“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In today’s Gospel we enter in the middle of a narrative in which Jesus has just finished preaching, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believe in me will never be thirsty.” The disciples are challenged and perplexed by this mysterious teaching and they struggle to believe in Jesus’s words.
They say to themselves, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus, aware of their complaints, tries to reassure them that the words he has spoken to them “are spirit and life,” but they are unable to receive him and we learn that as a result, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer followed him.”
At this point the story takes an unexpected twist. Jesus, having just been rejected by many of his disciples, turns tohis closest friends, the Twelve and dares to ask, “Do you also wish to leave?”
In asking this question Jesus humbles himself further and gives his dearest friends the freedom to choose discipleship or to turn away like the others. Here we encounter Jesus’ vulnerability.
Peter is the first to respond to his friend in this tender moment. Peter’s words are sincere, and full of love and affection,
“Lord, 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.”
As I prayed with these scripture passages, I was invited to pause here and ask…
-How was Peter able to respond with such unwavering faith to Jesus’ mysterious and unsettling words, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.”
-What was the source of Peter’s conviction? What was the source of his belief?
-What is the difference between Peter and the other disciples who leave after hearing the very same words?
I suspect that it wasn’t because Peter was smarter than the other disciples or even that he was able to fully understand Jesus’ words while the others were not, but rather because of Peter’s friendship with Jesus. I suspect that Peter’s proclamation of faith was rooted firmly in all that he had learned through accompanying Jesus in his public ministry and sharing his daily life.
For the past several years I have worked in the Philippines at a program that brings students from the U.S. to study for a semester at the Jesuit University in Manila. The key to the program is that each week—all day Monday and all day Weds—our students are immersed in local communities that are living in great material poverty.
Emmie is one of our community educators who welcomes students to accompany her 2 days a week. Emmie supports her large family by walking through the streets selling homemade delicacies she cooks each day. A few years back one of our students, who I’ll call Rebecca, loved to walk with Emmie through the streets selling food in the afternoons. As they walked together, arm in arm, Emmie would share stories with Rebecca. Emmie confided in Rebecca about her family and how some of the children she was raising were actually her grandchildren who had been abandoned to her care. Rebecca watched Emmie give discounts to tricycle drivers and street sweepers who she knew didn’t have enough money to buy her snacks. Emmie welcomed Rebecca to spend the night in her home and invited Rebecca to share meals with her family, attend prayer meetings with her, and play with her children. Towards the end of the semester, a large typhoon hit Manila and creek that runs by Emmie’s house rose and flooded their humble home, destroying almost all of their material belongings. Rebecca entered Emmie’s house the day after the flood, only to find her sweeping out the sludge and debris from the flood. Rebecca was devastated, tears welling up in her eyes. Emmie gently looked at Sara and shared, “It’s ok, don’t worry, my 8 children are alive and well and that’s the most important thing, my family.”
Like the disciples who struggles to accept Jesus’ words, Rebecca struggled to accept the words of Emmie. “It’s ok, we are ok, and that’s the most important thing, my family.” What about their clothes, their stove, theie TV and karaoke machine? How could it be alright? Rebecca was challenged. However, like Peter who had grown in relationship with Jesus, Rebecca had grown in relationship with Emmie, walking with her day to day, was about to trust Emmie and follow her lead. Rebecca had come to know Emmie’s kind heart, and the way she loved her family beyond measure. And through her relationship was able to believe in the sincerity of Emmie’s words, “It’s ok, don’t worry, my 8 children are alive and well and that’s the most important thing, my family.” Rebecca was able to believe, her heart stirred.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Peter speaks these words from the context of a deep and lasting relationship with Jesus. Imagine for a moment what Peter would have seen has he walked with Jesus, what their friendship would have been like…
Peter would have been with Jesus when he…
- Turned water into wine at the wedding of Cana for his mother,
- Healed of those who were blind, lame and paralyzed,
- Gave sight to the man born blind
- Healed the women who had been suffering with hemorrhages for 12 years
- And when he fed the five thousand just the day before.
- As well as ordinary moments of walking together in a town or taking time to rest and pray together.
Peter’s words of great faith are rooted in the context of his relationship with Jesus. All along, Jesus was inviting Peter into friendship, much like Jesus invites us into friendship.
We also see this in the first reading with Joshua. Joshua has gathered together all of the tribes of Israel, and in front of all the people Joshua recounts all of the wonderous things the Lord has done for his people, starting with Abraham and ending with God freeing him people from slavery in Egypt. Joshua invites the people to remember their relationship with God and boldly proclaims, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Both Joshua and Peter are both able to profess their faith and God and stand in their discipleship because of their enduring relationship with God.
[What was Peter and Jesus’s friendship like? When you spend time with people, you begin to see as they do, act as they do, feel as they do. Peter’s words, “You have the words of eternal life,” speak beyond a knowledge of the intellect, and move to felt experience, lived experience with Jesus. See who Jesus saw, paying attention to who Jesus was caring for, learning to go away and rest like Jesus did, learning to love as Jesus did. How do we walk with Jesus, become friends with Jesus, and accompany him in our day to day?]
I would like to conclude with one final story, also from my time in the Philippines.
For over 4 years I had the privilege of accompanying the L’Arche community in Manila, a community of men and women with intellectual disabilities, who live together with Assistants. The community members with intellectual disabilities are affectionately called Core Members. Raymond, one of the Core Members, has autism and communicates non-verbally. I have to admit that when I first met Raymond, I was unsure of how to interact with him, how to befriend him. Like the disciples who turn away in today’s reading, I was tempted to turn away from Raymond and no longer accompany him…But slowly, through many visits to the community, attending to the quiet tug in my heart to draw near to him and certainly with the help of the other Core members – Raymond and I grew in friendship. I learned his ways… I learned how to stretch out my hand to him in a gesture of greeting, I accepted his invitation to gently rub the top of his head to comfort him, and watched him clear the plates from the table knowing that it was his way of participating and caring for the community. Overtime we became friends and through his friendship I was invited into deeper communion with God. Like Peter, who understands Jesus’ words because he has grown in loving friendship with Jesus, I was able to understand Raymond and accept him for the mystery of who he is because of our friendship.
Peter, Joshua, Emmie, and Raymond invite us to walk with Jesus, and grow in friendship with him daily. We live in hope that, like Peter, we may one day be able to proclaim with the whole of our lives:
“To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.
Originally from Southern California, Heidi has spent 9 out of the last 12 years living and working in Latin America and Asia in collaboration with the Jesuits in higher education. Heidi graduated from Santa Clara University with degrees in psychology and religious studies. She joined JVC after graduation and spent two years in Tacna, Peru serving in a women’s shelter and Jesuit high school and elementary school. Heidi returned to the US to peruse her Masters in Pastoral Ministry and MSW at Boston College. In 2010, Heidi returned to Latin America to work with Casa de la Solidaridad, Santa Clara University’s study abroad program in El Salvador. In 2011, Heidi, together with 4 colleagues, launched Casa Bayanihan, an alternative study abroad program in Manila, Philippines patterned off Casa de la Solidaridad and sponsored by University of San Francisco. In 2012, Heidi moved to the Philippines where she spent the last 6 years living and developing Casa Bayanihan in her role as Co-Director. Heidi retuned to the US at the end of 2017 and is currently working in San Francisco at St. Anthony’s Foundation’s Medical Clinic as a therapist. Heidi’s professional interests lie in accompaniment-based education, Ignatian spirituality, clinical social work with marginalized populations, and spiritual formation.