Sunday, August 23, 2009

Walking the Walk

Commenting on today’s Gospel passage [John 6:56-69] in his dated but still marvelous book The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God, Fr. William Countryman give us this stark reminder: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable. Many of Jesus’ disciples leave because of his outrageous language; and among those who remain, even within the inner circle of the Twelve, is the betrayer...

Jesus speaks again today of the wisdom of faith: that it is the setting of one’s heart and trust on the Father, through his
incarnate Son, who draws us that ultimately leads us to eternal life. “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life.” Jesus contrasts this with the foolishness of unbelief, expressed so directly in the opening line of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’”

The basis for such faith comes from two sources: 1) Jesus’ word that he is “come down from heaven” to give “eternal life” and to raise up; and 2) Jesus’ own body and blood, now glorified and risen, which reveals the Father to us sacramentally, in the Eucharist; and spiritually, through his indwelling and life-giving Spirit of love.

In today’s Gospel Jesus again hammers away at the fact that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink; that in sharing his body and blood we “will live because of me”; that he himself, indeed, is the “bread, come down from heaven”, surpassing and supplanting even their ancestors’ food from God. In fact, two verses from last week’s Gospel are repeated today, while two verses in this Chapter 6 are omitted in the RCL. To better understand what’s being said, it would be worth your while to re-read Jn 6:35-50; 56-71.

Hearing these words, many of Jesus' disciples responded: “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow” John comments: “After this a lot of his disciples left. They no longer wanted to be associated with him.

When Jesus asks if the Twelve also want to leave, they make two statements, through their spokesman, Peter. First:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life...” Did you ever ask yourself to what “words of eternal life” they were referring? You and I actually have heard them many, many times. Here is is just a sampling of them:

- God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the good news.

- Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.

- Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.

- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

- Do not be anxious about your life.

- Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the reign of heaven, but the one who does my Father’s will.

- The one who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

- For you always have the poor with you”

- Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To the
one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from the one who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of the one who takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

- Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.

- So you also, when you have done all that is commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’

You have the words of eternal life.” You and I listen to and read these words over and over again in our lifetimes. Do we actually hear what they’re saying and are we committed to live by them each day? Do we find it difficult to “come” to the Father, to truly set our heart on God? Do we, perhaps, resist being drawn because of the demands that go with it? Are Jesus’ words and sacramental presence “hard sayings” for us? Hard, yes, because of our weakness in trusting. Hard also, because we often don’t really “buy” Jesus’ real Presence in the whole Body of Christ which includes him, each of us, and every person for whom he died. Could that be why we have such difficulty in relating our following of Christ with the social issues confronting us? If we admit that they’re connected, it puts some very uncomfortable responsibilities on you and me to do justice, to feed the hungry, to welcome strangers, etc.

The second statement of the Twelve to Jesus, through Peter, is: “...we’ve already committed ourselves, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” The “words of eternal life” become real only when we come to the Father through Jesus in faith, when we set our hearts on him, particularly in the Eucharist, as we respond to the Father’s gift of drawing us. This is a living encounter.

Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross, as representative of humankind, intended and accomplished
restoration of our relationship with the Father -- salvation, redemption -- for all human beings, without exception. Jesus meant this act of restoration, this one-ing with the Father, for all and for each of us personally. The Eucharistic sacramental sign preeminently expresses this personal intention of Jesus for each of us personally and corporately.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is a sign by which Jesus draws near to you and me as particular individuals, as well as to the whole community of faith. In the fullest sense this sign is the Father’s pledge of the Son’s availability to you and me, the tangible assurance that God in Christ desires to relate one-on-one to you and to me, and to the whole Body of Christ. The sacrament is the open, frank, and unambiguous pledge of the fact that God the Father in Jesus the Christ wishes to share God’s life, Spirit, Presence, grace with everyone who comes forward in faith to receive Christ’s body and blood.

When the recipient’s personal power of setting the heart, in solid trust, on God is joined with the power of ritual
supplication of Christ and his Church, then the outward and visible sign of bread and wine becomes, as the
Book of
Common Prayer
says, “...the inward and spiritual grace...the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people...” Just as the Apostles, in that living encounter we come to know, in Jesus present, “the Holy One of God”.

To accept the Holy One, even though we don’t fully understand, is wisdom. To do otherwise makes one a fool. Which brings us back to Fr. Countryman’s stark reminder, mentioned at the beginning: “...Baptism...while necessary for the Christian life, does not guarantee the loyalty of those who receive it...even the fully initiated, those who have participated in the Eucharist, are not perfectly reliable...” John takes great pains, at the end of this discourse which we’ve heard over the past five Sundays, to focus in on the disciples, including Judas, in vv. 70-71 which aren’t actually part of the RCL passage today. Note that this is the first mention of Judas in John’s Gospel, quite interesting in that
1) John uses a veiled reference by Jesus that “one of you is a devil”; and 2) John describes Judas as “he, [who] though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” It’s a very different portrayal from Matthew who depicts a remorseful Judas, who, though greedy, is somewhat more pitiable because he’s driven to his own suicide.

In John’s Gospel Judas simply doesn’t believe; he, like the others who walked away, hasn’t set his heart in trust on the
Holy One who has shown by what he’s said and done that he is the source of life and salvation. When Judas appears again in John’s Gospel it’s at Jesus final supper together with the Twelve, where several times hints are dropped that Judas is going to betray Jesus, and during which he disappears out into the night. His next encounter with Jesus is in the garden when he brings a cohort of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus. John describes a Judas who is so unbelieving that he doesn’t even identify Jesus to the soldiers by calling him “
Rabbi” or by kissing him. Jesus actually is the one who comes out of the garden, like a good shepherd defending his flock, and asks virtually the same question which he asked the disciples at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “Whom/what are you looking for?” In Chapter 6, John acknowledges Judas by describing what Judas is going to do, which casts cloud over his loyalty as a disciple. In Chapter 18 he speaks the name of “Judas, who betrayed him...”, reminding us that Judas, once chosen and a
participant in Jesus’ ministry, now stands in the darkness of complete unbelief.

Someone has commented that there are people who can experience God in a wildflower, while others fail to discern
Christ even in the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. The key, as Jesus has told us over these past five weeks, is in allowing the Father to draw us, in setting our hearts in trust on Jesus, and in sharing together the living bread, in whom we have eternal life and who will raise you and me up at the last day.

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