The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that faith is “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Furthermore, he tells us that without faith “it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
We know that faith is a gift from God and it is a gift that he freely and readily gives to everyone who asks for this gift. But receiving the gift of faith we must also assent to it, we must choose also to be believe, we must act upon it. Some believe because of an inner impulse, some because of what they hear, some because of what they see. Some people believe everything they hear or read and others believe very little of what they hear or read. Faith, believing, is not always easy as we know so well.
Many who had followed Jesus for some time and thought him to be the Messiah said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” and they left Jesus, turning to some other teacher or belief – turning, perhaps, to the equivalent of Oprah or Dr. Phil who really are no different than each of us - as they looked for the one who would solve all of their problems and answer all of their questions (John 6:60). They sought a practical guide, not a relationship of love.
To what saying do they refer? Why do they leave? As we have heard for the past several weeks, Jesus told them:
Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever (John 6:57-58).Jesus speaks with concrete images when the people first object to him because he said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (John 6:35). He answers their murmuring and their arguments even more concretely, saying, “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Jesus does not back down.
Just as many of his first disciples could not believe his words and abandoned him, many today do not believe these very same words. Many today say that Jesus only speaks symbolically here, but anyone who speaks these words,
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 in. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink (John 6:53-55),is in no way being symbolic. Jesus means what he says. He himself is “the way and the truth and the life” and because he is the Truth he will not and cannot lie to us, he will not and cannot deceive us (John 14:6). What he speaks is truth and he speaks it to us that we might embrace it with faith.
We know that this is not the only teaching of Jesus that is hard to accept. Many who follow after him abandon him when he says, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). Others leave when Jesus says, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:44). Some leave when he says, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Still others leave when Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Following after Jesus is no easy or simple task; it is difficult but it always leads to life, to lasting joy, and to fulfillment; this I promise
Believing Jesus’ words is not always easy for us. Like Jacob, we wrestle with the Lord (cf. Genesis 32:23-33). Like Job, we argue with him and demand answers (cf. Job 31). We yell, we argue, we question, but in the end we, like Jacob and like Job, must yield to him who is love itself.
The Apostles, too, struggled like us in this. Recall the passage of the calming of the storm at sea. The Apostles, in their fear,
Woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:38-40).The Apostles saw Jesus heal Peter’s mother-in-law; they saw him heal the paralyzed man and the man possessed by a demon; they heard the words he spoke and still they did not have faith at all times. But in the end they were faithful to the Lord, they followed him and trusted him, always begging him, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
When we, too, say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”, Jesus turns his gaze toward us. He looks us lovingly in the eyes and, with great sadness in his heart, he asks us, “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67). Peter answers him with the answer that each of us should give 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” (John 6:68-70).
What keeps us from saying these words with Peter? Why do we also not follow after him unreservedly? Think back to the time that Jesus called Peter. Peter returned from fishing and Jesus taught, seated in his boat. Pope Benedict XVI beautifully reflects on this passage:
Thus, Peter’s boat because Jesus’ chair. When he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:10). Jesus, who was a carpenter, was not a fishing expert and, yet, Simon the fisherman trusted this Rabbi, who gave him no answers but called on him to have faith (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 17 May 2006).In much the same way, Jesus gives us no answers but calls on us to have faith, after which he will teach us. Peter’s faith
was already faith, open to a greater reality – open above all because it was not faith in something, but faith in Someone: in him, Christ. Thus our faith is also an initial faith and we must still journey a long way. However, it is essential that it be an open faith that lets itself be guided by Jesus, because not only does he know the way, but he is the way (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 24 May 2006).Each day we journey ever onward on this great pilgrimage of faith, as we journey with and toward the Lord. “The school of faith is not a triumphal march, but a journey strewn with sufferings and love, trials and faithfulness to be renewed every day” (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 24 May 2006). Jesus does indeed care that we are perishing; he feeds us with his Body and Blood to give us life and without this bread from heaven “the journey will be too long for” us (I Kings 19:7).
Let us take up our cross each day and, nourished and sustained by the Holy Eucharist, continue on our pilgrim way, saying to Jesus who leads us always, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”