by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Then Jesus said to the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to leave me?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”
John 6, 60-69
Today’s gospel-reading brings us to the end of a five-part, challenging and intense exploration of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. That chapter is commonly referred to as the “Bread of Life Discourse”. As I struggled through it, I admit that I came away with some sympathy for those disciples who, bewildered by the complexity of what Jesus was saying, started grumbling: “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?” (John 6, 60). Let’s face it. Many of us have had the benefit of centuries of analysis and exploration by reputable scripture scholars and theologians who have delved into this “Bread of Life Discourse. And we still struggle with it. No wonder those early disciples responded as they did. Moreover, Jesus didn’t ask them to give him more time to clarify what he was saying. He let them go with their questions unresolved, instead of giving them easy answers or offering them an easy way to faith in him. I have read this chapter in John over a life-time, and catch myself wondering if the real miracle here wasn’t the feeding of a crowd of 5000, but the fact that there were twelve still connected to Jesus when the dust settled.
What’s more is that I’m doubtful whether Jesus would have been totally convinced by Peter’s expression of loyalty. Effectively, he started by saying something like: “We’re not sure if there are any better options; if there is anyone else more trustworthy than you, Jesus. But where else can we go? We don’t understand you any better than all those who have just walked away, but what other possibilities are open to us?” Admittedly, he gained a bit more credibility when he finished with “We are convinced that you are God’s holy one” (John 6, 69). And let’s not forget that, not long afterwards, this same Simon Peter, in the space of a couple of hours, three times denied having any connection at all with Jesus. But are we any different? We’ve all made resolutions, promises and commitments to get involved in walking closely in the footsteps of Jesus, in treating others with tolerance, kindness and compassion and have ended up failing, simply because we have given priority to personal comfort and self-interest. We have renewed our faith commitment year after year at the Easter Vigil liturgy and it has sometimes had no more substance than the words that have come out of our mouths. Yet, despite our human frailty and failures, somehow or other we end up coming back to Jesus, perhaps for no other reason than that what he said and did has the ring of authenticity and selfless concern for others about it. While our faith in Jesus might be a bit wishy-washy at times, we just can’t shake it or him off. God’s Spirit keeps drawing us to him, exactly as he said (John 6, 64-65): “Yet among you there are some who do not believe…”He went on to say: ‘This is why I have told you that on one can come to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.’” Even if there is a touch of ambiguity or doubt in Peter’s response, what he said could be interpreted as divinely inspired.
That leads me to look a little more closely at the question Jesus asked the Twelve: “Do you, too, want to leave me?” That question marked a critical point in Jesus’ public ministry. In fact, it was a question that risked putting an end to it. His question exposed his vulnerability, and was as risky as the question he asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16, 13-20, Mark 8, 27-30, Luke 9, 18-21) Again, it was Peter who spoke up on behalf of the group, identifying Jesus as the Messiah. In the Gospel’s of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this question and Peter’s response follow closely upon the account of the miracle of the feeding of the crowd. Jesus’ question in today’s gospel-reading, also asked against the backdrop of John’s account of the feeding miracle, is just a different way of posing the crucial question of who Jesus really is. Isn’t that the question that has challenged every Christian over the last several thousand years? Isn’t that a question that still challenges us? Moreover, it’s a question which contemporary scripture scholars continue to explore (notably, José Antonio Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation, Crossroad Publishing, 2007), but a question that will never be exhausted because it is not a question of gathering facts, but a question of faith and relationship. Inspired by God’s Spirit, we grow in our desire to grow our relationship with Jesus through prayer, reflection and encountering Jesus in the people around us, especially in the poor, the needy and the forgotten. Another scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Essential Jesus alerts us to the fact that the earliest Christians, in their art, depicted Jesus feeding the multitude. That was long before their successors chose the crucifix to represent Jesus’ limitless love for humanity. We all know that art is inspired by the culture from which it emanates. The earliest Christians were, for the most part, people who struggled to meet their basic needs. One of their daily concerns was making sure there was sufficient bread for their families. Little wonder, then, that they depicted Jesus as the provider of bread for the hungry.
I suggest that, for us, sticking with Jesus is doing what Christians have done for centuries. – putting their bodies on the line for others or, as John put it, living and spending their lives, gifts and energy in the service of others (cf John 15, 13). By imitating that in our part of the world, we become food, nourishment and encouragement for others. This is the challenge which St Teresa of Avila puts to us so clearly:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world,
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are His body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Or, as Augustine says to us as we participate in Eucharist and receive the Body of Christ: “Behold who you are, become what you receive” – the body of Christ, given for others.