This is the last of five consecutive Sundays in which we have been hearing Our Lord’s teaching in Chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. Here Jesus refers to himself as the Bread of Life. His teaching is in the form of a dialogue with fellow Jews who neither understand nor accept his claim to have a unique relationship with God greater than any enjoyed by their ancestors, including Moses. He tells them he has come from God and that it is now through him a person can have the best possible relationship with God.
In this dialogue Jesus declares that that while God had done great things for his people in the past, principally at the behest of Moses and other great leaders, it is now through him that God that God is providing for His people. It was through him that God was would draw people into a relationship with the Father; and he was ‘bread come down from heaven’ for this purpose.
As we heard, this radical teaching led to most of his hearers walking away. They could not accept what to them was a preposterous claim. It’s the still the case in the world today – countless people reject Christianity today (or the way some of us live it?) but we must not forget that it was so with Jesus too. While Christ died for everyone, not everyone wants him.
Having been rejected, it’s a weary and despondent Jesus that says to Peter and the remaining disciples: ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ Peter’s reply became a classic summary of the faith of the early Christians: ‘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’. Most of us, in our own individual ways, share that faith in Jesus which Peter professed. It may vary and be shaky from time to time but in the main we have that faith in some shape or form.
For some taking part in this Mass, however, their problem is not with Jesus but with his Church. They have become disillusioned and are hanging on just by their fingertips. With all that they see wrong with the Church they are, what one writer calls, ‘exhausted Catholics’. But, like the few disciples remaining with Jesus, they have nowhere else to go. The Church has been their home for so long that they cannot bring themselves to walk away for good, tempted as they are.
However, we have to recognise that younger generations don’t have our patience. They will not accept what they describe as the ‘un- Christian’ like treatment of divorced and remarried people, unmarried couples in long-term relationships, gay relationships and same sex marriages. Neither will they accept the ever so slow progress of developing the role of women in Church ministry (which they and society at large see as blatant sexism).
While there is nothing easy about following Our Lord’s demanding teaching – think what it was like for martyrs down the centuries – we have to recognise that there are people who have not walked away from Christ but who struggle to find him in Church governance.
If you feel this way, I would ask you not to give up on your local parish community where Christ is to be found. In such a community where we feel comfortable, we can gather in Christ’s name to experience his presence in the Eucharist and in one another; where we are fed with ‘Bread come down from heaven’ to nourish us and enable us to support each other and people in need; and all taking place in the gentle and compassionate spirit of Pope Francis.
In a prayer in Mass just before the Sign of Peace, we ask the Lord to ‘look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church …’ That’s a centuries old prayer and is used to this day for good reason. It reminds us that our Church has always been sinful because it is made up of flawed people just like ourselves … and where you have flawed people, there you will find flawed structures too. But it is Christ’s Church, not ours and it is the faith of the Church in Him that draws us together into our local parishes.
God willing, in the coming months more of us will be able to meet again in safety in church, enjoy each other’s company and rediscover the joy of parish life where everyone is needed, respected and loved in Christ’s name.
Holy name, Jesmond
22 August 2021