by Maria Evans
In our Gospel reading today, the disciples are still trying to make sense of what Jesus has taught them a couple of paragraphs earlier–that those who “eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they reply. What Jesus suggests, to be honest, sounds like cannibalism! (Zombies hadn’t been invented yet, so they probably weren’t thinking of the Zombie Apocalypse). In short, they’re shaking their heads and saying “I don’t get it.”
All of us, at one time or another have taken something literally that was meant to be heard allegorically, or at least in a larger sense–and when that happens, it can be incredibly troubling. We, like the disciples, can find ourselves profoundly shocked and offended. Who wouldn’t be shocked and offended over something that, at first hearing, sounds absolutely disgusting?
We are used to people sugar coating difficult topics. I learned a long time ago not to go into too much detail about what I do for a living as a surgical pathologist, and simply say, “Whatever your doctor takes out of you or off of you, I look at it under a microscope and tell you what’s wrong with it.” That’s probably a lot more socially acceptable than telling you blow by blow about what I did with Uncle Joe’s necrotic bowel or Aunt Suzie’s below-the-knee amputation.
It’s human nature to simply back away when something sounds too gross–and that’s just what many of the disciples did. Apparently they were people who were not of Jesus’ inner circle. Yet the Twelve remained–although perhaps they were not exactly sure why. I imagine it hurt Jesus deeply to watch some of those other disciples go, “Ewwww! That’s gross! I’m outa here!”–and I can identify. There have been a couple of people who will press me for details about my job, and there’s always that feeling of my heart sinking when they go, “Ewwww! That’s gross!” They can’t get beyond the literal, and forget all about what I do helps people in the long run. So I imagine Jesus’ heart sank in the same way, and maybe even more deeply.
You can almost hear the pain and sadness in Jesus’ voice when he says, “Do you also wish to go away?” Thank God for Peter. Good ol’ Peter, who blurts out the truth when most everyone else would simply be silent.
“Naw, Jesus, we’re not leaving. Truth is, we don’t have anywhere else to go, so we might as well be with you. We trust what you’ve told us so far, so I guess we’re going to have to trust you on this one and figure it out later. As weird and creepy as what you just told us is, we know you’re the Holy One of God.” Peter and the rest of the disciples choose relationship over repugnance–and in his response, teaches us a valuable lesson. Choose relationship over rhetoric.
Many things we might be asked to do or consider as Christians can evoke visceral responses at first. For example, we might have grown up learning that homeless people are people who have screwed up and made poor life choices–so feeding them might feel enabling and wrong. Responsible gun owners might be offended to hear anything that remotely suggests having less freedom to own a firearm. Someone who is having trouble finding a job might find helping undocumented workers find work, incredibly threatening. A victim of a crime might find a prison ministry abhorrent. Yet, if we somehow find ourselves in relationship with someone on the opposite side of this equation, we more often than not find ourselves changing our visceral reactions–or at least modifying them. When we start to see real people instead of hypothetical constructs, we might still persist in our belief, but we inched off our original position a bit. Once in a while we even change our tune entirely.
This being an election year, a lot of us are suffering from a little hypersecretion of “Offense hormone.” Election years fill our ears with more rhetoric and hyperbole than we can take, and it becomes easier and easier to take offense, vilify, and turn three dimensional people into two dimensional cartoon characters. Peter reminds us today to consider our relationships first, and sit tight even when we feel disgusted or offended, keeping another human being and our relationship with them in the forefront.
When is a time you were initially offended or disgusted over a concept, only to have God stick a real person in your path, who helped you start to see the world a little differently?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.