21st Sunday in O.T. (B); August 26, 2018
Jos 24:1-2a,15-17b,18b Ps 34 Eph 5:21-32 Jn 6:60-69
Deacon Jim McFadden
Today, we come to the end of that extraordinary Eucharistic discourse, which has been our focus for the last several weeks. Jesus is speaking at the Capernaum synagogue and his speech is the most remarkable teaching of the Eucharist anywhere in the Bible.
Last Sunday Jesus laid out in unnerving, straight-forward fashion the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. Now, when his audience balked at his words, Jesus said, “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” (Jn 6:53). And, as was mentioned last time, the Greek word for “eat” was trogein, which means to “gnaw, to munch.” And, then seemingly to rub it in, he goes on to specify that “my flesh is real food and my blood is true drink” (v. 55). They wanted polite, safe symbolism and metaphor, and he gives them in your face realism. That’s where our passage ended last week and sets up our reading for today.
Today’s Gospel begins, “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you?” (vs. 61-62). Strong language, isn’t it? “Does this shock you?” Bear in mind, if Jesus was simply trading in symbolic or metaphorical speech, why would anyone be particularly disconcerted or shocked? I mean, who gets upset at a metaphor or find a saying hard? The disciples were balking; they were murmuring because they knew that Jesus was not trading in symbolic speech.
Now, we get a sense of what’s at stake here when we attend to the next words that come out of Jesus’ mouth: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62). At first blush, that’s a strange come-back whether what he’s saying is metaphorical, symbolic, or real. He says, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” What sense does that make right here?
Remember, that the claim of John’s Gospel announced in the very beginning of his Prologue is that Jesus is the very Word of God become Flesh: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word with God, and the Word was God, ….and that Word became Flesh and dwelt among us” (vs. 1:1,14ab). Jesus is emphatically not one more in a long line of prophets, bearers of the word; rather, he is the very Word that the prophets bore. He’s not like one of the Patriarchs or heroes of the faith. Rather, he’s the one who called the patriarchs and to whom the heroes bore witness. That one, that Word came down from heaven and pitched his tent among us. This is precisely why a mystical relationship to him matters. If he were just another prophet, then he would have taught great truths and he may have engaged as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel often did in fine metaphorical speech. There’s nothing strange or hard-to-take about that. But, Jesus, precisely because he is the Word made Flesh is pressing towards something else. Something deeper and more strange.
He is the one who has come from the very inner life of God in order to invite us to share in that life. And, therefore, he is the vehicle by which we are inserted into the very life of God.
Now, listen to his words: “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” Do you see now the import of those words? The bread that he is going to give us is his very flesh or Self, which is the means by which we are mystically united to him in his heavenly reality.
You see, this is Christianity in a nutshell: we get across to the spiritual life of God precisely through the Flesh, through the Body of this Jesus. If he were just one more prophet, he’d be pointing to the spiritual reality of God. He’d be speaking a word about it. But, since he is the Word made Flesh, his Flesh becomes the vehicle by which we enter into the heavenly reality of the Word.
Now, his audience, the Jews of the 1st century Palestine, are perfectly at home with prophets, spokespersons, mystics. But, when a human being says that he is the vehicle by which people participate in the life of heaven, that’s very disconcerting stuff! What’s going to happen?
Listen to the Gospel: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (v. 66). So, its gone up and down the Christian centuries. The teaching of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist has, indeed, been from this speech on a standing or falling point. People begin to fall away from him precisely when he announces this doctrine. A prophet using metaphor; a prophet bearing the word—no problem with that: who’s going to walk away over a metaphor? But, this language is so strange and so disturbing that many of them fall away.
But, did you notice that Jesus introduces this Eucharistic teaching at the end of his public ministry, not at the beginning. Why? As a teacher par excellence, Jesus was drawing people gradually into the deeper mysteries of the Faith, less they reject a teaching out of misunderstanding. But, there are some teachings, such as the Eucharist, that are hard to fathom; they are out of the ordinary.
So, Jesus started his catechesis with something more accessible, such as the Sermon of the Mount and then he drew people gradually into the secret, mystical doctrines. Again, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep things from people, but he was trying to draw them in a disciplined way. The disciples and apostles are ready to accept Jesus’ teaching that are so strange and radical. The question is do they trust Jesus? Do they believe in him. We can sense this tension in Jesus’ speech at Capernaum. Listen now as he speaks to the Apostles: “Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” (v. 67). This is an extraordinary moment in the New Testament. Here are his most intimate disciples. The outer circle of disciples had wandered away, but now he turns to the Twelve, his intimate followers, and he asks, “Do you want to leave?” In other words, do you find this teaching of mine too much to take? He had been gradually drawing them into communion, hadn’t he? Think of the “come and see” moment in the beginning of John’s Gospel, when he told two of the disciples of John the Baptist to “come and see” and they stayed with him. Think of how he’s trained them through his moral and spiritual teachings. Think of how through signs and miracles he has taught them more and more who he is.
Finally, he comes to this sublime mystery of the Eucharist. He’s been intentionally and effectively drawing them into the mystery of who he is, which is the ground of the Eucharist. He has been keeping that secret from them until now. And, now that he’s revealed it, many have fallen away and he wonders if his inner circle, the Twelve, are going to fall away too.
We’ll close with Peter’s response which is so powerful and moving: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). Peter has sensed the truth of it though probably he couldn’t articulate it very well at this time. Though he probably didn’t understand it, he sensed the truth of this. And, speaking for the Church, the Twelve, he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” It’s about the Eucharist and the successor of Peter to this very day still speak that confession: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” We’ve sensed in this revelation the deepest truth. And that’s why this Eucharist teaching we’ve been looking at the last several weeks remains so central as to what it means to be a Catholic. It’s how we are drawn into the very life of Christ. AMEN.