21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – 23rd August 2015

"In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart"

Scripture Reading – John 6:60-69

After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, ‘Does this upset you? What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before?

‘It is the spirit that gives life,
the flesh has nothing to offer.
The words I have spoken to you are spirit
and they are life.

‘But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. He went on, ‘This is why I told you that no one could come to me unless the Father allows him.’ After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.

Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.’

REFLECTION

“In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart” Pascal

by Sr Bridget O’Connell FMA

Once there was a native Indian chief who was nearing the end of his life. In order to decide which of his sons should succeed him, he called them together one day and said to them: do you see that mountain in the distance? I want you to journey to the mountain, climb to its summit and bring back what you think would be most helpful in leading our people. After several days the first son returned with flint stones used to make arrow tips and spear points. He told his father: our people will never live in fear of our enemies; I know where there is a mound of flint. The second son climbed to the top of the mountain and on the way found forests rich in wood for making fires. When he returned he said to his father: our people will never be cold in winter. I know where wood can be found in abundance to keep them warm and to cook their food. The third son returned very late and empty-handed. He stated; when I reached the summit I found nothing that was worth bringing back. I searched everywhere but the top of the mountain was barren rock and was useless. Then I looked out towards the horizon, far into the distance, I was astounded to see new land filled with forests and meadows, mountains and valleys, animals and sea, a land of great beauty and of great peace. I brought nothing back; for the land was still far off but I carried its beauty in my heart. This is what I want our people to experience. The chief took his hands and said that he would be the one to succeed him as the chief and leader, as he had a vision for his people.

Today’s first reading and our Gospel reading present us with the people of the Old and New Testaments who are being asked to look again at their experiences and at the vision that they hold in their hearts. What does it really mean? The first reading shows the Israelites who have seen the greatness of God in their journey to reach the Promised Land. They had the experience of God’s protection leading them as a cloud by day and a flame by night; they had been fed with manna in the desert, yet some had been losing heart, and some had joined them later in the journey and were unsure. So Joshua gathers them all together and he asks them to make a choice “If you will not serve the Lord choose today whom you wish to serve”?

For the past four Sundays in our Gospel readings from St John, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the Bread of life – the Eucharist, they have seen him feed with the five loaves and two fish; they have seen him cure the sick. Some cannot accept his teaching and move away so today he puts a question to the people who are closest to him, his chosen apostles – will you also go away?

Our vision and our experiences are tangible in the decisions that we make. In Baptism we are born in Christ, and we live out this Christian vision in our ordinary everyday lives. Our living is like the journey and the experience of the Promised Land. We can be as the Israelites were or as the apostles, we can waver at times even as we are holding on in faith – saying Lord to whom shall we go? We can also be like Joshua calling each other to remember who we are. A reminder expressed in the words of the responsorial psalm to “taste and sees that the Lord is good”.

We pray today:
May we be blessed as we live between belief and unbelief,
May we learn to hold the vision we have in our hearts so that it becomes a mirror in our search for meaning.
May the gift of hope enable us to trust when we live with glimpses of God and give us comfort when we live in shadows.
In our memories and experiences may we find the goodness of God so that we can pray: Lord to whom shall we go?

“In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart”

INTRODUCTION TO LECTIO DIVINA

Today’s gospel presents an unusual scene: after satisfying the hunger of the crowd, and offering himself as the bread of life, Jesus has to face being abandoned by the crowd and criticized by his disciples. He asks them if they are also thinking leaving him. He leaves them full freedom of choice. Jesus offers himself as food for the people whose hunger he had satisfied, but he does not impose on them to follow him, he does not oblige them to obey. He proved to them his goodness, and then offered them a choice – to stay with him or to leave him. In this way, all those who chose to stay with him and make their home with him become children, not slaves, friends not servants. It is worth noting that the more difficult his words are to accept, the more freedom he allows his followers.

LECTIO DIVINA

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

At the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse in the synagogue in Capernaum (Jn 6), the evangelist reports the reaction of a great number of people who were shocked by what Jesus had to say (Jn 6, 61). His listeners changed their attitude to him but he did not change the content of his teaching (Jn 6, 60).  The fidelity of the disciples is tested when confronted by the failure of the Jews to believe. The difficulty believers faced was not just recognising Jesus as a man sent from heaven, but rather accepting that eternal life is achieved by eating his flesh.

Jesus meets incredulity from many of his followers (Jn 6, 60-66) and receives the faith of twelve of them (Jn 6, 67-71). The progression is noteworthy: the crowd searched for him, then abandoned him; his followers were shocked and most of them left him (Jn 6, 66). The twelve remain, but not for long (Jn 6, 77). And sadly, this marks the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.

What Jesus said was offensive and hard to accept, even for those who were closest to him (Jn 6, 60 a).  Their belief was tested by his claim to be the Bread and the Word that gives life (Jn 6, 31-51), authentic Food which is the source of life. It was not just that they did not want to believe – they were unable to believe (Jn 6, 60 b). It is not enough for the disciples to follow their Master, they are to be nourished by him, not just by his words but by his body.

Jesus knows the difficulty they are experiencing (Jn 6, 64), and when he hears their grumbling and disbelief (Jn 6, 61) he gives them even greater signs. If they are scandalized by the one who has come down from heaven, what will they say when they see him going back up to where he was before? It is not altogether clear what he means. Certainly he is referring to his return, through his death on the cross, to the glory he had before his historic mission. Jesus will ascend to the Father, after he has given his life for the life of the world (Jn 20, 17). Then the disciples will recognize the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic banquet. The remembrance will be a sharing in his life, and will result in the presence that is celebrated.  The memory of his offering will be commemorated always in the presence of his body offered for the life of the world.

These words of Jesus are Spirit and life (Jn 6, 63). The fact that they are so harsh as to seem incomprehensible is due to the carnal condition of those who hear them, who think in terms of human projects and human possibilities. Flesh has nothing to offer. It is clinging to superficial appearances and an incapacity to understand God. The Spirit will enable us to understand everything, and in particular, the ultimate meaning of the words of Jesus (Jn 14, 26). This points to the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit that will be explained later (cf. Jn chapters 14 – 16). The gift of the Spirit of life is needed in order to accept Jesus as the bread of life.

Understanding is a gift. It does not come from earthly motives. This explains the behaviour of the followers who did not believe (Jn 6, 64). Those who are not led by God do not feel attracted to Jesus (Jn 6, 65). The personal delusion of the disciple, which led even to betrayal, is explained theologically. The riddle of the incredulity of the disciples is given a decisive answer. Jesus knew already that many of his disciples were unable to believe in him (Jn 6, 60.66), because faith depends on God’s grace. Faith is not given to everyone who wants to believe but to the one who is loved (Jn 6,64-65). Simply staying with Jesus and sharing life with him, is not enough. Faith is a gift from God (Jn 6,65). This argument is hard to accept, but a test is given which the reader can verify. The one who would betray him was to come from among those who would undergo this test. Jesus knew this (Jn 6, 64; cf. 13,27). Someone who has not been handed over to him, will hand him over (Jn 6, 70-71). The account is part of the historic drama of the rejection of Jesus by the disciples who believed in him and then abandoned him, with their messianic hopes dashed (Jn 6 ,66).

Mention is now made of the Twelve. This is the first reference to them in the fourth gospel  (Jn 6,60.70.71; 20,24), which says nothing about their selection and does not even record their names  (cf. Mk 3,13-19; Mt 10,1-4; Lk 6,12-16). They are described within the group of the disciples as those who stayed with Jesus and remained faithful. They are the only ones who were asked if they also wanted to leave him (Jn 6, 67). Jesus was aware of their will to remain faithful (6, 64), but he wanted to help them. Simon acknowledges that they have nowhere to go. The reason given for their fidelity establishes the authentic criterion for faith – Jesus has the words of life (Jn 6, 68). Some, at least, have received the gift of faith in Jesus and are led to him by God.

Peter’s confession of faith came after the test (Jn 6, 68). He acknowledges that the words of Jesus, hard as they may be, are words of life (Jn 6, 63), and he attributes a title to Jesus, the Holy One of God (Jn 6,69), thereby indicating that Jesus belonged to the sphere of the divine. His words can be trusted because he comes from God. The profession of faith of the community – we believe, we know that you are the Holy One of God (Jn 6,69) – re-echoes that of Peter. Knowledge and faith are simultaneous. They know the one they trust. They know by believing and trusting. In other words, faith is the way to know Jesus truly.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

The Jews reacted to Jesus’ words by grumbling and doubting, but it was his disciples who were scandalized and left him. It is hard enough to follow someone you do not understand, but it is much harder to follow someone who is table-companion, food, nourishment for the journey and, at the same time, companion on the journey. The Eucharist, from its very origin, has been the test of fidelity for the followers of Jesus, and it is still so today. Few people who come to Jesus today, are willing to make him the nourishment of their lives. Anyone who resists the temptation to disillusionment is recognised by Jesus as a gift given to him by the Father.  When someone decides to remain with him, as Peter did, without understanding fully, it is a sign that he has been chosen by God. Fidelity to Jesus is easy when we discover God’s fidelity and his love, and these are perceived only by those who receive Jesus as Eucharistic nourishment.

However, we should not forget, that a decision is unavoidable. We must choose either the God who sets us free or others who make slaves of us, either Jesus who satisfies our hunger for life or the other bread which only adds to our needs. Neither God nor Jesus allow for alternatives. They cannot be loved in half measure. Perhaps this is the most obvious lesson to be taken from today’s word of God. The people who had flocked in great number to hear Jesus, and the five thousand who had been fed with just a few loaves, would like to have made Jesus their king, and this could have cost them  dearly at that time. By choosing in favour of Jesus they put their lives at risk. For Jesus, on the other hand, it was not enough. He did not want to be their king but their bread. He chose to be, not an absolute lord, but food. The crowd, who had been so enthusiastic previously, were now disappointed with this Jesus who worked miracles, because he did not fit in with their plans. As long as he did what they wanted, healing their sick or satisfying their hunger, they followed him enthusiastically. But when he stopped doing what they wanted and began to tell them that he was the true bread, and that they had to eat him in order to live, many of them began to doubt and to abandon him, because this way of speaking, they said, was unacceptable.

What happened in Galilee is repeated in our day. There are Christians who follow Jesus for what he gives them. They trust him because they have received his protection. They look to him for miracles that they cannot obtain by themselves. They serve Jesus as long as he serves them.  Their life of faith has become a business deal. They accept the gospel in order to influence God. They obey his commandments only when he obeys their wishes. They remain disciples, not for love of Jesus, but out of their need for bread. Like the crowd of disciples that day, every Christian ends up being confronted by Jesus and forced to take a position. If we really want to be recognised as genuine followers, we must first of all examine the reason for our fidelity: what are we looking for when we go in search of Jesus? What is it that brings us to him? Are we disappointed when he does not satisfy our needs? Or is it perhaps true that we are gradually abandoning him because he does not serve us as he did before?

But why should we be surprised? Abandoning Jesus is not something that happens only in our day. The gospel tells us that when Jesus did not give them the bread they wanted, because he wanted to be their bread, many of his disciples withdrew and never came back to him. Today, too, many Christians have turned their back on Jesus because they cannot understand him or can no longer accept him. They grow tired of Jesus and continue to seek new adventures and fall into the hands of new masters. We need not feel ashamed if we have sometimes been tempted to abandon Jesus because he does not serve us as we would like, or because we find it difficult to understand him. It is only when we have overcome that temptation that our fidelity has been tested and proved. However, we should remember that the misunderstanding of a friend is more painful than the contempt of an enemy.  Abandoning Jesus after years of following him is more humiliating than not wanting to follow him at the first time of meeting.

The gospel account reminds us that those who abandoned him en masse were his disciples who had been closest to him and had been present when he performed his miracles. They were the people who knew him best and were his intimate friends. They had followed him from the beginning, and had promised that they would follow him forever. However, when the time came to accept him, not for what he had done for them but for what he wanted to do for them, not for what he might give them but for what he wanted to be for them, they felt they had been deceived and they left him.  It is really sad that it was the people closest to Jesus that began the exodus that later led to his betrayal.  There is always a good excuse for abandoning him. He speaks in an unacceptable manner, they said. The only reason we need to remain with him is the one given by Peter. It does not seem a very worthy reason – we have nobody else to go to! It should not cost too much to remain faithful to Jesus, for he demands very little. To become genuine disciples, it is enough to have nobody else to go to, no real alternative to Jesus. And when we know that there is nobody else but Jesus that is worth following, we will be convinced that he has the words of life.

The disciple of Jesus has to pass a test. He needs to experience the temptation to run away, and the possibility of following other masters or seeking new opportunities. If we desert him it will always be as a result of the disappointment provoked by Jesus himself.  We will not be tempted to abandon him until we abandon the illusions we formed when we began to follow him closely. It is in the experience of being disappointed that our fidelity is tested. Staying with him, despite everything and even when we don’t feel like it, will ensure that we rediscover him as the one who is indeed everything for us, not just one more form of nourishment but the bread that sustains our life today and always.

Jesus demands a lot because he has promised a lot. He wants the same commitment from us that he has shown us. Like a good friend, he wants us to be faithful because he has put his trust in us. He expects us to love him, because he has first loved us.  He obliges us to opt for him because he has first chosen us.  Anyone who remains with him saves his friendship and his life, even if, as in the case of Peter, the reasons might not be all that good, Jesus has the words of life only for those who listen to him, even if they do not understand very well. He is the Holy One of God for those who seek no other God, nor anything apart from him. He is the anointed Messiah for those who choose to remain with him, even if it is only because they have nobody else to go to.

If Jesus has fixed the price of fidelity so low, the scandal is not so much that many abandon him but that so few choose to remain with him. What about us, where do we stand? If we have never felt the temptation to abandon him, then our fidelity has not yet been tested and proved. If we have reason to abandon him, we will have to seek better reasons to remain united with him. Then, and only then, will we know how good he is and how much he loves us.

PRAYER

May we be blessed as we live between belief and unbelief,
May we learn to hold the vision we have in our hearts so that it becomes a mirror in our search for meaning.
May the gift of hope enable us to trust when we live with glimpses of God and give us comfort when we live in shadows.
In our memories and experiences may we find the goodness of God so that we can pray: Lord to whom shall we go?
Amen.

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Music used in the reflection: “Cosmic Tingles” (piano ver.) by Lee Rosevere (CC-BY-NC)

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