This incident found in John’s Gospel reminds us that not everyone took to Jesus positively, even those who seemed to be quite close to him. Some of the people, not unlike today, were murmurers and grumblers – folks not too keen on what they were hearing. Following Jesus was going to be no picnic (despite the way he’d fed the five thousand people). The idea of total commitment was a disturbing concept.
We hear it in that sad and haunting verse: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” Obviously hurt by this defection, Jesus turns to Peter and the others who are closest to him and asks them if they’ll be taking off too – “Will you too go away?” Peter, as was his style so often, seems to speak on behalf of all Jesus’ loyal followers – “Master, to whom would we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.” For Peter, at this time, it’s unquestionable – “If Jesus said it, it must be true.” If you’ve looked ahead to the First Reading, you’re aware the Church reminds us that Jesus’ experience of rejection was not unique. 1500 years earlier, Joshua, disciple of Moses, gives voice to a similar tribulation. He addresses all the people – “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve.” The people answer in the same vein as Peter – “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord.”
One of my brother, Bill’s favorite books was This Tremendous Lover by the Irish Trappist monk-priest Eugene Boylan and first published in 1946. In 2002, I sent him a replacement copy for the one he’d given away. On his death four years later, it was returned to me. I had inscribed on the fly page – “Bill, I hope this is as inspirational as you remember. The bookstore that special ordered for me said it was the last one in the United States. Imagine that!” Boylan writes in his book: “Our Lord was not looking for an enthusiastic public reception… his miracles were not a ploy to grasp temporal power. The wonder of his public life is not the marvelous works He actually did, but the many and more wonderful works which He could have done and did not. All He did and said and allowed to happen to him was part of the plan.”
What Jesus has to say is so important that he does not consider changing his message to please the people. In fact, we can accurately say that a “Jesus” who doesn’t offend isn’t the real Jesus.
Our hearts go out to Jesus, and those who stuck with him. If you have ever had anyone walk out on you, you can empathize with Jesus. I recall the mixed feelings I had when in the late 60s and early 70s, we had five deaths in one year. It was not customary for those of us who were away for studies to come home for funerals, so there was a void for farewell until we got to visit the cemetery. Then what some writers refer as the “Exodus” began to happen when several of our peers felt the calling to leave community. Some gave us a chance to say good-bye; others quite literally disappeared in the night. These were good people – some were rising leaders in community. What did they know that I did not? My feelings were not of betrayal like Jesus suffered – but confusion and loneliness, yes. Were the shrinking numbers the handwriting on the wall and I was too blind to read it? History tells the rest of the story: WE’RE STILL HERE.
What does Jesus do when his ranks shrink? Does he cajole the people, “Oh, I’m sorry that what I said was so hard to take. Maybe we can compromise.” Not at all! Jesus does not let human opinion sway his proclamation of divine truth. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”
When God asked Aaron why he built the golden calf, his only defense was, “The people made me do it.” What was Peter’s knee-jerk response a couple years later. Remember when Jesus was on trial? The inquisitive young girl asked him if he was one of Jesus’ followers? Peter’s leadership in the upper room was easy, he was with friends. But outside the rank and file of unfamiliar faces he fell apart. Which life-style will you lead – people’s opinion driven, or God-focused?
If our ears are open to the voice of the Spirit, we hear daily Jesus’ quizzing us, “Who do people say I am?” He asks us, like he does all his friends about our personal conviction – “Who do you say I am?” The question also comes to us as a community. Are we swayed by “public conviction” forming the community we think the public wants us to be? Or are we formed by “personal and communally discerned convictions” – helping to lead the world where it needs to go?
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB