Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
All this week, we’re reading from John 6, where Jesus gives the bread of life discourse. He says, in no uncertain terms: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you do not have life within you.”
Confronted with this hard saying, some — like Peter — believe in Him and remain His disciples. Others, finding the saying too hard, walk away: “As a result of this, many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with Him.”
This helps us consider a curious feature of today’s world: How many people believe they can have it both ways, rejecting the hard saying, while still claiming to be His disciples? But it doesn’t really work. It never has.
To respond adequately to this error, we have to be clear about two things. First, Jesus never stopped inviting people to follow Him! He was always willing to seek out “tax collectors and sinners;” He was always willing to welcome back the prodigal son or daughter. In that way, Jesus was very soft.
But, second, there are hard sayings, and there are hard choices to make. Jesus invites everyone to follow Him. But He never pretends that everyone who receives the invitation is a disciple. He leaves the choice to us — to accept the hard saying or to reject it. In that way, Jesus was very hard.
And it wasn’t just the bread of life discourse. All through the Gospel of John, we see Jesus conduct a series of extended, hard conversations — for example, with Nicodemus, with the woman at the well, even with Pontius Pilate. Jesus is always willing to engage in the conversation and make the invitation. But He never softens the hard sayings. And He always leaves the choice with the person: to follow Him or walk away.
Similarly, in every age, the Church has had to maintain some hard sayings: about Jesus being truly divine, about the place of images (icons), about the sacraments — especially the Eucharist — about the pope, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption, abortion, the purpose of human sexuality and a host of other issues. In every age, some people have remained with Jesus and some have walked away.
I wonder if we’ve lost some of that integrity, both as inviters and as followers. The world wants us to soften the demand — to pretend that there are no hard sayings and choices. But that wasn’t Jesus’ way, and it can’t be ours.
St. Athanasius, whose feast day we celebrate this week (May 2), knew this pattern in his own life. He was present at the first great ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, which defined the divinity of Christ. Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria for 45 years after the council. He was exiled five times, for a total of 17 years, because he stood up for the hard sayings of the Council of Nicaea against those who wanted to soften the choice, making Jesus more than human but less than divine.
The world today presses believers to compromise the faith by avoiding hard sayings and choices. Our response needs to be a deeper examination of conscience — Have we compromised? — and a growth in integrity, both as evangelizers and as disciples.