21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Msgr. Don Fischer reflects on the Liturgy of the Word from Sunday, August 26, 2018.
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b | Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32 | John 6:60-69
Oh God, who caused the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command, to desire what you promise that, amid the uncertainties of the world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THE process of God revealing who he is took thousands of years, 2,000 years at least. From the time that we see him calling a human being, Abraham, into a special relationship with him and saying that he wanted to guide them on a journey. The nature of the journey throughout the Old Testament has a very strong theme of moving from slavery to freedom — slavery to freedom. That is when this fullness of time came that the moment seemed right and people had enough information and enough understanding of this particular God that was revealing himself to them saying he was the only God, different from the other gods. Then he sort of dropped the bomb. As he got closer and closer to the fullness of what he was about to do, he explained something to people about the relationship that God really wanted to have with his people. One of the phrases I love to use — I read it somewhere, but it is this plan of God is amazingly intimate, or I’d say embarrassingly intimate and amazingly simple. He wants a relationship with us, as intimate as any relation could possibly be. He wants something like intimacy. The way he describes it ultimately is — and it’s predicted this way in the prophets — that this God is coming and he wants this relationship. The best description we have is that he wants to marry you. That is the closest, most intimate relationship that we know in humanity, where two people commit themselves to each other, to be there for each other and to support each other.
And so when it’s fully revealed, it’s revealed in a way that is almost beyond imagining. It’s what we’ve been working on these last weeks, this final teaching of Jesus that what they have to do is take his relationship with God so seriously — and they’ve watched it. They’ve seen the effectiveness of this figure Jesus, who has this power that is so beyond anyone’s imagining. It’s one of his greatest tools to get people to understand who he is. At the same time, it basically got him killed, because it was when he became so popular as a miracle worker that the leaders of the church were really truly terrified of him, because they didn’t know how to cope with that, particularly when he would give all these gifts to people who, in their system, weren’t worthy. They were sinners. Sinners don’t deserve anything. They’re being punished by God. So when he reveals this amazing power, he then looks at his disciples, and he’s saying — to more than just his disciples, because this particular passage in the gospel today is Jesus talking in a synagogue, so he’s got a congregation of followers. His 12 are there too. He goes on to explain, in the best way he can, because Jesus is such a great teacher. He loves to use images and tell stories. The images he often used are very, very powerful. So what he’s really saying is, “I’d like you to live your life in this world like I am living my life in this world. You see me doing things that are beyond anything you’ve ever seen before, but that’s your inheritance. That’s what I want to tell you. You can do these things. They have a shadow. They have a problem. If you’re focused too much on the spectacular ways in which I’ve shown you this power works, if you’re going to focus on that, be careful because it doesn’t really work when you become the great miracle worker.” If anyone was walking around today and able to raise people from the dead and heal almost any disease, what would their private life be like? It would be impossible to move around, in a sense.
So what we see in this very interesting revelation of who he is, he’s saying, “I want you to believe with me that you can do the things I do if you’ll just take me seriously. Take what I’m really saying to you as it really is. It’s reality. It’s the truth. This is your destiny.” He’s saying very beautifully, in a way, with the Old Testament in mind, he’s saying, “You’re not called to be my slaves.” What is a slave? A slave is somebody who has no human rights. A slave is a person who has no freedom to do what they feel they should do or would like to do, unless if falls within the categories of the master. Isn’t it interesting that the theme throughout the Old Testament, which is a document, a documentation of a people who are trying to live with justice as the primary goal and the law as the primary power that moves people to do what they’re supposed to do. So we have law and justice. And you know that, if you’re guilty, the law can condemn you. If you’re innocent, the law can forgive you. That’s as far as it can go, and that was a good beginning, but what’s so clear is that there’s something much more than the law and justice. It’s called love, mercy, compassion, empathy. Those are the powers that were given that have a miraculous effect on people who are diseased, who are limited, who are unable to see or to hear or to speak clearly the truth. So we have this way in which Jesus is trying to say, “Look, this you must take seriously. This is at the heart of what I’m telling you.” And he uses a form that, granted, is pretty dramatic. “Eat me. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” Well, why would he use such an incredibly, in a way, odd way of describing becoming like someone? It seems to me clear. The reason he did it is because he wanted us to do that ritual, that very event, every time we gathered around this mysterious thing we call our faith, our way of being in the world. When we gather together with people likeminded, we gather together to, in a way, experience unity and oneness. We’re always asked to listen to the stories again, listen to what this tradition is all about, have someone who has been pondering it and wondering about it for a very long time and who has even empowered by a special gift of grace to be able to interpret the scripture. You listen to someone interpret it, and what they’re doing is not telling you what it says, but they’re opening you up to what you and only you will know it says. I’m not here to convince you to believe what I’m saying. I’m here to tell you what I believe is the truth, and as a human being with rights and dignity, you are the one who has the power to choose whether you believe or not. It’s the story in Joshua. Who do you serve?
Well, service is a really tricky thing, because it means who is it that you know that God is asking you to be in this journey of faith. Who is it? It’s basically one who serves, but the fact that one, we’re called to serve, needs one crucial element in it. You need to first be served. You need to be served. So Jesus describes himself as the one who serves us. God in the Old Testament did not always seem that way, but the fullness of who he is, that’s who he is. He is somebody who’s there for us primarily. He is a servant God. It’s so clear in the life of Jesus. He has come to do something for us. Why? Because without what he’s doing for us, we could never become who we’re called to be, plus when you realize that somebody has given you a gift that transforms your life from, I would say, emptiness, fear, excessive shame, anger, he gives you something that takes away those things, that heals you of those, I would call them, diseases that creep into our psyche, our life. When you see that that’s what this God/man is doing, it transforms everything, it seems to me. It’s not a demanding God who judges us by our actions and therefore tells us whether or not we’re valuable enough to be loved and given the gift that he won for us. No, it’s much different than that. He’s trying to say, “I’m giving myself for you, to you,” just like a husband is called to give himself to his wife.
That reading from Paul is always such an interesting thing, because so many times people listen to it, and the phrase that we didn’t read, because we started the gospel later, ant that’s one of the options of this liturgy, it leaves out the infamous, I’ll say, phrase that wives should love their husbands as the Lord, as they love the Lord, but it comes across to the next line. You must obey your husband in all things. Well, no one is being asked to make another human being the source of truth and wisdom for you over God. So that phrase is really very confusing. It sounds like the husband is like a god to his wife, always telling her what to do. But what you have to realize is that this particular passage is not about marriage, which it usually is read at weddings. No, it’s about the church. Notice at the end of it Paul says, “What I’m really talking about is a great mystery, and the great mystery is about Christ and his church.” So he’s not giving an example of what makes a great marriage. He’s using the metaphor of marriage, a true marriage — a true marriage is where you love and give always to the other the truth that you find in life. It’s a beautiful process, and if you have that process operating, he’s saying, “What I want you to realize is, if you can understand how that works, what it feels like to be loved like that, now you’ve got a little hint of how God wants you to see the relationship you have with him.” It’s amazing. He’s the most loving partner anyone could ever have. He’s like somebody who recognizes your dignity and your value. He’s like somebody who doesn’t want you doing things because he told you to. He wants you to discover what he has planned for you, and he wants you to participate in the plan. The plan is an amazing cooperation with divine spirit in the world bringing life to the one who gives it and to the one who receives it from that person. That’s the essence of the church. Wherever that happens, the church is there. Beyond denominations, beyond hierarchy, laity, it’s wherever that mysterious union, communion with divinity is operating. There we are. That’s the church. It will always bring life, always bring hope, and it will never be extinguished. I know that. That is God’s promise.
So I love the opening prayer, which said, “In the midst of all uncertainties of the world,” which there are certainly a lot of uncertainties in the world today, where do we look for the truth? We don’t look for it written somewhere. We don’t give an individual the authority, who opens their mouth because they have a position of power to say that is the truth just because they have that position of power. No. It’s a personal, intimate gift given to you and to me in a relationship with a God who says, “I’m going to dwell inside of you. Listen to me in there. You and I have that kind of relationship,” he’s saying. I want you to feel the intimacy and the connection, because without that, you can’t experience the work that he came to establish on this earth, the work of the truth, light, enlightenment, consciousness, growing, changing, transforming the world into a place of peace.
Father, your plan is difficult for us. It’s difficult for us to believe that we are loved as you have described your love for us. It’s difficult for us to understand how you are inside of us, working through us and with us. I just ask you to bless us with the kind of childlike imagination that just delights in the reality of this promise without having to figure out how it works or when it’s working or how we can control it. Just give us the faith that we see in St. Peter. Even though he didn’t understand, he just simply said, “I don't know where else to go. I don’t have any other option, but to surrender to what you are offering me.” So bless us with that kind of faith, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.