In today’s Gospel, we come to the climax of the Bread of Life discourse. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell the crowd, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
There are many ways to eat. If one were invited to eat cucumber and watercress sandwiches with the Queen of England at teatime, one would eat in a radically different way than if one had not eaten in three days and was dropped off at Arthur Bryants with a pocketful of twenties. In the first case, you would be more concerned with how to hold your pinkie. In the second case, you would be more concerned with not biting it off.
The word Christ uses for “eat” is tr?g?. In ancient Greek, it meant to gnaw or to devour. It was used in reference to how wild animals eat. He was stressing to His listeners that He wasn’t speaking in merely spiritual terms, but was in fact linking the spiritual with the flesh. You get your face in there and you eat Christ’s flesh and you drink His blood, or you are not alive.
And so we come to today’s reading. It is little surprise when considered in terms of the world that His listeners would respond, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” This is a very human response. We would be shocked if they had responded, “Grab your knives, boys. It looks like Jesus is on the menu.”
In our preaching for the last three weeks as we have heard the Bread of Life discourse, Father and I have both stressed the reality of the Eucharist as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. And today’s reading is the crux of it. The disciples rejects His teaching because it is too hard for them to bear; Jesus does not chase after them. He does not reassure them. He does not try to explain His teaching in easier terms to keep them. He lets them leave.
His response to them is one that links the Spirit and the flesh: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” Flesh is made and remade; it replaces itself, and it can be replaced by God in its perfected form at our resurrection from the dead, just as it was in Christ when He rose from the dead. It is the spirit that is eternal. It is the spirit that is unchanging in the physical realm, because it has no being in the physical realm. It is, in its nature, spiritual, and that is the source of our life. We transcend mere biology and are creatures of flesh and blood and spirit and life – I would even go so far as to say soul and divinity, for we certainly possess both as gifts from God. Certainly, we are not God; we do not possess the totality of divinity, but we have the spark of it given to us by God. We are the union of both because we are made in the image of God, and it is for this reason that we can receive both from Christ in the Eucharist.
The skeptic here might say, “If that is true – if it’s really that simple – why didn’t Christ just explain that to them?”
The answer is simple. The disciples who heard Christ speak did not have a crisis of understanding of the nature of the Eucharist. That is a problem we have today. Our Lord had not instituted the Eucharist yet. That would happen at the Last Supper. In the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus is laying the groundwork for a much deeper understanding. He doesn’t expect that His disciples will have that understanding yet. It is a hard teaching, but Christ helps us through it. He gives us the eyes to see and the heart to understand, if only we open our eyes and soften our hearts to the teaching of Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Christ lets His disciples leave not because they have a crisis of understanding, but because they have a crisis of faith. He tells them point blank what they must believe, and they are unwilling to believe it. Tr?g? on that the next time you’re tempted to say, “Sure – I’m a Catholic, but I disagree with the Church on <fill-in-the-blank>.”
As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him. They lack faith and they abandon the truth. Probably, some went on to become Gnostics, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the ancient world. Heresy is always easier than orthodoxy because you get to make it up to suit your own desires.
Many disciples leave and Our Lord goes to His apostles. You can imagine His voice heavy with pain… with disappointment… with loss. He has just seen many of His followers abandon Him because they cannot believe. He says to His apostles, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter is often teased today by those who say he usually “didn’t get it.” He is, sadly, sometimes made out to be something of a clown stumbling his way through Holy Scripture. I disagree. The response Simon Peter makes to Our Lord are the words of a man who profoundly gets it. They are the words of a man of deep faith, one with the courage to say to God, “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.”
These are the words of a deep and abiding faith. These are the words of a man who can weather hard teachings in faith because he understands that there is another side to the hard teachings and he knows that in God, all is at work for our good. Our Lord would never give us a hard teaching because He wants to watch us suffer. He gives us a hard teaching because He wants us to be better than we were before… because He wants us to be the creatures He made us to be: creatures of flesh and spirit… creatures of body, blood, soul, and – yes – the spark of divinity.
And how does He accomplish this? By letting us become what we consume in the Holy Eucharist.
The teachings of Holy Mother Church are not random. They do not drop out of a void. All of them come from God and all are meant for our good. And they all should be accepted in faith. Every single one of us – every person who ever was or who ever will be – has the choice: he can accept the truth, live the truth, and let the truth transform him… or he can turn his back and walk away, attempting to remake the truth in his own image. Ultimately, of course, he ends up far from the truth, alone and adrift.
But even then, there is still hope. Even Simon Peter had his own crisis of faith when Christ was taken before the Sanhedrin. But Peter realized he was fleeing from the truth, and he returned to Christ and begged forgiveness for his error. There is always a path back.
Let us pray always for the courage to respond in faith and not from doubt. Let us pray for the grace to make our faith strong and for the wisdom to see the errors behind our doubts. But most of all, let us pray for the eyes to see the Truth to which we are called and to realize that the only way to the Truth is through Jesus Christ Himself, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.