Towards the end of the 2006 film The Queen, there is a wonderful scene when the Prime Minister comes for his regular audience. (For dramatic purposes, the movie pretends that it is their first such meeting since the events of that infamous week in September 1997, on which the movie is based.) In the course of their conversation, the Prime Minister attempts to reassure Her Majesty that her temporary slip in popularity that week was - just that – temporary. To this, the older, wiser, much more politically experienced Queen replies: “you saw those headlines, and you said, ‘one day that will happen to me.’ And it will, Mr. Blair, suddenly and without warning.”
Obviously, a very good lesson for any popular politician to bear in mind! Jesus, of course, was not a politician in any conventional sense. Nonetheless, the Gospel story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 suggests how he would have fared in the approval ratings. Backtracking through 5 weeks of Sunday Gospel accounts to that amazing miracle, we recall that the delighted crowd responded initially by attempting to acclaim Jesus as their king – a dubious honor perhaps, given the perilous political situation in Israel at that time, but certainly a good barometer of the esteem in which Jesus was held, thanks to his demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker.
Since then, however, like a modern news audience tracking a candidate’s declining poll numbers, we have watched the steady decline of Jesus’ popularity, as he proceeded to tell his audience things they really didn’t want to hear. Such is, of course, the inevitable danger any public figure faces! In Jesus’ case, the cheering stopped as it began to become apparent that the miraculous feeding of the 5000 was not just an entertaining interruption in life’s regular routine, or a ticket to a lifetime of free lunches, but rather a challenge to reorient one’s entire life in relation to something more permanent.
At the point at which we pick up the story today [John 6:60-69], the popular disillusionment with Jesus has become aggressively vocal: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The “hard saying,” of course, was Jesus’ shocking claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Strong language to be sure – a bit too strong for his hearers’ tastes! Jesus’ words turned off many of his hearers; and the Gospel account allows us to listen in on this drama of division and discord which Jesus’ tough talk has caused – as a result of which many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
At this critical juncture, Jesus turned to that most select group of his disciples - the 12 - and asked: “Do you also want to leave?”
Looking back, again, at the event that precipitated all this, the miraculous feeding of the 5000, we recall that the 12 had already been given their part to play on that occasion, a foreshadowing, so to speak, of the future focus of the Church’s mission and ministry and of their role in it. Now the same 12 come to the fore again at this dramatic moment of crisis, which decisively distinguishes and separates the faithful 12 from others. At this critical juncture, the 12 are called upon to step up and commit themselves. This they do through their designated leader, Peter, who, as spokesman for the entire Church, performs this fundamental function in all 4 Gospels. “Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter asks. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
Centuries earlier, something similar had transpired when the Israelites had gathered with Joshua at Shechem [Joshua 24]. When challenged by Joshua, the people answered, reflecting on what they had learned about God in their own experience as a people - how he had brought them up out of slavery, how he had performed great miracles, and how he had protected them along their entire journey.
What was anticipated in Israel’s experience was finally fulfilled in Jesus, the point of whose life is God’s identification of himself with us - God’s personal experience of human existence from the inside, from our side. So, if we are truly to encounter God and find life for our world, then we must recognize the human ways in which God has chosen to encounter us – as Joshua challenged the people to recognize in the experience of Israel, as Paul challenged the Ephesians to recognize in the sacrament of Christian marriage [Ephesians 5:21-32], as Jesus challenged the 12 to recognize in himself.
In answering on behalf of the 12, in his role as spokesman for the entire Church, Peter professed the foundational faith of the Church and highlighted for us just what our personal stance toward Jesus should be.
For each one of us, Peter’s question and answer continue to apply: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It is widely noted how nowadays most Catholics receive Communion at Mass (a virtually unprecedented state of affairs historically). But that really should just push the question to the next level. Just how total, how transformational, is our unique Eucharistic encounter with the Risen Lord, the Word of eternal life? Is Jesus just one option among many? Or have we too come to believe and be convinced that he is the one and only one to go to.
Just as Peter had to answer the question whether to stay or to leave and why, so too must we – today and every day. What does it really mean here and now for us to stay?
Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 26, 2012.