23 August 2015: Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21 Eph 5:21-32 Jn 6:60-69


The bread of life: test of discipleship

In Ordinary time, the Lectionary presents RCIA participants and all believing community members with stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week we conclude our five-week meditation on the Bread of Life teaching, the Eucharist and discipleship.

Today’s first reading is from the last book of Joshua, Moses’ successor. In this passage, Joshua addresses the Hebrew people before he dies, summarizing God’s mighty acts in bringing the Hebrews to the promised land, and God’s now-fulfilled promise to Abraham and his descendants about providing a homeland. Joshua then asks the Hebrews to renew their covenant with God: do they wish to serve the God who has delivered them or return to the service of other gods? The people reaffirm the covenant with God: “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” The Lectionary editors chose this story because, like today’s gospel, it presents God’s people with a choice.

The second reading is from Ephesians, a letter written between 80-100AD. It is written by Paul, but may be by a Pauline disciple. This section is part of the parenesis (ethical exhortation) of the letter, specifically the “household code.”  In the ancient world, household codes described ideal relationships between household members (husband/wife, parent/child, master/slave) to maintain an orderly life. The Greek Stoic philosophers first proposed household codes, emphasizing the first party’s requirement for obedience and the second party’s obligations. Hellenistic Judaism expanded on the Stoics’ ideas, using the Hebrew scripture as a basis for moral behavior. In today’s reading the Ephesians’ author provides a set of Christian household codes. He reverses the Stoic ethical model, saying that the Christian first party’s obligation is for love and self-sacrifice. In all Christian household relationships, each person is subject to all others out of reverence for Christ. The author constructs a parable comparing the Christian husband-and-wife relationship to the Christ-and-ekklesia relationship. He builds the Christ/ekklesia parable from the mystical union of Christ and ekklesia: Christ as head of the ekklesia’s body; Christ as husband to the ekklesia. Just as Christ’s love is the starting point for his relationship with the ekklesia, so also love should be the starting point for the husband and wife relationship in a Christian marriage. In other household codes, power determines relationships. In a Christian household, love replaces power in all relationships.

This week’s gospel concludes John’s Bread of Life discourse. Over the last few weeks, the Jesus of John’s gospel revealed two new teachings:

  • Jesus as the Bread of Life offered to anyone who believes in him (Jn 6:34-47). Jesus addresses this first teaching to the crowds and to the Jewish people in the Capernaum synagogue. Just as the Torah spiritually feeds the Hebrew people, so Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, offers everyone the Father’s words of love and eternal life. The Jewish hearers understand that Jesus is saying he is the new Torah. They murmur against Jesus and reject him because they “know” him–he is not “the one coming down from God.”
  • Jesus as sacramentally present to the post-resurrection disciples through the Eucharist (Jn 6:37-58). John has Jesus direct this second teaching to the post-resurrection disciples and to John’s own ekklesia. The disciples could understand this Eucharistic teaching only after Jesus had completed his mission, offered his body and blood to the Father on Calvary, and been raised. Just as God-given manna fed and sustained the Hebrews’ physical lives in the wilderness, so Jesus, God-in-flesh, gives his glorified flesh and blood to feed and ensure his disciples’ eternal life in the kingdom. Many disciples–in Jesus’ time and in John’s time–rejected Jesus sacramental teaching as “too hard.” In Jesus’ time they murmur against Jesus because they do not want to believe that Jesus will die; in John’s time they cannot believe his continuing presence with them in the Eucharist. Their faith is too weak to trust in God’s superabundant love.

At today’s decision point, the crowds, the Jews, and many disciples reject Jesus and “go back to their old lives.” Jesus asks the Twelve–his inner circle–if they, also, will go. Peter professes his faith: “We believe you are the holy one of God.”

Like Joshua in the first reading, Jesus presents his mighty acts and promises to the crowd, RCIA participants, and the believing community, and asks each one of us to choose. What Jesus says is hard. We think we know Jesus, the Word of God; but when we hear him in the Liturgy of the Word, sometimes we don’t want to believe him. When Jesus re-presents himself and gives himself to us in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, it’s hard for us to believe his is intimately and physically with us. Discipleship is difficult: Jesus presents us with seeming impossible requests and unreachable challenges. Do we have faith in God’s superabundant love? Or will we also go away, back to comfortable, easy lives?

—Terence Sherlock


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