The scandal of love

Jesus provokes. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, our Lord teaches, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:54).

For us Catholics, this claim may have lost some of its force. The Greek verb that Jesus uses for “eats” is not a pleasant one. It is trogon, meaning to munch or to gnaw. Jesus is claiming that anyone who wants to enter eternal life has to munch on his flesh.

We’re not talking about a dainty meal. To inherit eternal life means to savor the life-giving power of Jesus’ flesh and blood.

For many in the crowd, this claim is just too much. It’s too much to believe that Jesus of Nazareth will feed us with his own flesh and blood. It’s too much to hope that this is the food that will give eternal life.

And thus many of the disciples walk away: “‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” (Jn 6:60). They cannot believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father who has come to feed us with the finest wheat — his very flesh.

There is a scandal to the depths of love that Jesus is talking about. The God who is outside of space and time, who is beyond even transcendence, wants to dwell with us. Who could accept such love?

Jesus forces a decision on the part of the disciples. He turns to the Twelve, the ones closest to him, asking “‘Do you also want to leave?’” (Jn 6:67).

Impetuous, Peter jumps in: “‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

For once in the Gospels, Peter is very right. Where else shall they go? He does not deny that this teaching is hard. But he knows that in following Jesus, they are with the Holy One of God.

The teaching may be difficult. But it’s salvific. Staying with Christ, remaining with the fledgling Church that alone will lead to eternal life.

The Church in the United States is immersed right now in a different scandal. Once again, we are learning about clergy who abused their power. Instead of feeding the flock of Christ with the finest wheat, there are clerics who are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.

They used their power to abuse children. Young men discerning vocations to the priesthood.

At some point, it would be tempting for us to ask ourselves, why stay in this Church? Can’t we do better than a Church where clerics abuse their power, ruining lives, while keeping silent because of ambition?

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?” (Jn 6:68).

Peter’s proclamation of faith pierces through the centuries, provoking a response from us.

The scandal of divine love is that Christ gives his flesh and blood within this Church. This Church that includes the scandal of unholy clerics, who abuse their power.

In the midst of yet another sexual abuse scandal in the U.S., we are faced with the scandal of divine love. Christ’s love is given absolutely in this imperfect communion of men and women in Christ.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to sit by, allowing the abuse crisis to spiral out of control. To munch on Christ’s flesh and blood is to become Christ’s love.

This will mean being honest about the darkness, about the sin that has been denied by Church leaders for too long.

The scandal of love requires this.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.