the explanation would be like, he didn’t explain that day. He just left it out there. And as we have seen, those listening to him responded in two different ways: some left him—returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him—while some continued to follow him.

What made the difference? I think that the whole group of disciples and the crowd had a great deal in common:

  • All of them had to some degree gotten to know Jesus, what he was like, what he taught, what he did, including the miracles. And they all had responded positively, wanting to be with him and listen to him.
  • And all of them found this teaching of his to be strange, offensive, and impossible to understand.

All of them had all of this in common. Yet some decided to leave him behind, while others continued to follow him. What made the difference?

I think it came down to one basic decision, as they compared their trust in Jesus on the one hand, to their problems with his teaching on the other. Some decided that they trusted themselves and their thoughts at the moment more than they trusted Jesus; while others decided that they trusted Jesus more than themselves.

  • Some thought: I can tell that this teaching is such a problem that Jesus must be bad, and so I am going to stop following him.
  • While others thought: Jesus is so good that I must be wrong; I must be missing something important about this teaching; and so I’m going to keep following him and hope that I understand it better and can believe it someday.

And we know who made the right choice, even in the midst of that difficult moment, as they grappled with their reaction.

And how about you, when you, like them, experience the reaction of finding one of the teachings of Christ’s Church to be difficult? Here are three things you can do:

First, you need to know Jesus. Not just know about Jesus; and definitely not just go through the motions without even knowing about him. You need to know him. If you don’t, you can start by reading through the Gospels and reflecting on them, to get to know what he said and did during his years of earthly ministry. And then you can meet him, present here and now, perhaps especially in prayer, in the Mass, perhaps at a retreat, or at Eucharistic adoration.

Second, you need to take a closer look at the teaching you are reacting to. There is a good chance that you are partly mistaken about it—that at least part of it is a misunderstanding of what the Church teaches. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to reject Christ’s Church over something that it doesn’t even teach? Maybe someone misinformed you; or maybe you last learned about it at age 13, and you’ve grown a lot since then. So take another look, now, with all the intelligence and maturity that you have now, and find out what the Church’s teaching really is.

Third, having clarified the teaching itself, what if you still feel a problem with it? Then, at least at the beginning, comes the moment to decide to trust that Jesus knows what he’s doing and saying, even if you can’t see it yet. But you don’t have to stay in that stage of difficulty. Talk to a priest, or attend a class, or read some good things on your own, to discover the explanation of what the teaching is all about—and why it is in fact true and good.

The disciples who chose to stay with Jesus didn’t have to stay in confusion for long. Within a couple years, they are at the Last Supper, and then they understood—as they received the great gift of the Body and Blood of Christ, and then as they became his priests to give on this gift to others. It was true, and it was amazing! What a gift he had given them.

But first they had to decide to trust him, and stay with him. May we also make that same choice, declaring, as St. Peter did: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

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