Near the end of the 2006 film The Queen, the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) comes to the palace for his regular audience, in the course of which, he reassures Her Majesty that her temporary drop in popularity had been - just that – temporary. To that, 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 -probably why that scene was in the film in the first place and why it got the audience reaction it did at the time!
Two years later came the PBS mini-series John Adams. In one episode, the not particularly popular President Adams goes to the theater and unexpectedly receives a rapturous ovation. Unimpressed, Adams, who realizes how temporary and short-lived such a sudden burst of popularity probably will be, says to one of his associates: "A mob is still a mob, even if it's on your side"
What Adams and the Queen understood is that popularity is ephemeral. Obviously, an important lesson for anyone who wants or depends on having a popular following!
Jesus also attracted a 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 remember how the delighted crowd responded by attempting to acclaim Jesus as their king – 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 did not want to hear. That, of course, is the danger any public figure faces! That's the age-old difference between a serious leader, who tells people what they need to hear, and a populist demagogue, who tells them what he thinks will keep them on his side!
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, much less a ticket to a lifetime of free food, but rather a challenge to reorient their lives in relation to a more permanent reality.
So, 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?” In effect he challenged the 12 to step up and commit themselves, which they did 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. 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 their historical experience, as Paul challenged the Ephesians to recognize even in their domestic family life [Ephesians 5:21-32], as Jesus challenged the 12 to recognize in himself.
And so Jesus challenges us - today and every day - 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, and that remaining connected to him is essential?
Just as Peter had to answer the question whether and why to stay or to leave, so too must we – today and every day. It is always easy to find reasons to leave, and in the present-day Church there are certainly plenty such reasons. These include exploitative and predatory sexual behavior by those in positions of trust, flagrant and repeated abuses of power, self-serving secrecy, and an inflated sense of entitlement insulated from any accountability. Certainly the past and present moral failures, and failures of leadership within the Church on the part of those of us who publicly represent the Church scandalously disfigure the Body of Christ and obscure the words of eternal life that are intended to be the Church’s message. Such scandals certainly suggest understandable reasons for someone to re-evaluate one’s relationship to the Church.
And yet, like Peter, I know of no hope – either for me or for the world – without and apart from Jesus, without and apart from remaining personally and permanently connected to the community of Jesus’ followers.
So the question becomes more challenging than ever: what does it mean, here and now, to stay?
Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 26, 2018.