Today’s gospel is the last part of the “Bread of Life Discourse” from the Gospel of John. The disciples who have heard Jesus’ preaching, experienced his healing power, seen him command the stormy seas, witnessed the miracles, and hope him to be the promised Messiah – in today’s account we discover that, for some, Jesus’ claim that he is the “bread come down from heaven is a breaking point. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?…As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” For some it was all a bridge too far, the last straw, and with no reason to stay, they left. For some, there was motivation, desire, a reason to remain. I think we have all been there at some point in our lives. What is the difference between those who stay and those who go?
We can all think about our own lives and experiences as a way to plumb the answer. All this make me think of swimming. I have swum competitively most of my life: high school, college, and even these days in the Master’s swim program. I wasn’t gifted with fast-twitch muscles and so have never had a very good sprint. The 200- and 500 yard freestyle, 200-yard backstroke, those were my best events. More of a grinder than a sprinter. But, a couple of years ago I competed in a meet and for some reason signed up for the 1500-meter freestyle – a little outside my usual range, but certainly do-able.
Turns out I was seeded in the same heat with a man, about my age, who was the reigning National Champion 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. 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.
Well, it was my day until about the 800-meter point. And then the tank was empty. What was once smooth and relaxed became suffering and “when will this be over.” 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 swimmers, ready to race, and yet on that day, one swimmer walked away from the race – the other finished the race. The finish wasn’t pretty, there were doubts along the way, and the race took its toll. But what was the difference between the two on that day?
It the same question we should ask about the disciples in today’s gospel. They have grown tired. Things are confusing; the mind and heart grow weary, 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) All that they had seen and heard was not enough. They took their eyes off Jesus and the promise and took another way.
Centuries later, as people who believe and have experienced the Eucharist, we can feel of moment of sadness for those who drifted away from church and the gift of Eucharist. 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. He’ll run away; but he also comes back
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 God would let this happen. A horrific report from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury – and you know other reports are coming – there are 49 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and other territories. When is enough, enough – and you just want to walk away and call it quits?
This past week we have had parishioners communicate that they are done with the Catholic church, to take them off the parish registry, and not to reach out to them. Another person mentioned, “My faith in Jesus in unshakable. Where I practice that faith is an open question.” We are in one of those moments when we are tempted to conclude that the promises we trusted were empty and the faith we nourished seems so…so absent, so betrayed. As individuals we arrive at the same point as the disciples: This [news] is hard; who can accept it?
It is a tough gospel to think about faithful disciples who walked away. Yet….at the same time, the gospel is also one of belief, of courage, and of faith. 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 suffered and struggled? I was not a better distance swimmer, but I knew where to look. I just looked for the next wall.
What enabled Peter to keep going? I wonder if it is as simple as Peter knew where to look. He looked to Jesus. And I would suggest this is perhaps the capstone message of this gospel for our times. Indeed, the news is hard (and I think will get harder). What we do as individuals will depend upon where we focus. If our deepest focus strays from Jesus and the Eucharist, the foundation is weakened. The importance of the Eucharist in our lives is that 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.
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.