One of my favorite novelists is the Roman Catholic Walker Percy; he was trained as a physician, and after a long bout with tuberculosis started to write. He wrote about half a dozen novels, numerous essays, and even some philosophical works. He was a Southerner, and lived most of his life in a small town in Louisiana. In 1977, he published an interview in Esquire magazine that was entitled “Questions They Never Asked Me.” Percy realized at some stage that in his career that he had done many interviews and answered many questions, but that there were plenty that nobody had ever bothered to ask him, so he decided to ask himself. So the Roman Catholic novelist Walker Percy, in 1977, managed to interview himself.
The first question he asked himself was “What kind of Catholic are you?
Question: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
Answer: I don’t know what that means. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Question: Yes. Answer: Yes.
Question: How is such a belief possible in this day and age? Answer: What else is there?”
What else is there? In a way of course Percy was being a bit facetious. The whole idea of interviewing yourself, asking yourself questions that presumably you already know the answer to, is itself a bit facetious. But there is seriousness in it too, because if you have seen something of who Jesus is and what the Church asks us to believe about him, then something of an answer to the question of how we can believe what the Church asks us to believe, something of an answer is at least begun in the feeling that there is nothing else. Nothing else really worthy of our belief. Nothing else that we could possibly need. Nothing else that literally feeds our soul and gives us what we must have for eternal life.
It is this feeling that has perhaps seized Peter in today’s Gospel reading.
As you know we have been dwelling on the events and teachings recounted in the Gospel of John’s lengthy sixth chapter, and today we consider its stunning conclusion.
In this chapter Jesus has fed the five thousand, walked on water to come to the aid of his disciples, and has rather audaciously and at some length proclaimed himself to be the bread of life that has come down from heaven and that those hearing him must eat his own flesh in order to live forever.
In every case, both by his deeds and his words, Jesus is progressively revealing more and more of who he is to the disciples who are following him and hanging on his words.
But as he reveals more of who he is, a rift begins to open up in the minds of the crowds who have been following him. “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
It’s not clear exactly what these disappointed disciples think is such a hard saying, but there’s no shortage of possibilities to choose from. Maybe it’s the part where Jesus said he has come down from heaven, despite the fact that everybody knows his father and mother.
Maybe it’s the part where Jesus said that nobody has any life unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, despite the fact that eating human flesh and drinking blood of any kind, much less human blood, is strictly forbidden to the Jewish people.
Just about everything Jesus has said over the last 25 verses is so outrageous as to be practically calculated to provoke the dissatisfaction and disbelief of most people who are listening to him.
And yet he doubles down. “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?”
Now many commentators puzzle over exactly what Jesus means here, but I think he must be hearkening back to something he said in John chapter 1, when he met Nathaniel and surprised him with the revelation that he actually already knows Nathaniel and is even supernaturally aware of the wisecrack that Nathaniel had made to Philip about Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth. Back then at the beginning of the Gospel Jesus said to Nathaniel, Do you believe that I am the Messiah because I had already seen you when you were hanging out with Philip under the fig tree making smart remarks about my hometown? That’s nothing. “You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
So from the beginning of John’s Gospel Jesus has portrayed himself as the one who connects heaven and earth, who both descends—having come down from heaven—and who ultimately will ascend—who will return to whence he came where he promises us he is busy preparing a place for all who believe in him.
Of all the offensive things that Jesus has said so far in chapter 6, this is most provocative. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You find that offensive? What about this: I have come from heaven, where I belong, and I am going back there, to my home.”
And that pronouncement perhaps more than any other is the one that gets people to leave.
It may be not obvious at first why, but I think this claim on our Lord’s part, that he has come down from heaven, as he said in last week’s Gospel, and that he is going back there again, this claim is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for very many disciples who have so far eagerly followed him.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, many godly people ascended to heaven. Enoch was righteous and was taken up into heaven; the great prophet Elijah was taken to heaven. There was even a legend that Moses himself did not really die and instead was carried up to heaven.
No one, though, no one did what the Nicene Creed says Jesus did: “He came down from heaven.”
And how could he do that? He did that because Jesus has always been. Before he was born into human flesh he was already the eternal Word of God. As John’s Gospel stresses from literally its opening words, the Word is God and the Word was with God before the creation of the heavens and the earth, and now the Word of God has become flesh and is dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ.
And yet, even in the face of the miraculous deeds and the dazzling words of Christ there are always some who do not believe.
There are always those who as John says murmur against him and find what Jesus says about himself too offensive to hear. And in verse 64 Jesus says he knows this himself; he knows that even though everything he has said is spirit and life, that some will not believe.
And knowing this, he turns to the twelve, and he asks them whether they too will be offended and go away. “Do you also wish to go away?” Will you too not believe?
It’s Peter, characteristically, who speaks for the remaining dozen disciples when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
Or, in other words, “What else is there?”
We know that before now the disciples have sometimes had trouble understanding what Jesus says and does. They have not always been entirely on the ball. But I think we can argue that they have seen something important about who Jesus is by now. They have managed to gain some important insights.
Peter speaks for them all when he says it is Jesus who has the words of eternal life. He is the one who speaks truths not just about life generally but words that produce eternal life, words that have saving power. And as challenging and difficult as his words often are, as baffling as his pronouncements can be, they are convinced that in the words of Christ are the words of life that they and we vitally need to hear.
And furthermore they both believe and know, they have trusted and now they can see for themselves, that Jesus is as Peter puts it here “The Holy One of God.”
So unusual is this title—The Holy One of God—so unusual is this that later copies of the Gospel of John actually replaced it with more familiar terms. Yet this is in fact what Peter said, that Jesus is “The Holy One of God.”
So strange and rare is this term that nobody knows what it means for sure. But here is my best guess.
Peter and the twelve are not offended, and they do not go away. And maybe that is because they realize something that no one else wants to hear.
They realize that everything Jesus has said, no matter how outrageous, everything that Jesus has said in John chapter 6 is really true, everything he has said really are the words of life itself. His words disclose who he is and the true reality of things:
Jesus has come down from heaven.
He has come to give us the gift of his own body, and that body is nothing less than the means of our daily spiritual sustenance, nothing less than the bread we need to live. It’s the bread we eat here: at the altar.
And he is going back to God his Father.
And all this is possible because he is the Holy One of God. He is not an ordinary human Messiah, a leader, a teacher, or a prophet, though he is all those things.
In the Bible to be holy is to be separate; to be holy is to be set apart from ordinary, profane things.
And Jesus is the Holy One because he is the one who is holy from the beginning, from before the world was made through him by God his Father.
If this is so, that Jesus is the Holy One because he is set apart by God his Father, because he is God the Son, and he has always been from the beginning, then what else is there really?
And so what would you say if someone interviewed you? What if someone said to you: “How can you believe what the Church proposes for belief in this day and age?”
Should we murmur against God and desert the Lord? Should we wander off and say “No, this is a hard saying, who can listen to it?”
Or should we say, “Where else should we go? It is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, who speaks the words of life, who gives himself to us as the bread of life, and he alone has come down from heaven and has gone back to there to prepare a place for us all.” If all that is so, then we can and should say, “What else is there?”