Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life.
Before we hastily dismiss these disciples of Jesus, we have to give them credit. First of all, they were paying enough attention to hear what Christ was really saying. Many times, we hear the words of the Lord at Mass, and they just go in one ear and out the other. Worse, we listen to the words of Jesus but hear only what we want to hear. Second, the disciples of the Lord who left him probably realized that Jesus’ words could not be separated from the deeds they demanded. These disciples decided they could not pay the price.
We have to give credit to Jesus also. How many leaders try to intoxicate their followers with promises of overflowing blessing? The Lord confronted his disciples with the sobering truth of expected difficulties.
Many of us today flirt with the message of the prosperity gospel – an assurance of wealth and well-being to the one who believes. “God is good! All the time!” is this movement’s cheer. And if you are not experiencing goodness all the time, then you are following the wrong God, or you are not claiming your right to reap rewards enough.
With our Gospel today, we end five weeks of Jesus teaching us about the Bread of Life. The past Sundays, I am sure you must have heard reflections on the Eucharist, but the Bread of Life discourse is not just about taking Communion. Last week, we heard Jesus proclaim, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” When and where did Jesus give us his flesh and blood? Not just during the Last Supper in the Upper Room. When someone says, “I am willing to give my blood for this,” he or she is actually saying, “I am willing to give my life for this.” When else and where else did Jesus give us his flesh and blood? On the cross.
When Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is not just talking about taking a white wafer and sipping some wine, consecrated though they may be. Jesus is actually telling us to swallow the cross. Of course, I do not mean this literally (that would be quite a gruesome Communion line especially with the size of the crosses in some of our churches), but I find the phrase “to swallow the cross” striking. What Jesus is asking is hard to swallow. As Jesus gives us his flesh and blood, so must we be prepared to give our flesh and blood, too. When Jesus gives us his flesh and blood as bread and wine, it is not just to make us feel good but to strengthen us as we give our own flesh and blood – our lives – to others.
It is an understatement to say that this is not easy. Maybe the disciples who walked away caught a glimpse of what eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood entailed, and so they abandoned him.
Before they left, Jesus asked them, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” One way of interpreting this question: Jesus was asking them, “Do you need to see wonders so that you will say yes to me?” This interpretation makes sense especially when we link it to why the Israelites said yes to God in our first reading today: “It was the Lord who brought us out of Egypt… He performed great miracles before our very eyes… Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” The Israelites said yes because of the wonders they had seen. Maybe, when they said yes, they did not really take into account how their yes was also a yes to difficulties and hardship. Maybe, this is also why they failed in their yes so many times.
There is great wisdom in our traditional marriage vows. The bride and groom say yes not only for better but also for worse. Can you say yes not only when things are easy but also when things are hard? Some people may object, “But God is good – all the time!” Yes, but God is still good even when times are rough, even when there is no magic solution to our problems.
How can God still be good during hardship? The disciples who left Jesus caught a glimpse of the truth and left, but I think if they had looked deeper, they would have seen something else and stayed.
In the summer of 1939, a gang of French boys decided to play a trick on the priest in the confessional. They sent a boy named Aaron inside to bombard the priest with the most scandalous sins they could think of. The priest caught on to the prank and gave Aaron a strange penance: He was to go to the cross and say three times to the man hanging there, “Jesus, you died upon the cross for me, and I don’t give a damn!” Aaron went to the cross and shouted almost with glee, “Jesus, you died upon the cross for me, and I don’t give a damn!” The second time Aaron said it was much softer and slower. The third time, Aaron could not even finish the sentence. He fell to his knees and looked intently at the man. It seemed he was seeing Jesus for the first time.
What did Aaron see? When Aaron shared this story forty-four years later in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he did not really explain what he saw. By that time, he was no longer just Aaron but Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger.
I think Aaron saw the difficulty of the cross, but he also saw the God who gave a damn – even if Aaron himself did not care. God asks for hard things, but he himself gives more than he asks. And when we go through those hard things, we are assured God goes through them with us. The prosperity gospel promises only good things to those who are entranced by it. The Real Gospel does not hide the hardships it entails, but it promises we will never be alone when we face them.