In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel we learn of the moment Jesus lost credibility in the eyes of the people. The crowds stopped following, and began to plot his death, when he claimed divinity. It seems people were happy endorsing him as a prophet but his claim to be ‘the bread of life’ who had ‘come down from heaven to do the will of the one who sent me’ left them cold.
This echoes our day; many respect Jesus as one ‘good prophet’ amongst many but grow hostile at the idea of Jesus’ supremacy, a belief so central to authentic Christian faith. State that Christ is God incarnate, thus rendering all other faiths and creeds less credible, and modern man backs off and grows hostile. Pluralism, syncretism and relativism are the favoured positions of the secular age. Not unshakable confidence in divine revelation located in Jesus Christ.
There are two lessons I wish the modern church would learn from Christ’s failure in terms of worldly popularity. Because when we seek the popular vote and seek to court the world on her terms then fear soon prompts self defeating thinking.
1. Jesus did not run after them
When the crowds revolt Jesus accepts that decision, albeit with a heavy heart. Christ did not run after people in desperation, pathetically offering to water down God’s truth to appease them. Which is what certain prelates seem to be doing today in an attempt to placate a hostile culture. Jesus came to reveal God’s will not to win popularity contests. Therefore he told people what they needed to hear not what they wanted to hear and he stood by this quite regardless of whether the entire crowd cheered for him or bayed for his blood.
Here is a lesson for those challenging established doctrine in our day in a bid to look trendy and/or more compassionate. The Christian vocation is not to appease the world, watering down divine revelation that people might applaud. Our duty is to proclaim Christ crucified no matter the cost. And history backs this. It is saints and martyrs who stood by the Gospel who ever convinced the world of God’s truth. Not self serving and/or mealy mouthed politicians who sit light to faith and seek popularity and/or comfort; who play politics with the church.
2. Jesus has the words of eternal life
When the crowds abandoned him Jesus turned to the disciples and challenged them. This sacred challenge is, again, pertinent to our day. For Christ noted how even amongst his own followers were those grumbling about his teaching, believing it too hard to either accept or follow. Still Jesus did not cave into them but gave them, instead, the opportunity to leave as well. He knew that those grumbling did not really believe in him but would only later betray him. And they did.
Does this scripture not shed terrible light on those demanding the church change her established teaching to endorse modern values? It would seem we might still have disciples, even amongst clergy, who have lost faith and zeal in the Gospel. Who, having grown more convinced by the culture we inhabit, believe Christ’s teaching too rigid and hard and therefore impossible. John’s Gospel reveals they were always with us but they did not speak for Jesus Christ then, so I cannot see how they speak for him now. We must not be taken in by them.
Perhaps those claiming to be Christian but yet endorsing the thinking of the sexual revolution in truth need ponder afresh this challenge of Jesus? Can they accept his harder teachings or not? If not the honest thing would be to leave the church and admit you follow the world. The Gospel certainly suggests Jesus prefered to let them go than remain promoting false truth. Ultimately he chose a small but authentic following, the little handful gathered at the foot of the cross and who later gathered in an upper room, over endorsing a cheering crowd of semi-believers.
Simon Peter was different. He understood what was required. So he movingly turned to Jesus and said “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life“. Jesus not the crowd. Jesus not the culture. Jesus not me. Jesus alone. This is a vital moment revealing what intentional discipleship is about. Peter rejects all others voices and roots himself in Christ alone. He looks to the WORDS OF JESUS and they become the foundation of his faith.
What concerns me about the present crisis in the church is that we have amongst us prelates, in very high places, who would tell us that a need for mercy dictates change in doctrine; in favour of societal thinking and away from the words of Jesus Christ, (as regards remarriage after divorce). I do not doubt these men have good intentions. I do not doubt they speak with sincerity. Certainly they appeal to the world and the press and the modern political elites. What I doubt is fidelity to the Gospel. For, in truth, there has been a creeping schism since Vatican II than is now threatening to split the church in two. And it is ever those taking the supposedly “progressive” path who look more and more like liberal protestants and less and less like Catholics in the conventional sense. Not only in their beliefs but in practice and worship and increasingly worldly arguments, suppositions and agendas.
Put aside the appeal to mercy, that is not what this is about. My own desire for mercy means I would wholeheartedly support a change of practice in annulment procedure making them free to access, quick to make judgement and generous in helping people discern truth in their situation. But I cannot endorse abandonment of teaching rooted in the actual words of Jesus Christ. His teaching may be hard, even unpopular, but scripture it was ever thus. And if we stand for Christ then God will give us grace to fulfil his will. That is what having faith is all about.
I hope this shows why I applaud the Cardinals who have raised the dubia. Because, like them, I am suspicious of the motives of those seeking to put aside the words of Jesus in favour of pleasing the world. Such voices do not seem to resonate with Peter, the rock on whom the church is built. And given that St. Peter himself, and all the saints and martyrs, stand in the tradition of believers who rigidly cleaved themselves to the words of Jesus, who am I to dismiss them? Who is anyone proclaiming the name Christian?
Those pushing for change need to do much, much better then to convince. And it would help their cause if they simply answered the dubia, for every day it goes unanswered it is only reasonable that people’s suspicions grow in intensity. That the feeling of naughtiness at play becomes more certain. For what are we to make of those pushing for change but who avoid clear explanation? Who operate only in the shadows of footnotes and not in the plain light of magisterial teaching. To quote Hamlet, something seems rotten in the state of Denmark..well the Vatican anyway. And we must pray it gets sorted soon. Would the silent bishops please stand up.
Tell us who has the words of eternal life? I say Jesus Christ.