Scripture Readings: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Ephesians 5:21-32; Gospel of John 6:60-69
Life is filled with choices, to say the least, and perhaps more in America than anywhere else. Have you ever been in a restaurant with a first-time visitor to this Country, and watched his or her reaction when the waiter sets forth the choices? “Soup or salad?” If soup, a cup or a bowl? If salad, what kind of dressing? If a burger, with cheese or without? If with, what kind of cheese? Onions? Do you want a vegetable or coleslaw, red chili or green chili or both? (at least in New Mexico), and on and on it goes.
In the Gospel today Jesus’, words confront his disciples with a basic choice. The choice is intimately connected to the people’s experience of Jesus as the Spirit-inspired teacher and preacher, rabbi and more than a rabbi. Some believed that Jesus was a prophet; others believed he was more than a prophet, no less than God’s only-begotten Son. The choice when Jesus spoke to his first hearers and when he speaks to us now, is between following Jesus or deserting him, recognizing his authority and divinity or not. A clear enough option, but the decision for the Lord was and is something “costing not less than everything,” to borrow a phrase of the poet T.S. Eliot.
In the first reading for Mass this Sunday, from the Book of Joshua, all the tribes of Israel, some twelve centuries before the birth of Christ, are invited to re-affirm their faith in the Lord the God of Israel. The renewing of the covenant that had been made long ago was a way of saying that the people of the Joshua’s time were as willing as their ancestors in dedication and service of the saving God who asks that they worship him alone and no other deity.
The sacred shrine of Shechem, where the covenant renewal took place, was hallowed ground used since the time of Abraham, hence a very important site for the succeeding generations of Israelites. Total and exclusive fidelity to God is all the more binding, then, because it is pronounced at such a holy place. That is similar to our Christian and Catholic tradition of partaking of the Church’s sacraments and the profession of vows for us monks, for example, in a public place, usually the church, the center of worship of the believing community. I was so happy when our new archbishop was installed recently in our cathedral in Santa Fe and not in a sports arena as often happens these days. Fewer could attend at the cathedral but it was done in much more appropriate place.
The people of Joshua’s time were asked to choose whom they will worship, the gods of their Semite ancestors who had migrated from Ur and Haran, or the God of Israel. This was no less than the saving God who brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, the God of the Exodus, who always was and always would be involved in the lives of the people. The acceptance of this God meant abandonment of all local and other ancestral deities.
In the Gospel today a similar decision needs to be made for or against the Lord and his teachings. Jesus explains to his followers that it is possible even in one’s weakness to surrender completely to God’s saving word. “The Spirit alone gives life,” says the Lord. We wish to make our response that of those who have gone before us with a resounding, “We will serve the Lord, who is our God.” Saint Peter confirms this with his solid profession of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life.” The clear implication and fact of the matter is that there is no other who can take the place of the Messiah and Lord, Jesus Christ.
The advice of Saint Paul in the second reading can be reduced to an important Christian concept, namely, “Let yourselves be filled by the Spirit,” (Eph 5:18). Doing so, one honors the Lord by taking Jesus’ own example and Holy Spirit as one’s guide. The words and analogies of Saint Paul regarding spouses have to be understood in the context of the social norms of an age when women and children generally were not afforded full and equal status with men.
Though our times are different, it is evident that Saint Paul does not favor a climate wherein an authoritarian attitude or bossing others around prevails, as some men might then or now be prone to do. In fact, Saint Paul exhorts all to “love one another,” as the Lord had also taught and as Christ loved and loves.
Husbands are instructed by Saint Paul to love their wives with a sacrificing love just “as Christ loved his Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:26). The purpose of such love is to bring holiness to the Church; that is, filling Christ’s Church with those who belong completely to the Lord. It is Christ, of course, who sanctifies and purifies the Church, but Christ is also asking the willing cooperation of believers in that work.
God’s saving love for the human family, for everyone, is realized perfectly in Christ the Redeemer and revealed in the Church. Marriage is meant to be an absolute and exclusive self-dedication to another. As such it becomes an apt image of Christ and the Church, since every believer in the Church is called to have an absolute and exclusive self-dedication to Christ, as in the total self-gift of husband and wife.
In the Gospel assigned for this Sunday, we hear the effects of Jesus’ teaching. Some abandon their Master and others remain faithful. For the superficial believer, there is a lack of conviction. He or she finds the doctrine of Christ harsh and even offensive, going against human expectations. One might wish for an easier path, but the Lord teaches that the way of the cross, dying to oneself, is what will lead to true life. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” says the Lord. Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life, that is, the source and nourishment, the cause, of true and eternal life, something that extends beyond earthly existence.
Even so, Jesus recognized that some would not believe and thereby exclude themselves from what the Lord wished and wishes to offer willing hearts. Jesus cannot force anyone to believe, of course, nor does Jesus exclude anyone from being his follower, and in fact some will not follow him. Still the Master remains waiting with open arms for those who turn to him. One of the best images of this in Sacred Scripture is the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Father of the parable is 100% ready and willing to receive back the straying son. So much more our Lord awaits the sheep of his pasture who may have strayed.
We are faced today and every day with the question: “to whom shall we go?” May we readily and willingly choose for the ways of the Lord, even when they are difficult or unattractive, lacking glamour or luster, yet firmly believing that the God who created us will not abandon us, but carry us as a shepherd carries his wandering sheep.
May our participation in the Sunday and even daily Eucharist be a means of more lasting adherence to Christ, who is our Way, our Truth and our Life, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB