Isn’t it surprising to hear the Gospel of John in today’s Gospel tell us that some of Jesus’s disciples “returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with him”? It’s almost unbelievable! So many of us would (literally) give our right arms to see and hear what the disciples saw and heard—to witness Jesus’s astonishing miracles, and hear the carpenter from Nazareth spin out his parables, as he did in Galilee and Judea all those years ago.
How, we wonder, could anyone walk away from Jesus after having walked with him?
Yet it’s really not that hard to understand. Sometimes, for example, we turn away from the invitation for conversion. Change is frightening. What would it mean for us to change our old ways of doing things, our habitual way of relating to others, our familiar ways of understanding our place in the world? For true conversion is not simply a putting off of bad habits, it is a putting aside of our old selves. And that is pretty scary. Easy to understand people turning away.
We also turn away because the path is a rocky one. Life in the Christian community is hard. At one time or another, everyone wants to “walk away” from religion. The church can be a tough place. We hear things that we don’t like; we see things that we don’t approve of; we are forced to pray with people with whom we don’t agree. And that’s hard. Very hard.
But in these communities often comes our most powerful experiences of God. As the theologian Jane Redmont pointed out to me years ago, that’s one reason why so many of those stories of the Holy Spirit so often happen in groups. We are both naturally religious and naturally social, so we come together to worship. And Jesus understood this. Remember: Jesus didn’t simply call one apostle to be his assistant, he called a whole group of people—apostles and disciples alike—together. At the beginning of his ministry, as he is walking by the Sea of Galilee, he calls Peter and Andrew and James and John—that’s four people at once. And after his Resurrection, he appears to people individually (Mary Magdalene, for example) but much more often to the group.
The church is the place into which we were born and out of which we will leave this life. We are called through baptism into a distinctive place in the church. That means that we are called not only to enjoy its fruits, but to labor in its vineyards, even when that vineyard is filled with thorns, the day is late, we are exhausted, or the sun is beating down on us, seemingly without mercy. It is in our church that we will work out, difficult as it may be, impossible as it may seem at times, our salvation, among other sinners—sinners just like us.
“To whom shall we go?” said Peter. The church is not Jesus, but it is his visible body on the earth. So you could also ask: “Where else shall we go?”
There can be tough times in the church for all of us—from the pope to the people in the pews. But those aren’t the times to leave. Those precisely the time when the church needs you the most, just like Jesus needed the twelve—to stay.