At some point in our lives, I believe we all hear or see someone do something and we just say, “that’s it.” Then we turn away. We simply have heard enough. We simply cannot let go of our own ego long enough to have compassion or to listen well. Or, we have perhaps made the right decision by turning away. It is not easy to discern. We are very, very human.
Today in the Gospel we return to Jesus and his claim He is the very Bread of Life, and encounter that same issue, yet the stakes are much higher than I think most of us face. He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” And the reply, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” remains a question to this very day. For this teaching is difficult.
It goes to the heart of the matter of the faith of the people - how did the people see God and their relationship with God? What does it mean to abide in God? God is totally other. Why would the Messiah say such a thing?
And more on a personal level, what did they expect from a Messiah? Is it Jesus? If Jesus is the Messiah, how does what he is saying fit with the laws and Holy Scriptures? What is the covenant, holy promise, that is made with God? Is this claim of Jesus a truth, or is it blasphemy? Is it too much of a stumbling block to overcome? For many, the answer was yes. It was simply too much.
To have a better understanding of the hopes and dreams of the people for their Messiah, we look back at the reading from Kings. It is a time of great celebration. David, the warrior king who united a nomadic people under God is gone, but his son, Solomon, fulfills the promise to God and builds the fabulous Temple to “house God.” The people have a fine and wondrous Holy place, built through compromise and treaty, not war. The Ark has a home, and three times a year the people will come to the Temple, from near and far, as it was written so to do. It is a glorious day of celebration for God’s people.
Yet in the midst of this, Solomon the wise king proclaims, “There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.”
For Solomon also knew there were contingencies in this arrangement. God had not wanted a king, but relented in reply to the requests of the people and priests. David, his father, had mended his relationship with God at great cost, and Solomon was determined to keep the way of the Lord. Yet, we know what happened next. He died, his sons split the kingdom, wars began, and the Temple was destroyed and people enslaved in Babylon. After about 400 more years, the Second Temple was built as we read in Ezra and Nehemiah. Then came Herod the Great, who added to the Temple. These are the remnants we see today. And it is that Temple that in John’s Gospel, one of Jesus’ first acts is to overturn the tables. John makes Jesus’ position of the Temple, of earthly kings clear from the beginning - that is not the way.
Yet, that is the way the people have dreamed about. A warrior king, David, one who will lead them in the way of the Lord, unite Israel and return the people of God to rule the land in justice. Indeed, after the sign of the loaves and fishes, the crowds immediately called upon Jesus to be their king. We do not know what he said to them to calm them or to get away. We do know John recounts that he began his teaching about the Bread of Life thereafter. First, to the people in the wilderness numbering 4,000, then in the town, and now, in the synagogue in his hometown - whose total population was around 1,500.
Those in attendance knew Jesus. And when we hear Jesus, for the third time, proclaim, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” they would have been astounded - to say such things as a Rabbi in the synagogue! This is not God. This is not our teaching, and this is not what we expect from neither a Rabbi, and not ever from the Messiah. God is not about abiding. God is about leading us, saving us ... if we follow the rules.
And to modern ears, these words sound like cannibalism. They are, well, tough to swallow. Indeed, the words of our Eucharist are to those who have not heard them before quite shocking. How would you respond?
Can you say you would have continued to follow Jesus, the divine man who refused to be called king, who would not raise the people in battle for their rights, but asked them to abide together as one? One who spoke in riddles and parables that are difficult to unpack? Or would you go back to what was familiar, and understood. We have many challenges ahead. Our world is in a mess of biblical proportions. It would be easy to want to go back to what is familiar, understood. Or, we can do as Peter did and say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter looked to God’s way, as Solomon prayed the people would do. To put it simply, he had faith. We, too, can not only look to God’s way, but also abide together, in faith, as we have done thus far. Sometimes we just have to admit we don’t have the answer. That God is too big for us to understand. Yet, at the same time, we can abide with God, as created beings. Abide together, and abide in and with God. This is the great mystery and hope that we have in Christ. To know He dwells in each one of us, and that we may work each day to find that indwelling Spirit to carry us through and with one another, even if it is challenging to what was before, or what we thought was so. Yes, it is difficult, but it is also a lovely and great mystery that we share in our faith. We, like Peter, chose to keep on following. And like Peter, we might fail, but we know we may be forgiven if we just keep going in that faith.