So often we feel light as can be and are able to joyfully serve. Other times it’s a slow, painful slog. As the journey gets harder, temptations set in – causing us to question our decision and beliefs.
In today’s gospel (John 6: 60-69), we’re given a glimpse into what Jesus’ disciples chose when they came to that very crossroads. This passage immediately follows the one from yesterday, when Jesus asked those listening to eat of His flesh and drink of His blood.
The Words of Eternal Life
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
The harder road
Not only are Jesus’ words regarding the sacrifice and offering of his body and blood (with the instructions that these are to be eaten by his followers) a “hard saying”, the same could be said about much of his teaching. Who is truly willing to listen to that teaching? Who is willing to put it into practice?
How about us?
What makes this path so hard is that it runs contrary to all that the world teaches. We’re led to believe that we need power, status, financial security, a nice house, nice cars, a good looking body, a beautiful face (done up with make-up so as to better resemble society’s current standard), and so on.
The problem is, there just isn’t room for these things when you take on board all of what Jesus calls us to do, who He calls us to be. The more we delve into and meditate on His teaching, the more different from the rest of society we realise we need to be. For most of us, this is not only a hard decision to make but a hard path to stay on.
It is the spirit that gives life
It’s hard because we have to continue to shed things that we thought (and taught) are important, requiring us to cling solely to Him.
The path continues to lead further and further away from the world and all it’s trappings. As Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” The more we seek to attach ourselves to things of the spirit and detach from things of the flesh, the lighter we become and the higher we can climb. This is not easy.
Jesus asks us to let go of ALL attachments – possessions, interests, relationships…everything. Only then are we fully able to embrace him and give him our whole selves, and accept His perfect love. This is incredibly scary for most, if not all of us. How could we let go of these things, particularly important relationships like our spouses and children?
What Jesus is trying to tell us is to come to Him first, with empty arms and no strings attached. Then, united with Him, unencumbered by these attachments, we’re able to love with His love the very things we’re holding onto now. This is the life-giving power He’s calling us to come to – but we can’t fit through that narrow gate with all these things we want to bring with us.
He needs us to enter that narrow gate having fully let go, bringing nothing with. Only then can we return through that gate with Him to bring His love to the world, starting with those very same people we were scared to let go of.
How do we actually let go?
We must begin by praying that He reveals to us what we’re holding on to. This should be a prayer we come back to frequently, as attachments can settle in without our realising it. Knowing these, we can more clearly ask for His help to let go – expressing our genuine desire to be rid of these attachments. With the decision made, the offering given, God is able to remove that attachment from our hearts.
It’s as if you finally decide to get rid of an old sofa in your living room – something you’ve been holding onto for years and it’s taking up valuable space. Once you truly decide, “it’s time for that to go”, God can step in. Having made the decision, you continue serving where you are called to serve, each moment, each day. Before you know it, that sofa is simply gone – God took care of it for you – and He’s filled that valuable space with His love for you to enjoy and pass along.
Where else would we go?
Many of Jesus’ disciples are unwilling to accept His teachings and change in the way He’s asking. They found the road to be too hard. How about us? We can’t “kind of” be His followers. There’s no pick and choosing of which lessons we’re good with, and which we think aren’t for us. As the road gets harder for us, we either continue or we turn around and go back the way we came. Many of His disciples decided to not continue, they turned around. Let’s not be like the rich man that turned around and went home sad, because he owned much and couldn’t let go.
Jesus asks the twelve that remained, “will you also go away?” At some point in our lives, we’ll face this same question from Him. When things are very difficult, when we’re challenged to live out our faith, we’re asked whether we’re going to continue on or put down our cross and go away.
My hope is that each of us finds the resolve to respond the same way Peter does: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” However hard it is, do we really want to choose someone or something else over our God? Is any difficulty really worth giving up our very eternity? So few of us realise this is the choice, we think we can just be a “Christian like everyone else”. As the Holy Spirit through John writes in Revelation:
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be lukewarm – let’s remain on fire.
When the road gets particularly hard – when the world is calling and we question why we’re doing this, this is when we’re the most vulnerable and yet also right on the doorstep of further progress to holiness. It should come as no surprise that the enemy works the hardest at this point, telling us “this is too much, this is nonsense, you weren’t meant to do all this. Just be like the others, they’re having a great time. Don’t pray, don’t fast, go play instead – you deserve it.”
We must not listen to these temptations, we must persevere in our prayers, in our sacrifices – however hard they may seem, however dry we might feel. Let the very fact that the attacks from the enemy are happening be a sign that we’re on to something – that we’re going where he doesn’t want us to…this is a good thing!
Use that realisation to resolve to do more, go further, double down on whatever you were doing that provoked his attack. If he’s trying to stop you saying your rosary, particularly when you don’t feel like it – say it anyway and add a decade. When he’s trying to stop you from fasting, fast anyway and delay your next breakfast by 15 minutes as an “extended fast”. You’ll be surprised how quickly the attacks stop when your resolve to not only persevere but do even more.
Our prototype, our standard
In a letter to Maria Gargnani on the 4th of September, 1916 – Padre Pio wrote:
“The prototype, the example we need to mirror and model in our lives, is Jesus Christ. Jesus chose the cross as his standard, and he wants all his followers to walk the road to Calvary, carrying the cross so that they can be stretched out on it. This road alone leads to salvation.”
Padre Pio makes it clear that we are to model after Jesus – not kind of, not 75%, but a mirror – identical. It is a progression and one we’re expected to persist in. It might not be until we’re in Heaven that we complete that progression, but that’s okay – we must be progressing.
Following Him means we follow him to Calvary. The road is going to be hard, as has already been established, and there will be pain, difficulty and suffering. As Jesus reminds us, “the flesh is of no avail.” Remember, this road alone leads to salvation for our souls.
We aren’t on this road by ourselves. We have each other for encouragement and support. It is not random that we cross paths with who we do, that we’re related to who we are. These are the very people we’re expected to lift up at times, and at other times be lifted up by. We’re to climb, walking underneath Christs’ standard – the Cross – helping our friends, family & neighbours with love and charity. Not because we need them, but because we love them.
In that same letter, Padre Pio writes:
“Because of the way that grace is operating in you, you have every reason to be comforted and to hope and trust in God. This is generally the way grace works in souls who have chosen him as their portion and inheritance.”
Those who choose to walk under the standard of the Cross receive the grace to continue their climb to holiness – to being that perfect mirror of Jesus. The comfort, hope and trust in God is provided so that we can continue. Not only are we bolstered by those climbing with us, we’re each given the grace necessary to carry out His will.
Whether the grace provided allows us to run joyfully up the steep path or it’s just enough to inch our way up, one tiny step at a time, what matters is that we’re pointed up, pointed towards Christ.
Like Peter, let’s acknowledge that “He is the Holy One of God” and continue to follow him up the hard road – on fire with His love, free of our worldly attachments.