When I first visited Israel I was struck by how small a country it is. Apparently, it’s the size of Wales or New Jersey, one of the smallest states of the United States. And yet it’s from this contained space that the world’s most influential religion sprang.
I properly understood this when I went from Jerusalem to Nazareth. It’s not as far as driving from Nice to Aix en Provence. However, it didn’t turn out to be an easy journey when I went there. Returning in the dark, there were hardly any road signs (like Britain in war time). Eventually, we were stopped at a check point by soldiers. They asked where we were going. When we said Jerusalem, they told us to follow the yellow line (of course, we thought of the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz).
It’s worth remembering the scale of Israel, the Holy Land, when we read bible stories. On Sunday, the first reading describes a gathering at Shechem, in modern terms an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. Joshua, the leader who followed Moses, addresses the leaders of the people who had made the journey from Egypt to the Promised land (in miles less than distance from Nice to Paris).
Joshua fears that the people of Israel, now that they’ve reached the Promised Land, may forget the God who has guided them and turn to other gods. So, he asks them to make a choice and they say that they couldn’t forsake the God who has guided them through the wilderness and performed great wonders.
The people who devised the lectionary – the pattern of related readings which have week by week – didn’t choose this passage by accident. Sunday’s gospel reading is the final part of the section about Jesus miraculous feeding of the crowd and his teaching afterwards. Jesus, like Joshua, presents his audience with a choice, a test of faith.
Jesus asks his disciples to receive the ‘bread of life’, which means that they must ‘eat his flesh’ and ‘drink his blood’. In so doing, they will abide in him. Faced with this choice, some of his followers say: ‘This teaching is difficult.’
To us, the language sounds Eucharistic: at every Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. But this
very physical language puzzled and scandalised many that heard it and they went away.
Only the core group, the Twelve, stayed with him. It was the witness of Peter that persuaded them. Jesus asks his group of closest disciples whether they want to go away and Peter responds ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
Peter adds, ‘We have come to believe and know that you are the holy one of God.’ This resembles the way Peter speaks up for the other disciples in the other Gospel accounts when Jesus asks the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ This is the Gospel of John’s version of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi.
We, the contemporary disciples of Jesus, are presented with the same questions: Will we receive the ‘bread of life’? Who do we say Jesus is?