For the last three Sundays we’ve been listening to parts of a long, sometimes confusing, always challenging, theologically-loaded speech by Jesus. Like his contemporary audience, some of us might have been taken aback by his insistence on consuming his flesh and blood. Some of us might simply have ignored his insistence as outdated religious drivel, while others might have tried to make sense of it by reading into it a metaphorical meaning. Today that long speech of Jesus reaches its conclusion and at first sight the outcome doesn’t look good. Practically all of Jesus’ audience has already dispersed, and now his followers are abandoning him in droves. It seems that only his twelve closest followers, the Apostles, still stand by Jesus. From the five thousand, miraculously fed on the banks of Lake Gennesaret, numbers have dwindled to the twelve in the synagogue in Capernaum, on the other side of the lake, in just two days. It doesn’t sound like a success; it looks more like a monumental failure.
This kind of reduction in numbers is every leader’s nightmare. For any social enterprise, be it a political party, a social movement, or whatever else, an even less dramatic fall in numbers leads to soul-searching, and often to resignations. I must confess that I feel badly every time someone stops coming to church. I ask myself whether it’s because of my personal traits, or if it’s maybe due to something I’ve said or done. It’s hard not to contemplate such a possibility when I know most of you personally; even if I can’t remember your names (that’s bad of me!), none of you is anonymous to me. In Jesus’ case, the reason behind such massive drop-out is stated openly in today’s gospel: ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ Jesus’ teaching is being rejected, and ties with him are being severed. I find Jesus’ response to that quite remarkable, as if he has taken on board his audience’s inability to comprehend his teaching. Suddenly he hints at the spiritual reading of his teaching: ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer.’ This looks like an attempt at a damage-limitation, apparently unsuccessful, as St John reports: ‘After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ Yet there’s a group of people who, when asked directly: ‘Do you want to go away too?’, declare their adherence: ‘Who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe.’ Have they comprehended everything that Jesus said? I doubt it. But they place their trust in him and his words. We know that their trust would be tested to the limit and they would in fact fail the test. But then Jesus sticks with them and lifts them up.
So, here we are. Everyday life tests out our own faith and moral principles. Those challenges we face can be of differing magnitudes, from trivial to life-changing, and everything in between. Those situations are moments when we respond to Jesus’ teaching in very practical ways. Those responses of ours affect both us as individuals as well as those around us. In many cases those everyday challenges are tricky to meet adequately as they require immediate, almost instinctive reactions of us. Failure is not uncommon, although quite often we are not ready to admit it to ourselves or others. But those failings can tell us much more about ourselves than any successes, and help us to improve ourselves, to grow in understanding and maturity. If we cling to Jesus in such moments of despair about our weaknesses, he will lift us up. Perhaps we can repeat after Simon Peter: ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe.’
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