When many of Jesus’ disciples heard his words, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
“Reaching for Divine Nourishment”
Over the last four Sundays we have followed the “bread of life discourse” and reflected on the theme of the divine nourishment. This Sunday concludes the discourse with an appeal to reach for and accept the life-giving divine nourishment.
The first reading describes the Israelites as they begin life in the promised land. Their long desert journey and the conquest are complete. Addressing the people, Joshua makes it no secret that Abraham, their ancestor, was originally a worshiper of pagan gods. However, he was chosen to become the forefather of God’s people. Now, his descendants stand in the land of “milk and honey”, their land. But this was the land they share with non-Israelites who followed their own gods and customs. The gods these people worshipped were believed to provide fertility, abundant rains and prosperity. The Israelites, who were mainly farmers, would face constant temptation to worship these nature gods rather than the God who brought them up from Egypt. In this context, Joshua asks for a decision intended to clarify the peoples’ identity and loyalty – whom do they want to serve? Spurred by the example of their leader and memories of Exodus, the Israelites unequivocally declare loyalty to their God. This implies that they will continue to rely on God to sustain them, as they did during the desert years. Their nourishment and sustenance, as the nation, was to be loyalty and obedience to the one God, who has proven himself loyal to them throughout their long and difficult history.
The author of Ephesians continues to discuss Christian identity, this time focusing on family life. Greco-Roman society had a rigid patriarchal structure. The man was the head of the household and had absolute authority over all its members. All were accountable to him, while he was accountable to no one. In this patriarchal system there was no concept of equality, and little or no attention was paid to the dignity and rights of women. Today’s passage has been viewed by some misguided Christians as supporting this unjust patriarchal structure. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Paul challenges and undermines the very foundation of the patriarchal system. In a society where women were considered their husband’s property, the words of Ephesians sound like a true revolution. Yes, Paul upholds authority of the husband over the wife, but not because it is the husband’s right. Rather, the wife accepts the husband’s authority on religious grounds, out of “reverence for the Lord”. This arrangement follows the logic of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Christ is the head of the Church and has authority over it. But he is also its saviour. How did Christ become the saviour? He did so by offering himself, his very life, for the Church. Here lies the revolutionary element in Paul’s teaching. The husband, who had no formal obligations towards the wife, is now obliged to show the same love for the wife, as Christ showed to the Church. Such demand represents a very different understanding of the marital relationship. The husband is obliged to exercise his authority through self-sacrificial love that resembles that of Christ. In reality, he is to become a servant. In the author’s view what nourishes and sustains the Christian family is the unrestricted and profound love of the husband for the wife, to the point of self-sacrifice. Such exercise of authority sustains the family. The wife responds to the husband’s sacrificial love through loyalty and commitment, thus manifesting her love. They nourish each another in the same way that Christ nourishes his Church – through his love, manifested on the cross, and continuing presence and guidance.
The people who heard and finally understood what Jesus meant by “eating his body and drinking his blood” saw his teaching as difficult and impossible to follow. As we saw last Sunday, union with Jesus is not a matter of words, but of offering one’s self in self-sacrificial service to others. Many of his disciples “complained” because they were not pleased with such views. To confirm the reliability of his words, Jesus speaks of his ascent to heaven, whence he came. He descended from heaven bringing a revelation and teaching that can be trusted. His resurrection and return to the heavenly world will provide further confirmation that his words and teaching are true, they are “spirit and life”. His words are spirit in the sense that they offer guidance for those who believe them. They are life because their implementation leads to eternal life. To hear the words of Jesus, and have a chance to respond to them, is a grace given by God, but such grace needs acceptance. Judas chose to reject Jesus and his words, as did many other disciples who abandoned Jesus at this point. They were unable to accept the implications of consuming Jesus’ body and blood.
The twelve decided to remain and “abide” in him. Peter, on behalf of the group, explained the reason their choice. They accepted that eternal life can only be reached by following Jesus and his teaching on the Eucharist, and on sacrificial love. Jesus, in the words of Peter, “has the words of eternal life”. They also recognized that Jesus came from God as the “Holy One”. This implies that his words have divine authority and can be trusted. The twelve made a difficult choice, but the right choice.
The “bread of life discourse” contains a magnificently constructed portrayal of the journey towards eternal life. It begins with the experience of God’s graciousness in most ordinary ways – such as being fed with food for the body. Jesus did just that for the crowds. This initial sign leads to seeking something greater – life that surpasses bodily needs and the concerns of this world. To reach this greater life one needs the nourishment provided by Jesus. This nourishment is the Eucharist, offeredto believers, and a life of sacrificial love lived in a Jesus-like manner. The Eucharistic union provides the necessary strength, the nourishment, needed for the journey towards heaven, which leads along the path of self-sacrificial service.
Today’s liturgy concludes the five-Sunday long sequence of readings from John’s Gospel, with a motivating appeal to make a choice. Like the Israelites at Shechem, who had to choose between the true God and local idols, Christians must decide for or against abiding with Jesus through the Eucharist. This also implies a decision whether they are willing to live out the same self-sacrificing love as he did. If chosen, that love compels them to adjust their lifestyle accordingly. Paul demanded just such a turning to love from the husbands in the Ephesian community, in defiance of the social norms of his time. Those who decide for Jesus and his ways as their nourishment for life, would be able to rightly claim with the psalmist, “my soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.”
As we conclude our reflection on the bread of life discourse, we are presented with stories of people in transition. Israelites are settling in a new land after a long desert journey. Christians in the Ephesian community are challenged to alter their understanding of the relationship between husbands and wives. The followers of Jesus must decide how to respond to Jesus’ difficult statements on the bread of life. Just like these biblical characters, we journey through life and frequently find ourselves making transitions. Our bodies change, our knowledge and thinking develops, our relationships thrive or dissolve, our faith and zeal grow stronger or weaker, our commitments and loyalties shift. Amid this constant change one thing remains firm and constant – God’s presence with and commitment to us. God was with the Israelites during their desert crossing and accompanied them into a new land. God led the Ephesian Gentiles to join the Christian community. God brought the disciples to Jesus, and allowed them to hear his voice. God’s presence was, and is, constant, amid the transitions and changes we all go through.
Many of us treat changes and challenges as threats. We fear change because it demands that we stretch ourselves and adopt to new situations. This requires considerable effort and, more often than not, is painful. In all three readings, people had to change and adopt to something entirely new. For some of them, this became an obstacle, that led to falling away from God. Many disciples of Jesus abandoned him, and many of the Ephesian men did not join the Church when they heard that they must love their wives with Christ-like love. Learning from their example we must avoid making the same mistakes. Every change and challenge, as difficult as it may be, offers new possibilities. It is good to think here of those who suffer from debilitating illnesses and disabilities. Some of them fall into bitterness and despair. Others become great athletes and participate in the Paralympic games, they become champions. For some people, sinking into the depths of alcoholism and drug abuse results in death. But some rebound from the edge of darkness and become new people, radiating life and saving others by sharing their experiences. Some of us come close to losing faith when confronted with death of a loved one. We feel that God has let us down. While nothing can take the pain and the sense of loss away, these tragic circumstances force us to take new direction in our lives. The only changes and challenges that are harmful are those we try to hide or run away from.
How do we find strength and guidance to respond to changes and transitions? We have to look for divine nourishment. According to today’s readings this nourishment lies in trusting God enough to place oneself under his loving authority. Being under the authority of God means that we do not bow down to any man-made god, we do not become slaves to anything such as alcohol, drugs, sex, money or power. These things give us momentary illusions of greatness. But, in fact, they enslave us and take away our ability to control the direction of our lives. We also find divine nourishment through Jesus. We are free to accept his often difficult teaching on love and sacrifice, or to go away. Reaching for divine nourishment is something which each person must do herself or himself. But the offer of this nourishment is always extended to us. Let us reach for it!