Quite a few preachers will, I think, be glad to see the back of ‘bread’ as the central theme of the Gospel readings of late! First, we had the feeding of the five thousand, immediately followed by four more Sundays (including today) in which the readings from John have centred on the theme of bread, and Jesus as the bread of life. You begin to wonder how much more you can usefully say about bread! But, in today’s final reflection on this theme, Jesus goes a step further and tells his followers to eat his body – which he refers to as ‘the living bread’ – and to drink his blood. And some of them respond by saying, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ Those closely attached to Jewish law and purity customs would find Jesus’ words very hard to take. What he is talking about amounts to nothing short of cannibalism; no wonder that many of them began to turn away from him. A modern day – albeit rather more frivolous – version might be the story of the priest who was repeating the familiar words, ‘This is my body broken for you, and this is my blood shed for you.’ when, all of a sudden, a little girl sitting near the front cried out, with typical childlike honesty, ‘Oh, yuk!’ Actually, in the early days of my own ministry, I remember an elderly woman who confided she had always struggled with the images of body and blood, and I guess this is one of the reasons why I have instinctively never felt at home with the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood. Mind you, being vegetarian probably doesn’t help! Personally, and more seriously, I’m more than happy to live with the power of symbols and metaphors. The thought that ordinary, everyday things can be transformed into something holy, and that we can somehow, mysteriously, share in the divine life by participating in this sacramental act, opens up many possibilities for transformation in our lives and, who knows, perhaps even a few miracles.
But I find myself genuinely moved by those followers of Jesus in today’s reading who gave up when it all became too difficult. It is striking that Jesus doesn’t compel anyone to stay with him; he gives them the option – mindful, I suppose, that what he is asking of them is difficult. Other things Jesus asks of his followers seem equally impossible: love those who hate you; turn the other cheek; sell all your goods and give the proceeds to the poor. No wonder people feel that, attracted though they are to the figure of Jesus, what he asks of his followers is, in the human sense, too much. Easier, sometimes, to walk away – at least that’s an honest response to a challenge that seems too demanding. Belief itself is difficult, not least in a largely secular and sceptical culture, suspicious of many of the sources of authority which, in the past, would hardly ever have been questioned.
I wonder if you have ever reached the point where you could join with the author of Ecclesiastes, when he writes in the opening words of his book: ’Meaningless! Everything is utterly meaningless!’ Or, as another translation puts it, ‘Futility, utter futility! ‘ Have you not known times like that when you just wanted to throw up your hands in frustration and shout, ‘What’s the point?’ To feel so exasperated with God, or with the world, or with your own life, that you just want to – hopefully metaphorically – bang your head against the wall and cry, ‘Enough is enough; I really can’t hack this!’ Nothing – even religion – seems to make any sense. Well, who has not had such moments? Surely it is part of what it means to be human; it’s normal, and we can be greatly encouraged by prophets, saints and mystics through the centuries who had struggles of their own, who felt let down by God and doubted their faith. People of faith are certainly not immune to doubt or questioning, even though some of them might lead you to think otherwise. Sometimes, in fact, it is the frustration of faith itself that brings on the feelings. We read the headlines: more conflict and destruction; more innocent suffering and pain; the continuing plight of the poor, of refugees and starving children – and so it goes on. We shout to the highest heaven, asking the age-old question which has bugged people of faith through the ages – even Jesus on the cross: O God, where are you? I cry out, but you do not answer. But it isn’t just adversity that leads to this sort of response, because that same feeling can also come upon us when things are going well. Success, health and wealth are no guarantee against moments like these: meaninglessness and futility lurk unbidden around every corner of life. We can still be haunted by that essential question: what is it all about?
Not long before my ordination, I was talking about my doubts with my then spiritual director. I thought it was just me, but he recalled being in a very similar situation himself some thirty years earlier. He had said to his own college principal on the very eve of his ordination. ‘I’m not sure I can go on, because I am not sure I believe in God’. The reply he received was: ‘That will always help others. I’d have been far more worried if you’d been so full of certainty that you had no room for doubt.’ I hope you won’t feel this is a confession too far for a priest, but I have considered, a number of times – intellectually – trying to walk away from religion. I think I have sometimes felt more a sense of God’s absence than God’s presence, and I sometimes find myself in tune with those critics of religious faith who say it is little more than irrational superstition, an emotional crutch, or a source of divisiveness in the world. There are still times when it is hard to make much sense of it. And yet……as A.N. Wilson once put it when talking about John Betjeman, faith, for Betjeman, was not about certainty, but more about holding on… often in the dark and in not knowing. Those of you who have encountered the work of the Welsh priest/poet, R.S. Thomas, will know that he also writes a great deal about the silence of God and the absence of God, which, for Thomas himself – paradoxically – spoke of God’s presence.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus puts his disciples on the spot when they are faced with difficult propositions. He asks them directly if they also wish to go away and abandon faith in him, just like many others were doing. But Peter declares, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Perhaps in today’s context we could put it like this: ‘Lord, you have the words that give life meaning, purpose and value’, just as the words we hear in the Eucharist, ‘This is my body given for you’ – give meaning, purpose and value to our lives. The sacrament of the Eucharist is a sign of the love and self-giving which lie at the very centre of the Christian understanding of God. But we do well to remember that that love springs from a palpable brokenness of both body and spirit. It comes to us out of Jesus’ own experience of doubt, abandonment, suffering and death. That is why this sacrament embraces all our doubts, fears, anxieties and inadequacies. As we participate in it, together – for this is one place where we most definitely are all in it together – we can be assured that all of these are taken into the very heart of God. But in addition to all of that, this sacrament is also about transformation and it points us towards a new kind of living. Some might call it conversion, or even resurrection. But whatever we call it, it’s a far cry from meaninglessness or futility.