TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B)
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It may seem strange to want to have a question for a motto. Most of the time we think of heraldic mottos as something aggressive or affirming. My grandmother's family were Armstrongs, and the motto of that Scottish border clan is Invictus Maneo, or "I remain unvanquished!" It is typical for a motto to be a strong, affirmative statement. So why a question?
It is because I think this just may be one of the most important questions any of us could ever consider. To me, it ranks up there with the question, "Who do you say that I am?" which Jesus asks the disciples (Mt 16:15). That is a vitally important question. Each of us must make up our minds about who we believe Jesus to be. As I wrote in my reflection last week, Christ is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Divine Son of God. And if He is the Divine Son of God, then we really ought to be paying close attention to what He has to say.
I think that Peter's question in today's reading is just as important, especially considered in context. If you recall the past few Sunday's readings, Jesus has been preaching quite emphatically that to have eternal life we must eat His body and drink His blood. A gruesome thought! Jesus persists in reiterating that His flesh is true food and His blood true drink, using words like "Amen, amen," or "verily, verily," or "truly, truly" (depending on the translation you read). It is painfully clear that Jesus means what He says and wants us to understand how important this teaching is.
But the disciples who heard Jesus preach said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" The gospel tells us that "many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (Jn 6:66). They abandon Jesus because they could not accept what He was telling them. All but the twelve. (Or more accurately, the eleven. Judas decides to betray Jesus at this time (Jn 6:71), though he remains with the Apostles).
Jesus asks the Apostles if they, too, will leave. But Peter answers for them all by simply saying, "Lord, to whom would 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."
I love Peter's answer for how it expresses both the weakness of human understanding and the strength of faith. You can tell by these words that Peter has no better understanding of what Jesus means by "eat my flesh" and "drink my blood" than any of the other disciples who chose to abandon Christ. But while Peter doesn't understand the meaning of Jesus' words, he knows Jesus. The difference between him and those who walked away is that Peter trusts Jesus. He has faith.
The Catechism teaches us that faith is both a gift from God (CCC 153) and also a human act (CCC 154). Faith can be described as a wonderful cooperation of the human intellect and the Divine will. But sometimes our intellect and our wills can fail us. Sometimes we may encounter difficulties in our faith. Many Christians, especially those of a college age who are starting to come to an adult appreciation of the faith, will experience doubt -- or what they call doubt.
It is helpful to clarify the difference between true doubt and a difficulty in belief. A difficulty is a question or a struggle to accept something. The willingness is there, but the understanding is lacking. A true doubt, however, is a more cynical denial of the faith. Think of it as the difference between saying, How can this be so? and This cannot be so! Blessed John Henry Newman once said, "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."
It is typical to experience difficulties in your faith on occasion. This can be a good sign that you are examining your faith and taking it seriously. Even I must admit that from time to time, when I am praying or engaged in spiritual reading, the thought will pop uninvited into my head, "What if none of it is real?
Rather than run away from the question, I prefer to tackle it head on. What if none of it is real? What if Jesus was a fraud? What if the Apostles and martyrs were wrong? What if the scriptures are just a bunch of ancient folklore? What if there is no heaven, no hell, no God? Considering these questions, I can easily imagine the face of Christ looking down at me: Do you also want to leave?
It is then that Peter's question becomes so important. "Lord, to whom would we go?" If none of this is real, then what else is there? If there is no God, no judgment, no heaven or hell, then what does it matter if I am good or evil? What does it matter if I love or hate? All that I could hope for would be to wring as much selfish pleasure out of my time on this earth as possible.
What if this physical world is the only world there is? What if there were no spiritual goods? No virtues, no vices, no such things as faith, hope or love? Then what would all of our human struggling amount to? What would there be left to strive for? And what sense would it all make?
If Christianity is false, then to whom would we go? There would be no one.
Christianity teaches us our proper place in the universe -- that we are not the highest beings, but we are created beings, made by an all powerful and transcendent God. Christianity tells us that that God loves us -- not only as an anonymous whole but each of us personally. Only Christianity tells us that God loves us so much that He entered into this creation and took on our very nature, so that He might live with us, suffer and die for us, and rise from the dead to bring us to eternal life with Him.
People don't reject Christianity because it is false. People reject it because it is too good to be true.
Our God loves us so much that He gives us Himself to consume. The same God who became man becomes food for us at each and every Mass, so that He may be one with us and we with Him. You have an invitation to this feast. Do you also want to leave? Or will you say, with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You are the Holy One of God. In light of your goodness, there is no one else I can follow. There is no place else I can be."