Intern at St. Peter's Cathedral
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "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."
There is a movie that came out in the late 90s, which some of you may have heard of, called The Matrix. It tells the story of a world in the future where humans are enslaved by machines in a virtual reality computer program, called the matrix, as the heat from their bodies is used to power their captors. The majority of people have no idea this is happening, but there are some that feel a longing, and they search for something more. For some sort of escape. The way they do that, the way they become free from the matrix and make it to the ‘real world’, is by making a choice. They can either take a blue pill that will make them go back and live normal lives inside the matrix, or they can take the red pill and become free people in the real world.
The main character of the film, Neo, chooses the red pill and is then saved in the real world by a man named Morpheus and the crew on his ship. Since Neo has never actually used his real muscles, the crew slowly works on strengthening his body and getting him accustomed to life in the real world. When he is finally deemed ready, he is told the truth about what the Matrix is. Can you imagine that? Being told that your whole world, that your entire life, was a lie? That none of it was real? What would you say to that? What would you do?
Well, Neo reacts so strongly to this truth, that he becomes sick. After he has recovered and is alone with Morpheus, he asks “I can’t go back, can I?” Morpheus answers by saying “No, but if you could, would you really want to?”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus breaks beyond the walls of what his disciples, and the Jews, think is ‘real’ to the hard truth. We have been listening to that truth as well for the past several weeks. We have heard Jesus say that he is the “Living Bread”. That we cannot have life unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood.
If the thought of anything resembling cannibalism weren’t disgusting enough, we also hear vague hints that Jesus might even be God himself. Two weeks ago, we heard him say, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God.” Right before chapter 6, he claims that “If you believed Moses, you would believe me.” That is as if he were saying ‘if I say it, it’s like Moses, who handed down the law of your faith, said it.’ Later, in chapter 8 of the St. John Gospel, he comes out with the truth in the famous statement, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” I AM being the name God gave himself to Moses in the bush.
These are very serious claims. Not only is Jesus suggesting he is God, but he is saying you should eat God’s, his, flesh in order that you might not die.
It’s no wonder many of his disciples (not just the Jews listening to him, but his own disciples!) said, “this is a hard saying.” Hard, not in the sense that it was hard to understand him, but instead, in the sense of ‘who can accept this?’ Even in our day and age, people have a hard time with this notion. Not too long ago, a woman told me that a friend she brought with her wouldn’t even receive a blessing at Communion because she was so disgusted by the idea of “eating his flesh and drinking his blood”, as we say in the Holy Eucharistic liturgy.
And it is at this point that many left him.
After they leave, Jesus turns to the disciples who are left and asks “Do you also wish to go away?” To this Peter replies “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is Peter saying ‘No, I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to go back to how it was before. I don’t want to go back to the Matrix.’
The thing is, Jesus had what those in the crowd wanted. As he pointed out two weeks ago, food like manna can only sustain your life for a short amount of time. All the Jews who ate manna, bread that literally fell from the heavens, are now long dead. Jesus’ claim is that his bread, the bread of life, will allow someone to live forever. And the people listening to him are not opposed to this idea. Earlier in the chapter, which some of you may remember from when we read it at the beginning of this month, they even say to him “Lord, give us this bread always.”
Of course, this is before they know that the bread Jesus’ is referring to is his own flesh.
What Jesus is offering, everyone wants. Living forever has always been a fantasy for us humans. Even though Neo became ill at the realization of the truth, he still wanted it. From the beginning of the movie that is all he really wanted. To know the truth.
And the Jews and disciples in the Gospel today are no different. Of course they want to live forever. They just didn’t want it with Jesus’ terms.
But the truth is, Peter is right. There was no other way to obtain everlasting life than through Jesus. Others might claim to have a way, but the standards they place for us to live by are so impossibly high, that there is no way we can attain them on our own. Even Neo had to have help in The Matrix to see beyond virtual reality to true reality.
And once we realize that, can we really go back?
There is one person in The Matrix who does choose to go back. His name is Cypher. But he turns into something much more repulsive than the idea of eating flesh. He betrays his friends to the machines who once imprisoned them. He kills his teammates by unplugging their brains from the matrix, one by one, as he tells them his plan over the phone. He even agrees to allow the machines to plug him back in and use him as a living battery once again. He becomes a traitor not just to his friends, but to the whole human race. To all living things really.
And for us? If we turn back from Jesus? Well, we simply return to the life we had before. A life full of sin and full of death. We might even have manna, bread from the heavens, but what good is that for when death comes knocking at our door?
Remaining with Jesus requires one thing. And it goes beyond just the recognition that Christ, and only Christ, has the “words of eternal life.” What we really need is faith.
As Peter says at the end of the Gospel today, “We have come to believe and know you are the Holy One of God.” Not just ‘believe’, but ‘know’. Because of his belief, Peter has come to know the truth of who Jesus is. And, as a result, he knows that he can trust Jesus. That no matter what, it will all be okay. That something that sounds terrible, like eating Jesus’ flesh, will not be an evil thing, no matter how it sounds. That we might have to change our ideas and ways of living to match God’s moral teachings. That we have to enter into God’s norms. God’s reality.
It may not seem like following Christ is the best idea at first. His way can be uncomfortable because we have to change. We have to give up our old ways, and in the case of Jesus telling us that we have to eat him, the living bread, we often have to adjust our views in ways that go against our upbringing and culture. We may react violently to the realization of how wrong we were, like Neo did, or some may try to completely reject change, as Cypher did when he tried to go back to the Matrix. But when we trust God, when we put our full Faith in Him, we find that our old ways aren’t truly good. That they lead only to death and destruction. Jesus leads us to real life, to life eternal. He frees us from death, just as Neo was freed of the Matrix. Even though his path may seem offensive to us at first, there really is no other way. Even if we disagree with something in the Creeds, or we have trouble with the communion words, or even with the idea that Christ had to die on the cross for our sins, He is still Lord. There is no other way. And so we must have faith. Faith that God can go beyond all odds to save us. Faith that God will always be there for us, even when we don’t see Him. Even when it seems like he isn’t even there.
And Praise God that he is there. As long as we stay with Christ, he will be there to pick us up when we fall. To save us. To preserve us in everlasting life.
And for that we can say, “Thanks be to God.”