Aug 25, 2012

21st Sunday: "Can you hear me now?"

(Jean Jacques Henner)
"Do you also want to leave?"
Joshua 24: 1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Eph 5: 21-32
Jn 6: 60-69
A recent television commercial for a well-known cell phone company created a scene between two people talking to one another on their phones.  As the commercial progressed, they stood farther and farther apart.  Then their distance was from state to state, country to country.  As they held the phones to their ears, they asked: “Can you hear me now?”

The obvious implication was that no matter how far away you may be from each other, the phone transmission will always be clear and understandable. So, if you want your communication to be reliable, subscribe to this carrier.  Life, however, and even conversation between two friends, doesn’t always go so easily.

The Gospel for this Sunday is a lesson in a similar exercise.  We come to the culmination of the last several Sundays. Jesus faces the rejection of his most intimate teaching - that his actual presence is gift to us as food. That we share in that food under the signs of bread and wine he gave us on the night before he died.  This teaching is both personal and mysterious (Spirit and life) as well. Yet, he hopes that we “can hear me now?”

The crowds around him grossly miss the point of his words.  They see all things only in the physical. Jesus’ wish that they “. . . eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood . . . ,” as we heard in last Sunday’ Gospel (Jn 6: 51-58), is more than they can bear.  So this week we hear, “This saying is hard. Who can accept it?” Like their ancestors of old in the desert, they were “murmuring” and this time God once again provides more than they deserve – he gives the body and blood of his own Son to all who can accept it. This food for eternal life, Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, is beyond the material and in the realm of the spiritual but also true and substantive. Yes, a call for us to stretch our faith.

It is hard because it demands that we expand our understanding and “think outside the box” as is jargon today.  In faith, we acknowledge there is a greater reality Jesus speaks of: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life . . .” (Jn 6: 60-69) he reminds the crowd.  Jesus could only hope that his listeners could “hear me now.” 

As the crowds abandoned him, thinking such odd claims were beyond the pale, Jesus turns to his own Apostles and inquires: “Do you also want to leave?” We can hear the anguish in his voice.   

What do the Apostles decide?  Peter proclaims: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life . . .” We may assume that Peter spoke on behalf of all of them and at least for that moment, their loyalty to Jesus was clear but it was fragile and we know what happened on the night of the Last Supper. How fickle we human beings can be! Yet, he keyed in on Jesus’ point about spiritual words.  Peter could hear him now.

Our first reading from Joshua 24: 1-2a, 15-17, 18b may be a key for us who are called to daily make a choice like the crowds to stay or leave. Joshua challenges the tribes of Israel and Shechem : “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites . . .”  He sounds frustrated that many waffle back and forth. 

Joshua and his family stay with the Lord, as Peter and the twelve also did, because they realize there is nothing better. They have found the true, life-giving God. The crowds before Joshua comply with him: “Far be it for us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods . . .” And they remember what the Lord had done for them in their desert wanderings; the miracles he worked on their behalf.  In today’s increasingly secular culture, our choice may be more and more challenging but no less essential.  

Many people leave the Church either for a short time or altogether.  Many others remain and the population increases as time goes on.  Some remain in the Church but feel it is their mission to reform and persistently point out all the faults and failings of the hierarchy or particular members.  Others leave for a time due to discouragement from life problems but eventually return, maybe. Some just find the positions of the Church out of touch or misguided with modern life and more than they can bear. Some just say, “I’m not fed here.” But there is no doubt that today, we as Catholics, must make a choice as to what sort of Catholic/Christians we want to be.

A well-known insight of our late Holy Father John Paul II may help us to understand how the Church is like Jesus in today’s Gospel.  The Pope wrote: The Church imposes nothing she only proposes. (Redemptoris Missio). The point of our Holy Father is that true faith demands freedom of choice.  It’s about proposition not imposition.  

Jesus stood his ground.  He did not call the crowds back.  He proposed this teaching on the Eucharist then he turned to his trusted twelve and offered them a choice. He respected their freedom. No coercion on Jesus’ part. Yet, we might assume there was a smile of gratitude on his face when he heard Peter’s words.

Some present day positions of the Church are hard.  We don’t fight over the nature of Christ or the Trinity any more. The clear positions today on family life, marriage, divorce, birth control, and abortion are lighting rods in today’s secular culture that sees an individual measured only by his/her “rights” or feel that the immoral methods of such organizations as Planned Parenthood, especially their free flowing abortion practices, are the way to go for “reproductive health.”

Where do you go to find the words of eternal life? Have we become so selective that we are creating God in the image of man? Or, can we resonate with the words of Peter and the crowds of Joshua – Where else can we go? What’s better than this?

For us Catholics, and for those who have left either for a short time or for long, often we hear, “I came back because of the Eucharist.”  Maybe the positions of the Church, rooted in the teachings of our Lord, are not so hard after all and worth contemplating?