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Many of his followers walk away from Jesus in the Gospel for this Sunday, the 21st of Ordinary Time, Year B.
We can relate.
Jesus asks them to believe things that don’t ring true, and to keep following him when his teaching loses its charm and suddenly sounds bizarre and out of step with contemporary society.
We experience the same thing. When the Church says the “sins that cry out to heaven” include abortion and homosexual acts, one group balks; when the Church adds rejecting immigrants and exploiting overseas labor to the list, the other side squirms. When the Church insists that Catholics “are to adhere … with religious assent” to the Holy Father, one group refuses when the pope is Benedict XVI; another group refuses when it’s Francis.
We respond like the “many disciples” in Sunday’s Gospel who say: “This saying is hard. Who can accept it?”
Jesus has just told them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood or they will have no life in them, and the image disgusts them. Jesus doesn’t soften his message. Instead, he does something far more merciful: He shows them how they can find their way to faith.
“Does this shock you?” he asks. “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Essentially, he is saying that he is the divine figure called “the Son of Man” in the Book of Daniel and that he will prove it when he rises from the dead and ascends to the Father.
Nonetheless, “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
Not only does he let them go, he turns to his own apostles and says, “Will you also go?” He doesn’t compel them to stay. He gives them their freedom to walk away.
In answer, Peter does what he does best: He says what needs to be said.
Jesus would later tell Peter that Satan will sift the apostles like wheat, and that Peter must strengthen their faith. Strengthening others’ faith is Peter’s special charism. At the miraculous catch of fish, Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” acknowledging Christ’s holiness. At Capernaum, he said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” identifying who Jesus is.
Now, he says, “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.”
That’s the best he can do, and it’s good enough. He can’t affirm that it is somehow okay to eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood — that still makes no sense to him — but he can say that Jesus is the only force on earth he can trust.
We can do the same thing: Make an act of faith in Jesus Christ, knowing he would not steer us wrong, and then try to understand the teachings that bother us. As St. Augustine put it:
“For we believed in order to know. Had we wanted first to know and then to believe, we could never have been able to believe. What have we believed and known? ‘That you are the Christ the Son of God.’”
When St. Paul says, “Wives be subordinate to your husbands,” the same principle is at play.
The Second Reading might be the modern-day equivalent of “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Our contemporaries are blasé about the Eucharist — maybe they don’t take it seriously enough to be shocked by it — but are much more likely to be offended by a Biblical statement that seems to undermine the value of women.
In this case, Christians like to point out that the corollary to the wives’ duty is, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church.” I love the way St. John Chrysostom spelled out what this means in the life of a husband with a difficult wife:
“Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse. Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the Church,” he said. “Even if you see her looking down on you, nagging and despising you, you will be able to win her over with your great love and affection for her.”
Looked at that way, the wife doesn’t seem to have such a raw deal.
But there is a further repercussion of Jesus’s statement about married women; it’s the duty of every member of the Church to “be subordinate” to Jesus Christ. As St. Jerome put it:
“Let bishops hear this, let priests hear, let every rank of learning get this clear: In the Church, leaders are servants. Let them imitate the apostles,” he wrote. “The difference between secular rulers and Christian leaders is that the former love to boss their subordinates whereas the latter serve them. We are all that much greater if we are considered least of all.”
Do you have a problem with what Jesus Christ requires of you as expressed in the Body of Christ, the Church? Believe who he is and know who you are, and be humble and docile.
After all, God has only one wife, the Church, and he insists that we reciprocate and have only one god.
“There is only one Church that Christ loves,” said St. Cyprian, commenting on the Second Reading. This makes the Church a continuation of the People of God in the Old Testament.
The prophets tell Israel again and again to be a faithful wife to the God who has espoused them, and again and again has to chastise them for being an adulterous wife who gives herself away to other lovers.
In Sunday’s First Reading, Joshua tells the tribes of Israel: “If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve; the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
We have the same stark choice to make.
Turning to Jesus Christ means turning our back on the gods we served before. You can’t follow Jesus Christ and pursue wealth as an end in itself. You can’t follow Jesus Christ and live a comfortable life, maximizing your pleasure. You can’t follow Jesus Christ only when his teachings match your political preferences.
Jesus wants your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul and your whole strength. We know the alternative: slavery to the world, the flesh and the devil.
The Church asks of us to commit to doctrines we don’t understand: To reject contraception and consumerism; to oppose divorce and division; to put the poor first and ourselves last.
A lot of it might make no sense to us. But where else can we go? We have met Jesus Christ and know that he is our origin and our end, the one who sustains us and sends us.
His demands may be easy or difficult, consoling or embarrassing. We need to say, no matter what: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Image: Sacred Heart statue at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.