Aug. 25, 2018

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2018

“IT IS THE SPIRIT THAT GIVES LIFE, WHILE THE FLESH IS TO NO AVAIL” (Jn. 6:63)

Readings: Josh. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; 2nd- Eph. 5:21-32; Gospel- Jn. 6:60-69

We are in dangerous times in the life of the Church. Within this time, almost every homily is predictable. The reason is obvious; it is about the clergy (homo)sexual abuse. That’s the truth. Beyond the clergy abuse, we talk about the pattern of apology that mostly characterizes preaching at liturgical gatherings these days. We can ask ourselves why we haven’t been able to solve this problem which threatens the foundation of God’s holy institution to date. The answer is in the gospel of today, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” says Christ. 

For the past few weeks, we have been reading about Christ’s teaching about his Flesh and Blood. He has been instructing his followers on what the real food and drink are- His Body and Blood as the food for everlasting life. The result of Christ’s speech is seen in the reaction of his followers in today’s gospel. The “disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (Jn. 6:60).At that the people murmur. They complain. They doubt the sayings of Jesus. Jesus is aware of their reactions and challenges them to recognize that no one can come to him unless through special connection with the Father. His words make matters worse. Hence, his listeners start leaving him, as “many returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” This is a typical reaction to the gospel message when it is unfavorable to the listeners even in our time. People just shut down at what is unpleasing to their ears. They log out. 

Looking at the first reading, Joshua seems to experience the same thing as Jesus. Joshua is old and advanced in age. He gives the people the parting words for them to observe the commandments of the Lord. Since the Israelites are fond of accepting verbally to do the will of God, with little or no action, Joshua strongly invites them to commit. He measures their determination to remain faithful to the covenant. Joshua doesn’t want excuses any more. He doesn’t want apologies. He wants action; “choose you this day the god you shall serve”. He wants the people to declare for the Lord, or their abandonment thereof. The Bible records that Joshua begins by summoning the elders, the leaders, the judges, and the officers of the people as they stand “in ranks before God.” That is the hierarchy that constituted the leadership of Israel at the time. The hierarchy must always take the lead for the people to follow.

The second reading addresses one of the crucial issues that make people to leave the Church and her teachings. Saint Paul asks wives to be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. He addresses husband as head of the wife. Paul likens the positions of wife and husband to that of the Church and Christ respectively. Just as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her service, so he invites the husband to sacrifice for the wife. Is Paul’s teaching still relevant in this society that vehemently upholds and defends women’s equal rights with men? Can women still be subordinate to their husbands? What does Paul mean when he asks the wife to be subordinate to the husband? Should women give in to degrading conditions in marriage because it is what the Ephesian passage implies? The answer to the last question is no. Saint Paul invites couples to mutual respect and love in their marriage relationship. He invokes Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). The passage concludes by informing that the marriage bond is a mystery. If it is a mystery, it means that its interpretation should not be based on mere human understanding. The message is for husbands to love their wives like Christ loved his Church, and for wives to commit themselves to their husbands unreservedly. A man who loves his wife sacrificially makes her to respect him without reservation.

Let’s return to the gospel. The disciples remark, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The question is, which of Christ’s saying is not hard? Which of the Church’s teaching is easy in the human sense? The teachings on indissolubility of marriage? The teachings on celibacy? The teachings on the Blessed Eucharist? The teachings on marriage as a sacrament? None of the teachings of the Church is very simple, otherwise, everyone will follow them without complaint. Many people have left because they can’t accept the teaching on marriage. Many have abandoned the church because marriage should not just be between a man and a woman. Many people have deserted the church because she teaches that once validly joined in the sacrament of marriage, the bond remains till death. Many have abandoned the Church because the Church insists that priests should not marry. Many are leaving because the Church doesn’t allow women to be priests and preside over the Blessed Eucharist. When is Christ’s sayings not hard?

While all those reactions are taking place in the Bible, Christ turns and says to his disciples, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter’s answer tallies with the words of Christ referring to the spirit as the source of life; “To whom shall we go, Master? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter nails it. The problem is not that the teachings of Christ and those of the Church are hard. The problem is with us. We have failed to recognize that Christ is our rock and strength. We have neglected the fact that the flesh leads to futility and is of no avail. When Christ says that the spirit gives life, he invites us to focus on spiritual things in our battle with evil forces. Every one of us can fall if we concentrate on the flesh. In the second book of Samuel, we read about the great king David and how he succumbed to the attractions of the flesh. In all his majesty, David fell for Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. David sent others out into the battle but relapsed in the flesh (1 Sam. 11). The clergy can fall. Cardinals can fall. Archbishops can fall. Bishops can fall. Priests can fall. Deacons can fall. We all can fall. Like David, if we send our flocks out to the battle field without joining in the battle, we fall. We will all fall if we don’t do our spiritual battles- embrace the Blessed Eucharist, do penance, give our time and energy to Jesus.   

Peter gives us the answer to the Church’s troubles today; “Master, to whom shall we go?” We have sinned, yes, but we can only solve the church’s problems if we actively go back to the Lord. Like a mighty wind, the passions might be strong that lead to abuse of minors and craving for fellow men. The clergy can only quench such passion by returning to the Lord. This war is spiritual, not physical. Only the spiritual can overcome.