Thursday, August 20, 2015

"The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life": Readings for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we complete the trek through the lectionary's reading of John 6. We begin this Sunday by reading from yet another story linked to the Exodus traditions that form of the backdrop of imagery of the Bread of Life discourse. Specifically, the First Reading is drawn from the story of Joshua.

Notably, Jesus' name is essentially, "Joshua". Thus, in the First Reading we find what the tradition of the Church would see as a "type" of Jesus, a figure in the Old Testament who foreshadows the person of Christ in some significant way. (The language of "type" draws upon imagery used by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).

Let us take a moment to carefully examine these readings.

FIRST READING: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,summoning their elders, their leaders,their judges, and their officers. When they stood in ranks before God,Joshua addressed all the people:“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,decide today whom you will serve,the gods your fathers served beyond the Riveror the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

But the people answered,“Far be it from us to forsake the LORDfor the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God,who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyesand protected us along our entire journeyand among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Anyone familiar with the wider context of the story in the First Reading can't help but read it with a knowing smile. Here Joshua insists that the Israelites must decide whom they will serve: the Lord God or the pagans. They can't have it both ways.

The Israelites insist that they want to follow the Lord: "Far be it from us to forsake the Lord. . ."

*ahem

Of course, anyone familiar with the narrative knows the Israelites "doth protest too much." They have already forsaken the Lord multiple times.

What makes their rejection of God especially heinous is that they have turned to other gods even after witnessing the mighty acts of God: "He performed those great miracles before our very eyes. . ." 

Before moving on, let me highlight something that bears emphasizing. As Chris Tilling has recently shown in his excellent book, Paul's Divine Christology (Eerdmans, 2015), by Jesus' day it was understood that monotheism for Israel was not merely about conceptualizing God in the proper way (i.e., he is the only God). Monotheism entailed a relational dimension--one only worships this God, namely, the God of Israel.


For Joshua, then, it is not sufficient for Israel that they simply "believe" that the God of Israel is the Lord; they must worship him alone. This God demands complete devotion. Belief in the God of Israel thus is not simply about right doctrine, it is also about right relationship--indeed, it is about choosing this God over all others.

Let me translate that into practical terms we can meditate on this Sunday. Being a Catholic isn't simply a matter of orthodoxy; it is also about faithfulness, i.e., living out the faith. It means choosing Jesus over all other idols, whatever they may be.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 32:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21 
R. (9a) Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The Psalm essentially affirms the truth the Israelites, wayward as they might have been, speak of in the First Reading--God is faithful. Those who trust in him will not be let down.

Of course, against the backdrop of the larger lectionary selections from the last few weeks, the psalm has further resonances. "Taste" and "see" reminds us of God's care for Israel in the wilderness, specifically, the giving of the manna. It also reminds us of God's care for Elijah in the wilderness, an episode that we saw evokes the memory of the manna story. Against the broader readings from John 6 and the eucharistic context, we might also read the Psalm sacramentally; in the eucharist, we celebrate the salvation of Jesus Christ and "taste" the goodness of the lord.

SECOND READING: Ephesians 5:21-32 
Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
A lot could be said about this reading but here I simply want to touch on one aspect of the reading which, in a way, relates to the wider lectionary context. (The Second Reading is not always chosen because of its relationship to the First and Second Reading but usually continues from the same biblical book read the previous Sunday. As we've been working through John 6 we have always been reading through Ephesians).

Here the relationship of Christ and the Church is described in terms of a marriage. Specifically, we read: "For no man hates his own flesh but rather nourishes it and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church. . ."

Combined with the imagery of Christ sanctifying the church by "cleansing her by the bath of water with the word", a passage that has been seen in the Church's tradition as a reference to baptism, the language of Christ "nourishing" the Church has also been read sacramentally, i.e., as a reference to the eucharist.

As we have been moving through John 6, we have discussed the eucharistic implications of this passage. Set against the feeding of the five thousand and, in the lectionary as well as in the Gospel, the memory of God providing manna to Israel in the wilderness, it is hard not to read this passage in the liturgy this Sunday and not meditate on the Eucharist.

Again, this reading underscores what we saw in the First Reading: faith in God is not simply about right teaching--it's relational. Christ loves the Church as his Bride. This constitutes the true marriage, what Ephesians 5 calls the "great mystery," or, in Latin, magnum sacramentum. From Christ and the Church we learn not just the divine truth about God, we also learn how to love.

GOSPEL: John 6:60-69 
Many of Jesus’disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”
 
As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 has Jesus emphasize over and over again that it is necessary for believers to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood".

Is this passage about the Eucharist?

There are good reasons for thinking so. First, the imagery of "eating" Jesus' "flesh" and "drinking" his "blood" seems closely linked with the Last Supper, the only other place where such language is clearly used.

In addition, the sermon follows shortly after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, a story that is clearly meant to be linked with the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, for example, Davies and Allison find 9 parallels which occur in order in Matthew 14, the feeding of the five thousand, and the account of the Last Supper in Matthew 26[1] They conclude: “It seems to us evident that Matthew intended 14.13–21 to be closely related to the institution of the Eucharist.”[2] 

But what about Jesus' words at the end of the sermon: "it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail"? 

The Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, famously argued that these words make the eucharistic reading untenable. 

Thomas Aquinas, however, would not have been convinced. Here's his interpretation:
It is obvious that the flesh of Christ, as united to the Word and to the Spirit, does profit very much and in every way; otherwise, the Word would have been made flesh in vain, and the Father would have made him known in the flesh in vain, as we see from 1 Timothy [1 Tim 3:16]. And so we should say that it is the flesh of Christ, considered in itself, that profits nothing and does not have any more beneficial effect than other flesh. For if his flesh is considered as separated from the divinity and the Holy Spirit, it does not have different power than other flesh. But if it is united to the Spirit and the divinity, it profits many, because it makes those who receive it abide in Christ, for man abides in God through the Spirit of love: “We know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us his Spirit” [1 John 4:13] And this is what our Lord says: the effect I promise you, that is, eternal life, should not be attributed to my flesh as such, because understood in this way, flesh profits nothing. But my flesh does offer eternal life as united to the Spirit and to the divinity. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” [Gal 5:25]. And so he adds, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, i.e., they must be understood of the Spirit united to my flesh; and so understood they are life, that is, the life of the soul. For as the body lives its bodily life through a bodily spirit, so the soul lives a spiritual life through the Holy Spirit: “Send forth your Spirit, and they will be created” (Ps 103:30).
--St. Thomas Aquinas, Ion. 6.993
In short, Jesus is not denying that his flesh gives life but he is also explaining that his flesh gives life not simply because it is human flesh. Eating human flesh in and of itself profits one nothing.

His flesh, however, is the flesh of the Son of Man who will be glorified. Eat that and you receive, what Ignatius of Antioch called, "the medicine of immortality".

The Gospel ends on Jesus asking the disciples if they wish to abandon him. Like the Israelites, they have seen his miracles and heard his words--and they pledge their allegiance to him. Yet Jesus' words remind us that their commitment to Jesus was not simply the result of their own determination: "no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."

By the gift of the Father's calling they have come to recognize Jesus as "the Holy One of God". They therefore pledge to remain faithful to him--even though they do not fully even comprehend his words.

Faith is ultimately, then, the result of a gift. Let us ask this Sunday for that gift of faith so that we may receive his teaching and, of course, remain faithful to him. 

NOTES

[1] (1) “And when it was evening” (14:14; 26:20); (2) “reclined” (14:19; 26:20); (3) “having taken” (14:19; 26:26); (4) “the bread” (14:19; 26:26); (5) “he blessed” (14:19; 26:26); (6) “having broken” / “he broke” (14:19; 26:26); (7) “he gave to the disciples” / “having given to the disciples, he gave to them (14:19; 26:26); (8) “they ate” / “eat” (14:20 26:27); (9) “all” (14:20; 26:27).

[2] W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 1991): 3:481.

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