As reflected in our Scripture readings at Mass this Sunday, following Jesus Christ is not an easy task. It demands a total death to self and a desire to live only for him and his teachings. Many people pass on the invitation to be his disciple, or choose not to persevere in their initial decision to follow him.
As one parishioner recently commented to me, after reading the Gospels for the first time, that if the Lord Jesus were passing through towns and cities preaching his message, she wasn’t sure if she would follow him. The transparency of such a comment is as endearing as is its vulnerability. If we were all as honest, we would similarly confess that there are times in our discipleship or particular teachings of the Lord Jesus and his Church that cause us to pause and re-think where we are. Of course, being a disciple means that we acknowledge such moments and then surrender ourselves again to the Lord Jesus and ask the help of his grace. Or we decide to no longer follow him, either actually leaving the practice of the faith, or showing up and practicing the faith, but with no heart in the matter and no love in the actions.
Such a crossroads in described in the first reading at Mass today. After entering the Promised Land of their forefathers, many of God’s people chose to take on the idolatry and superstitious practices of the unbelievers around them. Joshua, the heir to Moses and the leader of God’s people, finally brought it all to a head. He assembled the people and asked the simple question: “If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.”
Basically, Joshua was asking, who are you going to follow? The choice is yours, but make it now and be transparent before all. After making such a statement, he quickly declares: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
And there it is. Joshua made his decision and he called on the rest of God’s people to make theirs.
This first reading points us to our Gospel today. After a pause last week for the solemnity of the Assumption, we are back in the Bread of Life Discourse. The exchange between the Lord Jesus and his initial listeners has intensified. It has reached fever pitch.
After teaching that the bread from heaven, the living bread, is actually his flesh, the listeners are bewildered and confused. They make the understandable statement: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
The Lord Jesus does not adjust his teachings. Unlike other areas of his preaching, where he will accommodate to his listeners and rephrase something, he does not relent. He is not speaking in symbols or metaphors. The crowd understands exactly what he’s saying and it’s shocking.
In reply to their statement, the Lord Jesus tells them: “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.”
In this simple reply, the Lord Jesus is referencing the patriarch Jacob, who saw the angels ascending and descending. Here is the Lord Jesus is telling the people that he is greater than Jacob for he himself ascends and descends from heaven.
Among the crowd were many of the Lord’s disciples and this was a pause for them. What is he saying? Does he truly want us to eat his flesh? As the Lord emphasized what he meant, we are told: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
It was too much for many of his disciples and they chose to leave. The Lord was calling for us to understand himself as the new Manna, the Paschal Lamb, and the Bread of the Presence. He was pointing to the fulfillment of all God’s promises and prophecies. The Lord Jesus would offer himself as a paschal sacrifice, die for our sins, rise from the dead, and then offer us his true and glorified flesh and blood for us to eat and drink. But this offering of flesh and blood was too much for some and they left the companionship of the Lord Jesus.
In our discipleship, we are called to pray, forgive our enemies, honor our bodies and those of others, go the extra mile in selfless service, serve the poor and sick, speak kindly of others, and – yes – eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord. Pause or no pause, this is what is means to follow the Lord. This is Christian discipleship.