21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

“Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’”  That is first line of our Gospel today.  The line sort of comes out of nowhere: which saying is too hard?  Over the past four weekends we have been hearing the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel proclaimed at Mass.  We have to look back to the Gospel of the past few weeks to put today’s Gospel into context.

Jesus has just been telling the crowds that He is the bread come down from Heaven.  He has told His disciples that He will give them His own flesh and blood as food and drink.  This week we hear the response of the crowd: they murmur; they complain: “this saying is hard; who can accept it?”

For almost 1600 years, there was only one manner in which this Scripture passage was understood: it was understood literally.  The Catholic Church, for two thousand years has held and taught that when Jesus Christ told His disciples that He was going to give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink, He meant it.  Further, we hold that Jesus fulfilled this promise at the Last Supper, and He continues to fulfill the promise to give us Himself as food in the Eucharist, each and every time we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In the sixteenth century, those who broke away from the Church began to question the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Holy Eucharist.  The so-called Protestant reformers again grumbled at this hard saying: How could Jesus give us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink?  From the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the literal understanding of John chapter six has always been held by the Catholic Church; after the “Reformation”, several interpretations of Jesus’ words sprung up almost immediately.  Today, there are dozens of interpretations of what Jesus meant when He took the bread and said “This is my body.”  Some Protestants think that He only meant it figuratively, as though Jesus were using some kind of metaphor or analogy.  Some Protestants believe that Holy Communion is only some kind of symbol of Jesus’ presence.  There are many different theories held by Protestants, concerning what Jesus meant when He indicated that His flesh was true food.

The proof that Jesus did not intend this saying figuratively is today’s Gospel: the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel.  Jesus said that He is the bread come down from Heaven.  The crowd doubted.  He said it again, and again, and again: each time even more forceful than the previous time: “I am the bread of life”; “I am the living bread”; “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you”; “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”; “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

Jesus knew that the crowd was murmuring; He knew that they were having a difficult time accepting what He was saying.  He didn’t back-peddle or soften this teaching in any way.  He reasserted it again and again.  In seven verses of this chapter of the Gospel, Jesus repeated the same teaching, until the crowd could bear it no more.  They took Him literally, and they refused to believe.  They walked away.  This teaching was just too difficult for them to accept.  “As a result of this [teaching],” we hear in today’s Gospel, “many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him.

If the crowd understood Him to be speaking some sort of parable, they would not have left Jesus.  They left, because they took these words of Jesus literally.  If Jesus had only been speaking figuratively or symbolically, why did He let His disciples walk away?  If He were merely talking about a symbol, why didn’t He stop them from leaving Him?  If by “eating His flesh” He only meant somehow that you had to “believe in Him” as Protestants hold, then why wouldn’t He have stopped them?  Why wouldn’t He have said: “No, wait.  You’ve got it all wrong.  I didn’t mean ‘eat my flesh and drink my blood’ literally.  I am using a metaphor.  It’s just a sign; it’s just a reminder of my presence among you.”  No.  Instead of stopping His disciples from leaving, He let them go.  Not only did He allow the disciples walk away: He turned also to the twelve Apostles (those who had been with Him from the very beginning of His ministry; those who constantly accompanied Him) and He asked them if they would leave Him also.  Jesus is so insistent on this “hard saying” that He allowed those who followed Him to leave if they were unwilling to accept it.  He is even willing to lose all the Apostles.  But Saint Peter, the Rock upon which the Lord said that He would build His Church, spoke up: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  In other words, Saint Peter is saying: “I don’t understand how this teaching can be true, but if you say it, it must be true.”  The Apostles witnessed all the miracles that Jesus had performed.  They had faith, and that faith kept them close to the Lord, even when He taught things that were difficult to understand.

If ever you are challenged by Protestants about your belief in the Eucharist point them to this passage.  They will raise many objections, but keep asking the question: “Why did Jesus allow them to leave?”  The passage only makes sense if Jesus meant what He said literally.

Let us also remember to always be grateful for the great gift that we have in our Catholic Faith and in the Holy Eucharist: Lord Jesus, we thank you for the gift of our Faith; we thank you for giving Yourself to us in Holy Communion.  Lord, help us to believe ever more fully and love You ever more deeply; help us to love others as ourselves for love of You.  Amen.

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