Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 23, 2009
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69)
You may not realize it but the church has given us a gift by reading a truncated version of St. Paul’s comments on marriage. This means you will be spared the contortions of the preacher as he tries valiantly to show what Paul really meant when he said the husband is the head of the wife. . . The bottom line is very simple: marriage is holy; your marriage is holy; but after that it’s up to you guys to work out the rest for yourselves. . . .
Actually, we have bigger fish to fry today.
For the past five or six weeks we have been following the great discourse on the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. It’s called “the bread of life discourse.” Today we reach the climax of the story, and we might expect anticipate that it would result in a glorious ending, with the disciples singing hosannas at this incredible revelation. A rousing Amen!
It turns out that the Gospels weren’t written in Hollywood. The message is too demanding, even blasphemy. To eat his flesh and drink his blood?
We need to put ourselves in the scene and enter into their experience of shock and revulsion. W hear the result: “they turned away and went back to their former way of life – and many walked with him no more.”
What a downer!
The church clearly intends us to put that experience alongside the one in the first reading from the book of Joshua.
It’s a moment of decision, of choice, for the Israelites. They had been liberated from Egypt and gone through the exhilarating but challenging experience for forty years in the desert, and now they are on the verge of a new beginning. They are going to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. And so Joshua says in effect, “OK, hold on. This is an important moment; it’s time to stop and take stock, to be clear about what this is all about. It’s a new beginning and that calls for a new commitment.”
So he places them before a fundamental choice. They can choose to go back and worship the gods of their ancestors on the other side of the river. Or they can place all their trust in Yahweh.
And what do they do? They draw on their experience of God’s fidelity, going back to the exodus from Egypt and then at every stage along the way. They remember. They do exactly what we do at Eucharist: remember. “Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the power of that grasp of their experience they make a new commitment at a new moment. They choose to follow Yahweh.
The contrast between the story of the Israelites in Joshua and the disciples of Jesus in John couldn’t be more striking.
The disciples had left their families to follow him. They had walked the roads of Palestine. They had been thrilled at the message he proclaimed. A kingdom in which the rich would be humbled and the oppressors overthrown; the poor would be enriched and the last would be first. He had spoken like no one had ever preached, as one with authority.
And they had seen the proofs of his power. They watched him heal the sick and give sight to the blind and voice to the dumb. They had seen the crowds begin to have hope that things could be different.
But they had also experienced themselves and their religious understandings being stretched. They saw him challenge the official guardians of religious life and tradition. They saw him break the law by healing on the sabbath. They wondered what he was doing when he touched the corpse of a widow’s only son and became himself impure. They were troubled when he sat and ate and drank with public sinners and said that prostitutes would enter the kingdom before the self-righteous.
And now this. It was all too much. In the face of such a claim even their experience could not be trusted. So they walked away.
So what is the story all about? Is it just another story of failure? You know, much of the four gospels is about the incomprehension and resistance of the disciples. Is this just another example of their inability to trust even in the face of their experience?
We need to take another look. Maybe there is something deeper and richer going on here. Perhaps it’s not really all about the response of the disciples – or even Peter’s great confession at the end – at all.
Many great theologians and spiritual writers have prayed and pondered the whole sweep of the Gospels and reached the insight that what the story is really about, what Jesus’ whole reason for being, what his whole mission is about, is to reveal the One he called ‘Father.’ Oh, he wanted to bring us conversion and transformation of our lives – but how? By revealing. Taking the veil away so that we might come to know the all-Holy One.
And ‘reveal’ is not a matter of talking about. It’s not just words; not a matter of presenting an intellectual proof to a conceptual question; not a matter of learning to recite a catechism. He reveals by embodying what he’s sent to communicate. By putting it before us in his own flesh. At the end of his life, at what we call ‘the last supper’ Philip asks to see the Father and Jesus seems to be almost exasperated but tender as he says, “Philip, have you been with me all this time and you still don’t know? The one who sees me sees the Father.”
Jesus is revelation. Not just in his words but in his every deed and act. Nothing he does is not revelation. We touch the reality of the Father as we enter into Jesus’ human experience.
And what is it that the disciples who remain by his side, who do not turn away and walk with him no more?
At this painful moment he is not the great wonder-worker. He is not the healer. He is not the preacher who speaks as one with authority.
What does he say? “Will you also leave me?” He is vulnerable. He is there as one who needs human companionship. He is there as one who can be pained at seeing friends walk away. As one who desires to be with us; who is incomplete and lost without us. “Will you also leave me?”
Jesus the revelation is not showing us the God of Greek philosophy. The One he calls “Father” is not unmoved; unchanging; impassive. The Father is not remote and unreachable.
The One he calls Father, and invites us to call “our Father” is passionate/ Involved. Engaged with us. And yes, One who is in love with all He continuously creates.
When I wrestle with this profound revelation I’m afraid that in our catechesis we were taught in our catechism to say the ‘Our Father’ – and then given a large dose of Greek philosophy, urging us to see a God who is, above all, all-powerful, existing beyond the heavens; one whom we could scarcely hope to touch. Jesus is then only a substitute, a sop to our finite nature. The Jesus of the Gospels is working mightily to convert us from that ‘god’ to the One he knows most intimately as “Father.” “Don’t you know, Philip, that those who see me see the Father?”
If we see the story that way, as a story not primarily about the disciples but as a new facet of the Jesus who is revelation, it is not a story of failure. It is the story of an incredible gift: a truth that had been embedded in the story of his people is now available to us in the form of one who enfleshes totally who our God really is. As only he can, because only he can say,”Did you now know that the Father is in me and I in Him?”.
The Jesus we receive in the Eucharist today is still revealing: pointing beyond himself. Proclaiming and disclosing and putting us in the presence of a Father who can ask, “Will you also leave me?”
If that is what our God is really like, the only answer that makes sense is that of Peter, “Lord, to who shall we go? You have the word of everlasting life.”
And we might even improve on his answer by saying, “You are the word of everlasting life.”