21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 26, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s gospel begins by telling us:
“Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?””
What exactly is the hard saying they’re talking about?
To understand the question we have to remember that for the last 5 weeks
we’ve been reading from Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel
—one of the most important
and yet most misunderstood or neglected chapters in the bible.
5 weeks ago, we began with the feeding of the 5000
—the miracle of the multiplication of loaves.
Then we moved into what is often called the “bread of life discourse”
—Jesus’ explanation about how to “have eternal life.”
We must eat his “flesh,” which “is the bread of life.”
That’s the hard saying.
It’s interesting that while the miracle of the multiplication of loaves
is reported in all 4 gospels,
only St. John reports the bread of life discourse.
Now, some say this discrepancy is because John made the whole thing up
—that Jesus never really said it.
But this is absurd.
As St. John writes at the very end of his Gospel:
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things,
and who has written these things;
and we know that his testimony is true.”
What really happened is that John was the longest living of all the apostles
—he died at a ripe old age, maybe when he was 90 years old,
maybe as late as the year 100 AD.
And so he wrote his Gospel many years after the others,
maybe 30 or more years later than Matthew, Mark and Luke,
—and so it’s almost certain that he’d read them,
since they were widely circulated.
On top of that, we know that John’s Gospel is the most theologically profound
—perhaps because of all the years he’d had to think about it,
or perhaps because of his unique closeness to Christ
when he was on earth,
he was, after all, called “the beloved disciple.”
So after having lots of time to think and pray over the life of Jesus,
and reading what Matthew, Mark and Luke had written,
he wrote down his own recollection
—not making things up, not correcting the others,
but recording things he’d come to understand
were much more important than maybe they first appeared.
In particular, John came to focus on the central importance
of mystery of the Incarnation.
And so he begins his whole Gospel, by explaining:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Through him all things were made… In him was life.”
And then he concludes:
“the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The Incarnation—the taking of flesh by the life-giving God
—is at the heart of John’s understanding of the Gospel.
And so, while Matthew, Mark and Luke recorded the multiplication of loaves,
and did so not only to impress us with Jesus power,
but also to help us understand Jesus giving us the Eucharist,
in chapter 6, of his Gospel John says, in effect,
‘but don’t forget what Jesus said after he multiplied the loaves:’
“I am the bread of life….and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Again, some people want to see this as John making something up
to make a point.
Still others today want to say it really happened,
but Jesus is talking in merely symbolic language.
John probably had encountered people like this in his own time.
And so years after Christ’s death,
and probably after years of hearing some arguing that Jesus had just
been speaking metaphorically about His flesh and the bread,
John finally sits down and writes to the whole Church
and very carefully reports
that Jesus Himself insisted they were wrong.
And so John writes, at Verse 53:
“The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”
Now, think about this: His followers think he’s talking about real food.
They don’t think He’s talking in symbols:
that spiritual grace is like food, or perhaps that His teaching is like food.
They’re upset because He sounds like a cannibal—
“How can this man give us [his own] flesh to eat?”
And how does Jesus respond?
He doesn’t change His teaching—He doesn’t say,
“no, no, I’m only talking in symbols”:
No: “Jesus said to them, “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.”
Now, in the original Greek the word He uses here for “eat”
is very descriptive of physical eating: the Greek word “trogo”
doesn’t translate as “consume” or “sup upon”
but to physically “chew” or “gnaw.”
He’s saying, ‘you’re right: I’m not being symbolic.’
As then He goes on to say:
“For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.”
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
Then you can see the disciples, thinking…
“how can he do this? That’s impossible.”
Or as John writes:
“Then many of His disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
How familiar these words are to us today
—we hear it all the time, maybe we say it ourselves,
even if only in the back of our minds.
It’s hard to believe that the bread Jesus gives us is His body.
But Jesus still doesn’t back down.
As John writes at verse 61:
“Since Jesus knew that His disciples were murmuring about this,
He said to them, “Does this shock you?”
And then Jesus reminds them that they’ve seen His power
—they’ve just seen him feed 5000 with a few loaves of bread.
And He tells them there’s more to come, as John records:
“What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where He was before?
It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Now, some seize on Jesus’ words:
“It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail,”
They try to argue He’s backing away from talk of flesh being real food
–that He’s somehow saying that,
“no, no, it’s the spirit, it’s all spiritual food, not really my flesh.”
But that would mean He’d be contradicting everything He’s been saying.
No, what He’s saying is, in effect,
“But you’re not remembering who I really am!
I am the eternal Word who created life itself
—“the words I have spoken are spirit and life.”
I multiplied the loaves to feed the bodies of 5000,
and one day you’ll see me ascending—bodily–into heaven.
I work in my body and through my body,
but don’t limit me to the power of normal human flesh.
I have spiritual power that goes way beyond human limitations.”
That’s what He meant
—and that’s what the people there understood Him to mean.
And that’s why they left.
As John writes:
“As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied Him.”
Think of this—these were His disciples,
people who had believed in Him and were following him from town to town.
They’d heard His beautiful words and seen His great power.
And yet all because they could not accept this one hard saying
—because they couldn’t believe in the Eucharist—they walked away.
And what does Jesus do?
Does He run after them saying,
“no, no, wait, come back…you misunderstood”…?
Still He won’t back down.
Instead, as St. John records:
“Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
It’s as if He’s saying,
“What about you?
Those others refuse to believe me, what about you?
You have a choice—believe this “hard saying” about eating the bread
which will be my flesh,
or you can leave too!”
Where else in the Gospels does He give such a stark choice:
“Here’s the line—which side are you on?”
What a terrible moment this must have been for those 12.
It was in fact a hard saying, who could believe it?
But then we read:
“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.”
They believe His words because they believe He is the savior,
so they have no choice:
They believe because He said so.
Did they understand what he meant?
I would wager no, not really, at least not completely.
But they did understand that he meant what he said.
And so they believed, and struggled to understand.
And almost exactly a year later that understanding took a huge leap forward,
when they sat with Jesus at the Passover supper,
on the night before He died,
remembering the first Passover, the night 1300 years before
when the Jews believed the word of the God given through Moses
and ate the flesh of the sacrificed lamb,
and God saved their lives from the angel of death
passing over Egypt
and freeing them for a new life in the promised land.
When they were at supper,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, blessed it, and broke it,
just as He had when He multiplied the 5 loaves into 5000 loaves.
But this time He said:
“Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you.”
And with the cup: “take, drink. This is the cup of my blood.”
They listened to these strange but absolutely clear words of Jesus.
And they remembered the words He had said
that day after multiplying the loaves,
His words about His flesh being the bread of life,
true, or real, food that He would give them and that they must eat.
And they believed.
For 2000 years the Church has held fast to this belief.
And through the years, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
And contemplation on the teaching of St. John and the other apostles,
we have come to understand it better.
But all of it goes back to what Peter said—we believe, because Jesus said so.
Unfortunately, there have always been those
who do not side with Peter.
Of course this begins with the early disciples
who loved what Jesus had to say,
and were impressed by His power,
but left Him because they could not accept this hard saying.
But not all of the nonbelievers walked away.
As John tells us today:
“Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.”
And as he goes on to tell us at the end of Chapter 6:
“Jesus answered them,
“Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?”
He was referring to Judas…Iscariot;
it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.”
Judas stayed, but He did not believe.
And it seems, according to John,
that, the Eucharist was the beginning of His unbelief and betrayal.
Today, many followers of Jesus do not believe His words about the Eucharist.
Even those who say, “Scripture alone” and “it’s in the bible, so I believe it”
–they don’t believe what Jesus insisted on 5 times in John Chapter 6.
And even those who claim to be in the company of Peter’s successors
—many Catholics don’t believe,
even too many bishops and priests.
Am I saying that they are like Judas—betrayers of Jesus?
I can’t say that—only Jesus knows their hearts.
And Jesus loves them and is more merciful than you or I can even dream.
What’s more, many of them love Jesus very much.
But there is a line that Jesus draws.
There is a word Jesus speaks.
There is a truth Jesus insists on.
There is a gift Jesus gives.
And there is a faith in all that—a faith held and proclaimed by Peter,
and the Catholic Church for 2000 years.
Faith in the words of Jesus:
“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man…
you do not have life within you….
For my flesh is true food….
..The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
These are hard sayings.
But as we enter into this great mystery here today,
let us not allow our weak faith,
our stubborn hearts,
or our limited minds,
to lead us to abandon Christ, or to betray him
as He gives us Himself, His body, His flesh
to eat as the bread of life.
Rather let us hold firmly to the faith of Peter in the word of Christ:
“Master, ….You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe, and are convinced ….”