I, for one, am old enough to remember when candidates for president didn’t even announce their candidacies until after January 1 of a presidential election year. But no more! Although the next election is more than 14 months away, the campaign (and the media coverage of it) is already in full swing. And that usually means excessive attention to short-term fluctuations in public opinion: who’s up and who’s down in the latest poll and the profound significance of that – at least until the next poll says something completely different! And our addiction to polls doesn’t stop after the election. Elected officials, presidents in particular, constantly ride this ridiculous roller-coaster of short-term ups and downs in popularity, which we (guided by the media) invest with inflated significance.
Towards the end of the 2006 film The Queen, there is a wonderful scene when the British Prime Minister (Tony Blair) comes to the palace for his regular audience with the Queen. In the course of their conversation, the Prime Minister tries to reassure Her Majesty that her temporary slip in popularity at the time of her daughter-in-law’s death was - just that – temporary. To this, the older, wiser, and 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.” And, of course, by the time the movie was made that was exactly what had happened, which was probably why that scene was in the film and why that scene got the audience reaction it did when I first saw it!
Similarly, the 2008 PBS mini-series John Adams had a scene when the normally not particularly popular President Adams goes to the theater and unexpectedly receives a rapturous ovation thanks to a particular position he had recently taken. Unimpressed, Adams, who realizes how temporary and short-lived such a sudden burst of popularity probably may be, says to one of his associates: "A mob is still a mob, even if it's on your side"
And, of course, what Adams understood and what the Queen was warning her Prime Minister about is all so very true. Popularity is ephemeral. Obviously, an important lesson for anyone who wants or depends on having a popular following!
Jesus also attracted a noticeable popular following in his time. Backtracking through 5 weeks of Sunday Gospel accounts to the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, we will recall how the delighted crowd responded 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 Jesus’ popularity, thanks to his demonstrated prowess as a miracle worker.
Since then, however, just like a modern news audience tracking a candidate’s declining poll numbers, we have watched the steady drop in Jesus’ popularity, as he proceeded to tell his audience things they really didn’t want to hear. That, of course, is the danger any serious public figure faces! That's the age-old difference between a leader, who tells people what they need to hear, and a demagogue, who just tells them what they want to hear! In Jesus’ case, the cheering stopped as it became apparent to people 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 their lives in relation to a more permanent reality.
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! 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?”
At this critical juncture, the 12 are called upon to step up and commit themselves. They do so through their designated leader, Peter, who 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 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b]. Challenged by Joshua, the people answered, reflecting on what they had learned about God through 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, who is God’s personal experience of human existence from the inside, from our side. So, if we want 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 - and challenges us to make our own Peter’s question and answer: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words 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 23, 2015.