If you were reading readings for Mass last Thursday you would have read Matthew’s gospel – chapter 22, verses 1-14. A king prepares a banquet of fine foods and sends his servants to call those who had been invited; but they are not interested. Some just walk away (one to his farm, another to his business), while others seize his servants and maltreat them and even kill them.
Today’s gospel concludes the teaching, which Jesus has been giving over the last few weeks. He, too, has been offering a banquet to his listeners; a banquet of food and drink so rich’ it offers eternal life – his own flesh and blood. Now he awaits the response of his listeners.
It left his listeners stunned, distressed, outraged. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life.
If I had been Jesus, excuse me for this silly hypothesis; I would have unveiled this mystery a few moments before the Last Supper. It would then have made much more sense and would have spared the apostles the misery of seeing their Master humiliated by the desertion of so many followers.
So I would have begun, ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life’, and then very quickly I would have taken the bread and said, ‘This is my body which will be given for you.’ And then with the wine: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’
See how smoothly the transition could have been accomplished? A tiny moment of puzzlement, a little reflection, and then the ‘aha!’ moment. ‘Oh, I see what he means. Wow! He had me worried for a moment.’
But the inscrutable wisdom of the Master cannot be questioned. It was apparently some months before the apostles could put Jesus’ words at Capernaum together with his words at the Last Supper, the first Mass. For them it must have been a happy moment. They had believed without seeing and their faith in the Lord was not disappointed. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe (Jn 20:29).
Sadly, many of his followers could not believe and they left him, saying: This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? And, of course, according to human logic they were right, as are many Christians today who simply cannot believe this doctrine. The guests who walk away from the king’s banquet make their decision. No, I’m going to the farm; I have some work to do there. No, I’m off to attend to my business; I need to make money.
And the disciples who decide to leave Jesus and stop being his disciples are also making a choice. We might judge that they are making the wrong choice, a decision that will have consequences, but we cannot deny that there is something true, something honest, something healthy, something real about their walking away from what they cannot accept. It is the logical thing to do.
Jesus did not call them back. He did not say he was only speaking in metaphors. He did not say all would be made clear at the first Eucharist. As I have discovered, to reason with someone who has lost his faith in Jesus’ words is impossible because the heart of our faith is our belief that what Jesus says is true, always and everywhere, for all time, whether we understand them or not. Our faith is in the man, the person of Jesus.
I recall a longish conversation I had with a colleague at one of the schools I was teaching in. We read through John 6 together and I explained, as best I could that Jesus’ teaching was literally true, that he was teaching us that he was going to give us his body to eat and his blood to drink, and this promise was to be fulfilled in the Eucharist. At the end of our discussion he said he could not believe Jesus was speaking literally and insisted he was speaking metaphorically the same way as he was when he called himself a vine or a gate to the sheepfold.
Well, no one walked away when Jesus described himself as vine, or when he told them he was the gate to the sheepfold, or that he was the way, the truth and the life. There is one thing at least that we do know. Those who walked away were taking him quite literally, and if that were the case, surely Jesus would have called them back and explained his metaphor to them. But he didn’t because he wasn’t.
Jesus meant every word he said and he meant them literally.
Jesus did not explain the doctrine he taught because there was nothing to explain; there was only something to believe.
‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.
Fortunately, like Israel who committed themselves to serve the Lord, the Twelve commit themselves to Jesus. On their behalf Simon Peter declared: Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.
The Twelve, gathered around their Master, form the pillars of his Church. It was most unlikely that they had understood the teaching Jesus had just given; it was the person of the Christ, the man Jesus, to whom they declared their loyalty and love; their communion was with him.
We must finish with Simon Peter’s affirmation of faith in Jesus. Like all those present he too did not understand what Jesus was saying, but he believed in the person of Jesus. Listen carefully to his words as, in so many words, he says, ‘Jesus, we trust you.’
Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Though this small band of Apostles has now grown in our own day to a College of Bishops over five thousand strong they are still ‘the Twelve’. They are still the teachers and guardians of the truth Jesus has left with his body, the Church. They are as much the living voice of Christ as the Twelve were after the Lord’s resurrection.
They teach with the authority of Christ and we stand before them as we stand obediently before Christ. Many have walked away from the Church’s teaching – I will not condemn them; they may return one day. Many are not yet ready to accept the teaching of the Church – it would be foolish to condemn them – only Christ can see into their hearts.
But, and finally, what are we to make of those among us who do not believe; those who pretend to a communion they do not possess? What are we to make of those who criticize and condemn the Church, publicly and privately denying and rejecting her teachings, casting doubts among the faithful and sowing confusion and division, and yet, all that while claiming to be Catholic?
Our communion cannot be with Christ if it is not also with his body, the Church. A man is not pleased when you despise or ignore his wife because they are one body and: a man never hates his own body.
The Church submits to Christ… . In other words, she has nothing that is not his. We cannot claim to love Christ without loving the Church – and we cannot walk away from the Church without walking away from Christ.