Fr. Barry Moriarity, the dean of formation at the seminary, once said this: “If you want to leave the seminary, you will find a reason to do so. It might be the ‘no facial hair part of the dress code’ or the celibacy demanded of priests; it might be the more difficult teachings of the church, or your own grappling with the leadership role the church is asking of you. But if you want to leave, you’ll find a reason to do so. The challenge is to be in touch with the reasons why you stay!” I find wisdom is both of those sayings – about staying and leaving.
If you want to find a reason to leave the church and the path of discipleship that Jesus calls us to, you will. Some just slip away because they get out of the habit. Others leave because of lifestyle choices which seem incongruent to the practice of faith. Or a decision of the pastor is one that they disagree with and can no longer stomach. Some will leave for other denominations because of a spouse. But many will leave because they will no longer find reasons to believe. Perhaps the experience of suffering or loss makes them doubt the possibility of a loving God. Perhaps what they believe clashes with what they see in the lives of the leadership of the church. They find a reason to leave.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus faces the loss of faith in many he loved. Maybe you know what that is like. Perhaps you are a parent whose children no longer attends church or even believes in God. It can be a deep loneliness when your spouse, friend or sibling not only quit practicing, but think that you are wrong for believing. Maybe you understand the poignancy in Christ’s question: “Do you also want to leave?”
There are so many things I could imagine Jesus wanting to say to them in that moment. “Could you hang in there with the doubts? Don’t you know that there is so much more? Do you trust that there is LIFE here for you?”
Notice, though, that Jesus lets them leave. He doesn’t try to shame or guilt or trick them into staying. Instead, he leaves his followers with their questions unanswered, hoping that they would wrestle with these questions rather than give them easy answers or user-friendly faith. He knew that there are questions won’t go away. Questions about the nature of God. About the role of the church in politics. About ethics. About suffering. And faith. And morality. Questions that people will use to leave the road of discipleship. Reasons why people leave.
You and I, who come here Sunday after Sunday, have known that wrestling with those questions. Yet, we have found our own reasons to stay. Sometimes our initial response is the first line of Peter’s – a not very ringing endorsement kind of: “Where else are we going to go?” That might be a good reason not to leave, but it is not enough reason to stay, is it? Or at least to keep us here long. But I can imagine Jesus arching his eyebrows when Peter says that – hopeful, but wanting more. “You have the words of everlasting life… “AHH! Now you are getting somewhere Simon.”
That is why I stay. I keep coming back to Jesus because in his words –however perplexing – I’ve heard something that rings true. And I experience in my attempts to follow the gospel a life that wells up in me beyond my own small world. And I stay because there is a presence here at this altar that I find NO WHERE else on this planet. THIS experience of communion, this experience of life, gathered around a table, NOT JUST AS INDIVIDUALS, but TOGETHER – I find nowhere else. Here, I feel more alive than I do anywhere else in my world. Not on the golf course, not a dinner with my best friends, or even time with my priest support group. HERE, around this altar, gathered with you in prayer, I know the presence of the One who has life for me, for US, as we walk the road together. Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God… And I can commit my whole life, not because I am sure of myself, but because I am sure of you.
Fr. Barry Moriarity got it right in terms of the seminary – if you want to leave, you’ll find a reason. Peter got it right in terms of Jesus – if you want to stay, you’ll need to find that experience of everlasting life, of everlasting love that wells up within you. Let that question of Jesus – Will you also leave? And the response of Peter – You have the words of everlasting life – be the source of our prayer and reflection this week.