As many of you know I competed in swimming in high school, in college, and even today continue as a Masters swimmer. I wasn’t much of a sprinter; 200 and 500 freestyle were my best events. True then and true now. About six years ago I signed up for a long-course meters meet. One the events I entered was the 1,500 meter freestyle – a little outside my best events, but certainly do-able.
I was kinda’ excited because I was seeded in the same heat with a man, about my age, who was nationally ranked in the event (for our age group). I thought, “OK, I will just pace myself off of him and we’ll see how it goes.” So, the race starts and at the 100 meter mark I am right on his hip. But I noticed at the 200 meter point I had actually pulled even. I began wondering if I was just having one of those great days. I felt smooth, relaxed, and it seemed to be coming together. At 250 meters I had pulled ahead and by 300 meters I couldn’t “find” him; but that sometimes happens. By now I am having all kinds of delusions of grandeur about this particular race. Maybe it was just my day.
There is a slang expression in swimming which refers to the mischief of “piano man.” Piano man is the unknown assailant who mysteriously “drop a baby grand piano” on your back in the middle of a race. Piano man hit at the 800 meter mark – confirming I was blessed with middle distance speed and a sprinter’s endurance – not a great combination for the 1500 meter race. When piano man strikes there is no recovery; all you can do is finish. The remainder of the race became a series of looking for the next wall, reaching it, doing a flip turn, and then looking for the next wall. Nothing more; nothing less. Eventually it was over. What happened to the other fellow? He had a horrible day and very uncharacteristically got out of the pool at the 200 meter mark.
I think about that race when I read this account in the gospel.
There we were: two trained, experienced swimmer, who wanted to race, had trained to race, who needed to race, and yet on that one day, one swimmer walked away from the race – the other finished the race. It wasn’t pretty, there were doubts about whether I would finish and the race took its toll. What was the difference between the two on that day?
It the same question we should ask about the disciples in today’s gospel. These were not part of the “crowd.” These were believers, people who had left hearth and home to follow Jesus, who had tramped about Galilee, seen the miracles, heard the preaching, and were committed. But now after all their waiting and watching and wondering and worrying, they have grown tired, and they can no longer see clearly. Things are confusing; things become foggy, the journey becomes blurred and they take their eyes off Jesus. On that particular day, it was too hard and “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” (John 6:60, 66) As they walk away do they wonder if it was all in vain?
From our comfortable position centuries later, as people who believe and have experienced the Eucharist, we can feel of moment of sadness for those who turned away. How could they? They had come so far. Why couldn’t they be like Peter – he figures it out, doesn’t he. I mean, Peter has figured out that Jesus in the “Holy One of God.” He hangs tough. Well… he hangs tough for now. Later on he will deny Jesus, abandon him to the Cross when things became hard, when everything was too difficult to accept. Maybe we need to reconsider those who walked away in doubt. Everyone’s breaking point is different.
I mean, who here has not at one time or another wondered whether your belief is out of gas? A morning starts and again we are reminded that a spouse or parent is no longer part of our daily life. A day spent looking for needed work and wages. Another “no thank you” letter. An afternoon filled with a tumble of unending frustration, anger, helplessness, and dread of what will go wrong next. An evening and night spent at the bedside of a child wondering why would God let this happen.
Those moments when we have such a hard time seeing God that we also are tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty and the faith we nourished seems so…so absent. Rarely do we openly and decidedly turn away from God, we just don’t make the extra effort to get to church. Our prayer life becomes erratic, our life becomes a little less compassionate, we are more reluctant to help others, and, in the end, we are not in church, we do not pray, and we are like the disciples in today’s reading. We have walked away.
It is a tough gospel to think about Jesus surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up. Yet….at the same time, the gospel is also one of belief, of courage, and of faith. For as he writes, after many disciples drew back and no longer followed him, “Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”’ Simon Peter answered him, “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 makes Peter and the others find the belief, the courage and faith to stay? What makes them different from all those who gave up on Jesus and went away? Peter and others were also plagued by doubt and fear, they suffered at times from an over abundance of pride and a lack of courage, and they, too, eventually deserted Jesus, and at the very time he needed them the most. So if they aren’t smarter, or more faithful, or more courageous, or, in short, any better than the rest of Jesus’ disciples – then or now – then what it is that sets them apart.
What enable me to keep swimming a race in which I was clearly out of my league? I was not a better distance swimmer, wasn’t better prepared, but… I knew where to look. I just looked for the next wall.
What enabled Peter to keep going? I think it is as simple as Peter knew where to look. And I would suggest this is perhaps the capstone message about the importance of the Eucharist in our lives. It is the one place for us, in our darkness moments, to look and know for sure that we will find Christ there for us.
In the more clear, brighter times, we can find God at work in the world, in nature, in our families, in the gift of each day. And yet…and yet each of us knows there are times when nature rebels, families are not safe havens from the storms, when all the things we usually count on come up empty and we no longer know where to turn. We reach a tipping point. Will we walk away or hang in? What kind of disciple will we be on that day?
Indeed we are disciples. Do we also want to leave? Yes, sometimes. And sometimes we will. But where will you go? If nothing else seems clear, or sure, or safe, know this: look to the Eucharist.
As St. Augustine said – see what you are and become what you see.
Just look for the next wall. Look to the precious Body and Blood of Christ.
Become what you see. Be the Body of Christ for the world.