To make sense of our reading for this morning, we need a little context.
This story began with the feeding of the multitudes, our reading from several weeks ago. As far as the crowds were concerned, that was great.
Over the last few weeks, we read passages in which Jesus told the crowd that he himself was the bread of life. That was more troubling for the people who heard him.
But in our reading for today, things get downright ugly. Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them….Whoever eats me will live because of me.”
People were shocked. Some even of his disciples complain, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many of them were so upset that they turned back and no longer followed him.
Jesus asked the twelve apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom can we go.” And then Peter adds the key line: “You, Jesus, have the words of eternal life.”
Peter doesn’t always get it right. But here Peter shines. Peter shows the wisdom to stick with Jesus, to pay attention to everything Jesus said, and, most importantly, to look beneath the upsetting surface of Jesus’ words to their deeper meaning, to the eternal life Jesus’ words contain.
We, too, look to Christ for the words of eternal life. And sometimes we hear them loud and clear. We hear God tell us, above all in Jesus Christ, that God loves us and that we are created to love God back, that God loves all people, and that we are created to love all people too.
Can we hear those words of eternal life, those words of God’s love, in Jesus’ saying that so distressed the crowd that day, two thousand years ago? Thanks to two thousand years of Church teaching, we can.
When Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, we know Jesus is talking about the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
Out of love for us, Jesus gave his body to be crucified. Out of love for us, Christ continues to give his body to us in Holy Eucharist. And, by consuming Christ’s body in the Eucharist, we ourselves are mysteriously shaped into Christ’s body, we become the body of Christ, people empowered to love each other as Christ loves us.
Jesus’ shocking words about eating his body and blood are indeed words of love if you look beneath the shocking surface, if you know how to hear them.
How about other places? Can we hear the words of eternal life, the words of God’s love, beneath the surface of the events in our own lives, in places where we may find it as challenging to hear as Peter and the others did when Jesus said the words at the beginning of our passage two thousand years ago?
Here’s an easy example. In the last nine days, I have been privileged to officiate at two weddings. The wedding yesterday was for Virginia’s son. The wedding last week was for the daughter of a good friend of mine named Elliot, who lives down in New Jersey, so I spent the weekend.
A lot happened that weekend, mostly regular wedding stuff. All of it was about love.
At the center of the weekend was the moment when the young couple promised to love each other, in sickness and in health, for the rest of their lives.
But there was a lot more love than that. The couple was surrounded by family and friends who came from near and far because they loved the couple, and because they loved each other. It was, intentionally and explicitly, a celebration of extended family.
Then there were people like me, who didn’t really know the couple and weren’t part of the family, but who was there out of love for my friend.
Still farther afield were Father Domenic and you, the people of Saint David’s, who made it possible for me to be at the wedding in the first place.
Love was everywhere that weekend. Mostly it was the love people have for each other. But underneath all that human love was the whisper of the words of eternal life, the whisper of God’s love. Not everyone heard those words. But as far as I am concerned, God’s love made possible all the human love we were celebrating.
But I want to look more closely at one particular moment.
The wedding was in Elliot’s backyard, which meant a LOT of extra work for Elliot and his wife. When I was around, I tried to help.
Elliot and his father-in-law David had built an arch for the ceremony. The arch looked great. But they hadn’t taken into account the slope of Elliot’s yard, so when we put the arch in place on Friday afternoon, it looked a little lopsided. They wanted to get it right.
Elliot lifted up one end. David made measurements. My job was to tell them when the arch was level. I tried to warn them they should find someone else. They ignored me, I did my best, and David went off to cut boosters to level the arch.
Predictably, when it came time to attach the boosters, they were too small. A lot too small. I tried to look inconspicuous. They tried to pretend it wasn’t my fault. They re-measured, this time with a level, and David made new boosters. Unfortunately, because getting the boosters right had taken so long, we didn’t have time to attach them. That would have to wait until the next day, the wedding day itself.
Saturday afternoon, while Elliot was attaching the second set of boosters, the arch broke. Poor Elliot had to spend two hours on his daughter’s wedding day reconstructing an arch that he had thought was done weeks ago. He finished less than an hour before the festivities began.
I don’t know what Elliot was feeling that afternoon. I was busy taking a nap. But I know how I would have felt. I would have been furious. Not at anybody, not even at my incompetent priest friend. Furious that I had to work on this arch when there were a thousand things I would prefer to be doing, including spending time with my family. And some of that fury would have spilled over into my interactions with everybody around me.
Elliot probably did better than I would have done. But sit with that moment. If we look just at it, I mean at it as I would have acted, we would see an impatient, unhappy, irritable, and obnoxious man fussing at the world and fussing at anybody who came near him.
But if we look beneath the surface, what we would see is love: love for his daughter and an intense desire to make her day perfect. If we look even deeper, we might even hear the whisper of words of eternal life, words of God’s love upholding and sustaining Elliot and everybody else at a tense time.
Now expand out from that moment. Think about a difficult situation in your life or in our world. Hopefully, somewhere in the complicated mix of difficulties, I hope there shines a bit of human love. Whether or not you can find any human love, there is always the whispering of God’s love, the words of eternal life.
In our reading for today, Peter reminds us that our job is to listen for those words of eternal life always, and to help others hear them whenever we can.
I give thanks to God for those words of love, and for giving us the ears to hear them, however faintly. And I pray that God will help us to hear more and more. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan