Following Jesus by Receiving Him in Holy Communion

We have been reading at Sunday Mass for the past five weeks from the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, our Lord’s famed Bread of Life discourse. It is perhaps the most important chapter in St. John’s account of our Lord’s public ministry, because in it He lays the groundwork for the Church’s faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the necessity for us to receive our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in order to make it to Heaven. Today, though, this beautiful teaching is interrupted by a sad reality: many people reject it.
St. John tells us, “Many of Jesus’s disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” Remember what our Lord has told his disciples in the past few weeks’ Gospels: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life within you. He uses a very graphic Greek word for “eat” that means to gnaw on his flesh in the manner of a wild animal, making it clear that He intends us truly to eat His body, which we do in the Eucharist. And this is indeed a hard teaching to accept, both for the Jews of our Lord’s day, and even for us. St. John continues, “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” And Jesus lets them go. He does not run after them saying, “No, no, you misunderstood!” Rather, he allows them to walk away, because they understood correctly – He really does want them to eat His flesh in the Eucharist – and have rejected His teaching. God always respects the freedom that He gave us.
We can see here too how the Eucharist is a breaking point in who really follows Jesus. The people who cease to follow Him in today’s Gospel are at least honest: they know that if they reject His teaching on the Eucharist, they cease to follow Him in the hearts, and so go back to their former lives. For us, the idea of following Jesus is a figure of speech that signifies believing in Him and following His teachings, often making very real sacrifices to do so. For the people of Our Lord’s time this was also the case, but following Him was also a very literal reality. He was constantly on the move from one town to another, criss-crossing the Sea of Galilee to go from place to place in order to preach repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God. So those disciples who are always around Him in these Gospel accounts were literally following Him from place to place. They left their homes, and often their families, behind in order to seek our Lord’s life-giving teachings because they were fascinated with Him and wanted this new life of grace that He promised.
Therefore, when the people who reject Him today, in St. John’s words, “returned to their former way of life,” they ceased following Him not only figuratively but literally as well. They returned to their houses and families and went back to their occupations and wordly concerns. They abandoned the great adventure of following Christ. A few weeks before, we read about His teaching that we must “work for the food that endures for eternal life.” Following Jesus, as I explained that Sunday, is a difficult task, and it means living our lives in such a way that we are able to receive the Eucharist, that is, persevering in a state of grace and seeking forgiveness for our sins when we do not succeed at doing so. The disciples who walk away from the Lord today can also be seen as rejecting this teaching: they are no longer willing to work for the food that endures for eternal life, no longer willing to live their lives in such a way that they would be able to receive the Eucharist, and so they go back to their former ways of life.
Even though this rejection of our Lord and His teaching is sad, it does offer us hope because it confirms the perpetual teaching of the Church that the Eucharist really is Jesus’s most sacred Body and Blood. That our Lord allows the unbelieving disciples to turn away shows that He really meant what He said, and that it really is necessary for us to receive the Eucharist if we want to make it to Heaven one day, because it is the Eucharist that provides us the strength that we need to live in accord with God’s will.
After the disciples turn away, our Lord turns back to the twelve Apostles, His most dedicated followers, and asks them, in complete simplicity and freedom, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter responds on behalf of the rest of the Apostles, showing the primacy given to Him by Christ as the first Pope, and says some of the most beautiful words spoken in the Gospel, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” In this confession of faith, St. Peter sets out the attitude that all of us ought to have before our Lord, present in the Eucharist: “To whom shall we go?”
Really, what could there possibly have been for those disciples who abandoned Christ that would be worth more than following Him? And what could there be for us that would possibly be worth more than being able to receive the Eucharist? Well, we know that all too often we choose sin over Christ, but each time that we do is another opportunity to turn back to Him with our whole hearts and say, with St. Peter’s words, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. I desire to receive you in the Eucharist more than any sin that would lead me away from you.”
After the unbelieving disciples leave, St. John gives us an explanation of our Lord’s attitude towards them. He writes, “Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.’” Here, St. John affirms that our Lord shares in the divine omniscience of God the Father, His fullness of knowledge of all things that have ever happened or will ever happen. God sees the unfolding of human history from above: All times are as present to Him.
Thus it is that God has known from all eternity which of us would follow His Son and which of us would not. He has known who will faithfully, lovingly, and worthily receive His Body and Blood, and who would choose to return to their former way of life. And yet, in the mystery of His providence, even knowing that so many would reject Him, He still desired to become man, to suffer and die and rise from the dead for those who would believe, and to leave us this great sacrificial banquet of the Holy Mass and His real presence in the Eucharist out of His great love for us.
This is truly how greatly the Lord loves us: that even if you were the only person in this church able to receive Holy Communion today, Jesus would still have gone through His Passion just for you, and He would still come down upon this altar in order that you, particularly you, might receive Holy Communion today. And if that isn’t motivation for being able to receive Holy Communion, and for doing so frequently, I don’t know what is. Just as our Lord knew that the unbelieving disciples would walk away and no longer follow Him, yet He still preached the Bread of Life discourse to strengthen the faith of those who would believe, so too, despite the great numbers of people who reject the opportunity to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, He still wants to draw near to those who do believe in order to feed us with the food that endures for eternal life, so that one day, having been nourished by His Body and Blood, we might arrive at the eternal banquet and live forever with Him in heavenly bliss.