A number of years ago, I walked the Camino de Santiago, the 800 kilometre ancient pilgrimage route across the top of northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. There, the remains of St. James the apostle are found. It`s a long walk. You might wonder why there are so many people who take a month or more out of their lives and are willing to walk such long distances, often in great pain because of the blisters and bruising on their feet. And if you ask these pilgrims, “Why are you walking?” as I often did, you get a whole variety of answers, responses which are as varied and as unique as the individuals you walk with on the way. But if there is a common theme that seems to emerge from these conversations it is this: most of the people walking the Camino are, in one way or another, looking for something. They are looking for something more. They want to know if there is more to life than their present circumstance is giving them, if there is more to life than what their culture or their family is telling them. Often, they seemed to have an intuition that we might call spiritual, that the craving for meaning and purpose in our lives can be satisfied neither by human invention nor social convention
Is there more to life than this? And if there is how do we get it? We`re not talking about mere survival here. We`re talking about something more. Life in its fullest, abundant life, the life we were created for and meant to live. Maybe, if we dare, we`re talking about a life so rich and so full of love and energy that it will even burst the usual constraints of death, space and time. How do we get that? How do we live that sort of life?
That’s the question that Jesus returns to in our gospel today. We`ve spent five weeks now reading through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John, beginning with Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. It`s usually called the bread of life discourse, because it begins with the loaves of bread and continues with Jesus proclaiming himself as the bread of life. But it`s not about bread. What`s at stake here is life.
You might recall that when we first started talking about the feeding of the five thousand, I pointed out that in the gospel of John, Jesus never does any miracles. The great acts of power that he does are not miracles, they are signs. They point to a bigger truth, a more challenging truth. Jesus has fed the crowd of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. And so the next day, the crowd seeks him out again, hoping for more food. But Jesus responds to their questions by pointing them towards the bigger truth. He wants to move the people from a search for bread to the search for life. But that path from bread to life passes through a series of claims that Jesus makes about himself and God. And that’s where many in the crowd get stuck. In response to the desire for more bread, Jesus says `I am the bread of life`, taking the divine name `I am` given by God to Moses for himself. He tells the crowd that just as God sent manna to their ancestors in the wilderness, it is `the Father who sent me`. He claims to be from God, the bread `which came down from heaven` and that he will ascend once again to where he was before. These are big claims, claims which are summarized by the writer John in the prologue to his gospel, where he writes of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word who was God, who became flesh and dwelt among us.
If you believe this, if you can trust Jesus, you will have life. Abundant life, eternal life, that life in its fullest sense that we all in one way or another are looking for. That`s what`s at stake. The something more that we`ve been searching for appears to be within sight, within our grasp.
But first you have to get past the claim.
And most of the crowd, and many of Jesus own disciples can`t do it. They just can`t do it.
“This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” The people are offended, even scandalized.
Why is it so hard?
For two reasons I think. First because it is an affront, a shocking challenge to our understanding of God. And second because it calls us into a relationship that may seem too close for comfort.
How do you picture God?
The people listening to Jesus would have been caught off-guard by Jesus’ claims. They knew God as YHWH, the almighty God who with a mighty hand and outstretched arm had brought their ancestors as slaves out of Egypt and into the land of Israel, establishing a covenant with them and making them his people.
They knew that the dwelling place of YHWH was the Temple in Jerusalem. Not that the Temple could contain God, even, as Solomon says in our Old Testament reading, even the heavens and the highest heaven cannot contain the Lord, but yet it is the Temple that is filled with the glory of the Lord and is the place of his presence on earth. To these people the claim that Jesus, this man from Nazareth standing in front of them was actually the Son of God, the human person in whom the presence of God dwells, well that was a scandalous claim.
I suppose that after 2000 years that claim seems less scandalous to us today, though no less daunting. But how do you picture God?
We might think of God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Perhaps we use philosophical concepts, God as supreme being, as almighty, as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Perhaps you think of God as Spirit, invisible, present, breathing life into every aspect of our physical world. Whatever understanding you have, how do you reconcile that with the claim that, in the words of Saint Paul, in the human person of Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell?
The claim that Jesus makes is hard first of all because it challenges our understanding of who God is and scandalizes the crowd that is gathered around him in the synagogue in Capernaum.
But the second reason that it is hard is because we are being called into a relationship, a relationship with this God who is found in the person of Jesus. Jesus is offering us life, but it is not life all wrapped up in a box and handed over to us with no strings attached. It is the life we seek but it is found through relationship with him.
That’s what Jesus is trying to convey when he uses the image of eating. That’s what the gospel writer John means when he uses the words believing and abiding. We are being invited into a relationship, with all that a relationship in its fullest sense entails: commitment, fidelity, trust, intimacy, mutuality, vulnerability, knowing and being known, sacrificial love, all the hard stuff.
Do you think you can handle the intimacy of a relationship with God? Can you handle the commitment of a relationship with God?
Do you get why most of the crowd disappears?
I have to think that Jesus is disappointed when the crowd, and not just the crowd but also many of his disciples turn back and leave him. He turns to the twelve, his closest friends, and says to them, “do you also wish to go away?” It is Peter who speaks.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Why does Peter choose to stay when others decide to leave?
I expect that Peter is a seeker, just like the rest of us. He too had been looking for that something more, searching for that abundant life that each of us wants. I suppose that`s why he left his fishing boat to follow Jesus in the first place. And as he followed Jesus, as he walked with him, day after day, month after month, as their relationship grew, Peter must have experienced something. He must have had at least a taste of that abundant life that he was seeking.
And so when Jesus offers that life through relationship with him, for Peter that amazing claim has a ring of truth about it. Jesus has the words of eternal life; that’s what Peter has come to believe because he’s experienced it, at least in some measure. And so he’s going to stick around. I admire that persistence.
And maybe, like Peter, that’s what we need to do too. We too need to stick around, to stay with Jesus long enough to experience the life he has to offer.
Which, if you think of it, is kind of like a pilgrimage.
Today we celebrate the baptism of J. Today, she begins her pilgrimage with Jesus, as a member of this family that we call the church, as a child of God. Her pilgrimage, like Peter’s, will take persistence. There will be ups and downs. She will have to stick with it, to keep on going, putting one foot in front of the other. She’ll need the support of her family and her community and her God along the way. But we pray that through it all, she will experience the “something more” that is at the heart of what Jesus has to offer. Life, real life, in all its fullness and abundance.
Homily. Yr A P21. August 22, 2021. Trinity.
Readings:1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43; Ps 84; Eph 6.10-20; Jn 6.56-69