Homily for Sunday XXI B 2012
I will begin tonight by saying something about the passage we’ve just heard from the letter to the Ephesians. At first hearing you might think the apostle Paul is trying to keep women in their place, but it is not that at all. It is an extended metaphor about the relationship between Christ and the Church. This is made quite clear in the concluding sentence: This mystery has many implications, but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. Yes, it does talk about marriage – by showing how Christ’s love for the Church provides a model for spouses.
Give way to one another in obedience to Christ, he writes. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife. These words were, of course, written in a culture different from our own, where women were given little education and had few responsibilities outside the home. The passage continues: Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. The commandment, you notice, is to love, not to rule. Husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies […] That is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body – and we are its living parts.
Paul then quotes a verse from Genesis: For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. The fact that the quotation is from Genesis – i.e. part of the Torah – ‘serves to place marriage (both human marriage and the divine-human union) unquestionably within God’s plan of salvation for the universe’. There can be no doubt that the key word in this passage is ‘love’!
Today we have heard the last part of the Bread of Life discourse in the 6th chapter of St John’s gospel. In reaction to Jesus’ words insisting that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood, some of them say: This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it? So Jesus challenges them: Does this upset you? What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before? Now Jesus has been behaving like the greatest of the prophets – Moses – by both teaching and providing food. Moses was summoned to Mount Sinai to meet God. He had to ascend the mountain to receive the Torah. Do the Jews want to see Jesus ascend the mountain? But, he points out, that is where he was before. He has come down from above. He already has the authority necessary to teach, and what he now says is this: 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.
The teaching was so new, and so radical, that we need not be surprised that some of his hearers could not stomach it. There are some of you who do not believe, he says. That is why I told you that no one could come to me unless the Father allows him. At this point, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him. We can imagine his regret that so many left. These people had witnessed the miraculous feeding of a large crowd, and they had heard but were now rejecting his instruction. Can it be that the Father was not calling them? I hesitate to suggest it. Anyway, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks: What about you, do you want to go away too? Once again it is Simon Peter who answers on behalf of the whole group: 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.
Whether or not Peter worked that out for himself, or whether this was a personal revelation, he’s now got the idea: he believes in Jesus because of his origins – this man is indeed from God.
It’s time to take a look at tonight’s first reading. Joshua had succeeded Moses as the leader of the Jewish tribes. You will remember that Moses died within sight of the Promised Land, but never entered it. It was Joshua who led the Hebrews over the Jordan and into Palestine. There were already inhabitants who thought it was their country. So the Hebrews had to conquer the land, with God’s support, of course. The Hebrews were not yet a monarchy. They were a confederation of tribes united in battle, and conscious of the fact that God had promised it to them. At Shechem Joshua called the tribes together and gave them this choice: If you will not serve the Lord, choose today whom you wish to serve, whether the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River [Jordan] or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are now living. As for me and my House, we will serve the Lord.
In their response the people recall all that God has already done for them and conclude: We too will serve the Lord, for he is our God. You can see now that the response of Peter and the Twelve at the end of today’s gospel is an echo of that of their ancestors at Shechem. I trust that it will always be our response as well. For we are regularly fortified with the Body and Blood of Christ, and informed by his Holy Spirit. To whom else would we go? (q.howard)