To experience is to know

"This saying is hard! Who can accept it?" That's the first-century public reaction to what Jesus was teaching in the Bread of Life discourse, but many women may well say the same of some of the ideas in the Letter to the Ephesians.

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Twenty-First Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm 34
Ephesians 5:21-32
John 6:60-69

Listening to today's second reading, we should remember that it was written in a historical context very different from our own and used in contemporary practices to illustrate a perennial truth about Christian life. The essential teaching of the letter is contained in the first line: "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ." The more we manage to do that in family and community, the more we will build up the body of Christ for our world.

Thus, one takeaway from today's reading is the invitation to evaluate how we serve one another, beginning with our own family.

Thinking about family commitments leads to our other two readings. Have you watched a couple celebrate their anniversary by renewing their vows? As the years pass, the content of those promises deepens and changes. The once starry-eyed discover the realistic implications of their promises. When they formally renew their vows, they articulate and strengthen their commitment to carry out the command of mutual service we hear in Ephesians. Nobody can repeat their vows meaningfully without remembering what those vows have cost and what they have brought.

Commitment is a key to today's Scriptures. First we hear that Joshua, Moses' protégé and successor, is facing the end of his days. He wants his people to remember who they are together before God.

We listeners are invited to imagine a vast throng gathered before their revered patriarch. The great leader, now an old man, wants to hand on his legacy so that it will be kept intact and be fruitful. Joshua stands up like a revivalist preacher and reminds his people of all God has done on their behalf.

After working the crowd up to a high emotional pitch, he thunders out his challenge: "Decide whom you will serve! As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!"

Of course, the people follow suit. Echoing his rendition of their history, they renew their commitment: "We will also serve the Lord!" We can almost hear the cheering.

The situation John describes is quite different. Jesus' Bread of Life discourse had caused such division that the majority of his disciples were leaving him. What they could not accept was the immediacy of Jesus' words. Jesus claimed to be the bread come down from heaven: not a bread-line miracle worker, but the very source of spirit and life.

Purveyors of free food will always be popular. People don't often worry about the source of the supply, and they care little about the dependence they create. But Jesus didn't fall into the trap of being the all-powerful benefactor. Instead, he offered himself -- at the price of total commitment.

Half-measures were no option for the disciples at this juncture. The people hearing Jesus had to accept or reject his claim to be God's unique envoy, the source of Spirit and life. As a result, in John's simple, tragic words, "many of his disciples … no longer accompanied him." Whether because of scandal or lack of commitment, they walked away.

After that, Jesus, looking not at all like a formidable patriarch, turned to the few still standing by him and asked about their intentions. He didn't ask what they believed, only if they, too, would leave him.

Peter, responding for all who were left, asked his own question: "Lord, to whom should we turn?" Then, like Joshua's people, Peter affirmed Jesus' own words: "You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe."

John wants us to understand that this was the disciples' most critical moment between the time of their call and the Passion. While most of their friends and companions turned away, they chose to remain. That couldn't have been a purely rational decision. Jesus had truly become their source of "Spirit and life."

These readings remind us that our faith is a matter of the heart as well as the head, an empowering grace as well as a voluntary response to God's invitations. It is a free gift that will cost us everything. The readings also remind us that as Christians, we believe as members of a community, people who remember and celebrate the goodness of the Lord together.

Crises of faith will come, and just as in every other relationship, the crisis will demand that we remember what God has done and how our hearts have been touched. May we always have the grace to repeat with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

This story appeared in the August 14-27, 2015 print issue under the headline: To experience is to know .

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