Jos 24: 1-2, 15-18; John 6: 60-69
We’re at a turning point these days. It’s a turning point in the life of the Church. It’s certainly a turning point in our collapsing political system. All we’d need is for the same to happen in our economic structure and we’d be opening ourselves to major transformation. Turning points, though, are quite difficult. We’re no longer over here where we used to be and our old way of thinking and yet we’re still not over here, crossing into the promised land. Rather, as uncomfortable as they are, turning points land us straight in the middle, in this liminal space where nothing seems certain and what we had deemed knowable at one time no longer is. A “dark night” as the great mystics would define these moments.
Turning points, as people Israel finds themselves in the first reading, as well as the disciples in the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse in John, often leave us with two choices, as it does for all of them today. One, they can proceed as Joshua and Jesus will, in faith and trust of the God that has seen them this far, trusting not in structures but in the very essence of who they are or they can retreat. They can retreat to their old way of life, their former way of life, and abandon it all while clinging to what they can be certain of, no matter how dead and non-life-giving it really is, as some of Jesus’ followers do in today’s gospel.
People Israel finds itself on the cusp of the promised land as they proceed with Joshua. It would seem like a rather simple question and answer that is posed to them today, as if they have much choice about moving one step closer to what has been anticipated for forty years now, wandering through the desert. Yet, as easy as the answer is as to who this God is they will follow, there’s been nothing certain as the forty years proceeded. Remembering their own history opens them up to hesitation and even a desire to life of slavery in Egypt. It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone would want to return to such a life, but it’s what they had known. It’s the structure in which they operated and lived and so anything other than continuously opened them up to fear. Despite not the essence of who they are, they’d rather cling to structures than step into the unknown. It was and is much easier to retreat to our old way of life and our old way of thinking where we can be certain and all-knowing, rather than taking that one step forward to a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being people. It’s scary on a personal level let alone on structures that find themselves disintegrating before our very eyes and need to!
There is, though, in today’s gospel a sense of tragedy and a sense of sadness in all of it. John tells us straight out that some leave. They just can’t handle who this Jesus is and the very identity in which he leads them. Understand, though, that they too were under intense pressure to conform to the ways of the political and religious systems of their day. They lived with this sense of oppression but their identity is wrapped up in it all, binding them to a system rather than to their essence as people. Some just couldn’t handle what was being asked of them and so it was easier to leave. Self-preservation would stand with greater importance than taking this leap of faith. Heck, even some of those that stay are nothing to be cracked up about. Not only will they have Jesus killed but he will also be betrayed from within the community. If he was aware of this, it only begs the question, why did he pick such people as leaders in the first place? It’s a question with no answer but certainly one we can reflect upon in our own turning points in the Church and politically. They finally stand before who it is they had awaited and still can’t handle it. Of course, because they still haven’t let go of their old way of thinking and can’t see beyond what they expected rather than who they have received.
Peter, although probably unaware of what he’s saying as he often is, probably says it best to his fellow followers and to us today, asking not where to go but to whom should they follow. Peter recognizes in those words that if we cling to anything other than the essence of who we are, the very one we can’t cling to, we will fall into the trap of self-preservation and clinging to structures, trusting institutions, rather than putting our faith and trust in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the essence of who we are that calls us back here each week to this table and it will be this very essence that will see us through these turbulent times.
You know, they’re only bad if we allow them to be. The very premise of John’s gospel is that of glory, that God can take any situation and allow it to be transformed into a new way of life and thinking. Of course that requires an affirmation on our part, as it does through Joshua today, that we will only follow but one God, the God that has continuously throughout history seen us through the deserts of our lives. The God who has seen us through the darkest of nights, teaching us to trust and what it really means to have faith. It is the God who marks us from the beginning with that very essence of who we are in relation to God. Honestly, it’s too easy to retreat. It is, though, our deepest sense of faith and trust when we can stay and commit ourselves to the living God who brings us to these turning points of our lives, into this liminal space. As it is with people Israel and the disciples, we are left with a choice in these uncertain of times, do we put our trust in the God who has and gives life from the very beginning or do we retreat? More often than not we retreat, out of fear, but with hope that the promised land remains just one step ahead.