When it’s hard to follow Jesus

Over the past month, the Sunday Gospels have recounted the "Bread of Life Discourse" from the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel where Jesus revealed that He offers His Body and Blood - the Bread of Life - to His church, that all who believe in Him and eat His flesh might have eternal life. This truth is remarkable and glorious but also must have been unimaginable to some, and thus, Jesus found opposition among His disciples. They argued that He could not offer Himself as food. When Jesus replied that His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink, some could only respond by saying, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" Even after Jesus assured them that He was speaking the truth, we hear with heavy hearts that, faced with the "hard" teaching of Jesus, "many of His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him."

Seen through the eyes of faith, this abandonment is tragic. These disciples walked with Jesus, saw His works and heard Him preach. How could they turn from Him? Were they confused with what He proposed regarding His Flesh and Blood? Were they indignant that Jesus, the Son of God, acted in a way they found less than divine? Why was their faith lacking to the point that they could not believe His words? We cannot know. We just know that many disciples chose this point to walk away from Our Lord and the salvation and eternal life He promised.

There comes a point in every Catholic's life when they realize the challenges of Christianity and ask themselves whether it is worth it to continue to follow Jesus. Usually this occurs after we leave our homes and are free to make life decisions on our own. It is then that many abandon Christianity because we think it is easier not to go to Mass and pray, easier not to live the moral life required by our faith, easier to go with the flow of our culture and not fight against it. This is not a new phenomenon. More than a century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried" (What's Wrong with the World, 1, V).

For many, the temptation to abandon Jesus is the result of one of His teachings. For the disciples in today's Gospel, it was the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but it may be one of many that are upheld by the Catholic Church. Today, many view Catholic teaching as irrational, old-fashioned, restrictive and even hateful when it comes to issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and stewardship of God's creation (just to name a few). Because of this, it is hard to follow Jesus Christ and live His truth because doing so may bring the "sword," causing division within families, between friends and neighbors, and in society in which we live (cf. Mt 10:35). But we know that we gain nothing by dismissing Jesus and His truth for a fleeting worldly peace founded on sand. It is better to build on the solid rock of faith.

Others choose to remain with Jesus and His church, but prefer to choose which of His teachings to follow. In the 4th century, St. Augustine wrote, "For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the Gospel" (Contra Faustum, XVII, 3). We can see the dangerous inconsistency of following Jesus but not trusting the church He established to lead and feed His flock. No doubt each of us has struggled to understand some aspect of the Christian teaching on morals and doctrine, and perhaps some of us still do. When facing this doubt, we must do our best first to understand exactly what the church teaches and why. This requires us to read what has been taught, to engage in dialogue with priests and laity who are faithful to the church and knowledgeable about its teaching and to pray to understand the divine truths we struggle to comprehend, as well as the faith to follow these truths while still we are in the process of understanding.

In the Scriptures and through His church, Jesus reveals the beauty of all creation and the truth that leads us to eternal life. Let us pray that we remain faithful to Him, His truth and His promises, even in the difficult times when we are tempted to stray.

Lord Jesus, through your grace, enlighten our minds and hold our hearts firm in faith and love of you.

Fr. Wagner is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's secretary.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015