A group of Christians were gathered for a secret prayer meeting in Communist Russia, at the height of the Stalinist era. Suddenly the door was broken down by the boot of a soldier, who entered the room, and faced the people with a gun in his hand. They all feared the worst when he said, “If there are any of you who don’t really believe in Jesus, get out now while you have a chance.” There was a rush to the door and in the end only a small group remained. The soldier closed the door and stood in front of those who remained, gun still in hand. Finally, a smile appeared on his face, and as he turned to leave the room he whispered “Actually, I believe in Jesus, too. And believe me, you’re much better off without those others!
Sometimes loyalty comes at a price. Loyalty is the theme running through the readings today. Joshua and his people were faced with a decision once they entered the Promised Land. Given that God had provided for them in the past and would not desert them now, it seemed an obvious choice. However, the circumstances of life had changed for them. The God who brought them out of bondage in Egypt was a warrior God, one who could accomplish great feats with outstretched arm. In this new country they would be faced with the challenges of agriculture, and that was the realm of the gods of the Amorites. There was no guarantee that the God of Israel had power over those forces of nature.
For Joshua however, it was a no brainer. The God of Israel was not just a warrior God fending off all threats. He had journeyed with this God and understood his Lord as personal God, calling those he redeemed to be his very own people. ‘Do not be afraid, I have called you by name, you are mine’ are the words of the Lord to Isaiah and they sum up the very special relationship of this God to his people. And so Joshua is not for turning: ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. . .” Joshua is loyal to the core.
Apart from the faithful few, Jesus does not get the same positive response in the Gospel. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Following a sensational Jesus who can multiply loaves is one thing. Commitment to Jesus who professes himself to be bread from heaven is another. This commitment demands being with Jesus and getting to know him, his thoughts, his vision, his way of doing things. Perhaps many of the crowd did not have this kind of opportunity and so when Jesus speaks in difficult phrases like eating flesh and drinking blood their suspicions begin to artise.
Peter, on the other hand, is coming from a different place. He has already journeyed with Jesus for some time. What matters for him then is the person of Jesus who has already changed his life in so many ways and so he boldly proclaims: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Notice Peter is not investing in some ideology but a person! ‘to whom shall we go?’ It was only by being with his Master that Peter came to know real Jesus. ‘We have come to know!…’
There is a very poignant phrase in today’s gospel. ‘After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him.” Today we are witnessing a phenomenal drift away from the Catholic Church, especially of young soon after Confirmation. This is so marked in some instances that the sacrament is referred to as the ‘church leaving certificate’. In the USA 80% of young Catholics are no longer visible members by the age of 23. Similar trends are found within Protestant churches. Some who leave join other more vibrant and – to them – more relevant churches, while others put formal religion behind them as a statement of independence or disinterest.
This is very distressing for parents who have worked so hard to bring their children up in the faith. The question I ask is: ‘have they really left Jesus?’ Or would it be more true to say that they never really met Jesus. Many young people are very spiritual but they are not at all impressed with all the wars and strife that take place in the name of religion. It’s one thing to say one’s prayers and go through the rubrics. It’s quite another thing to be a man or woman of prayer and really encounter the Lord Jesus.
Today many of the baptised, through no fault of their own, are catechumens in a different sense. They have never arrived at a decision of faith. Or they have never been invited in a way that made sense to them. And so they swim in today’s culture, burdened by its sheer complexity and with little to guide them in the way of things that really matter.
The church has a huge task of renewing its catechetical programme today so as to introduce us all to the real Jesus who can have such a transforming influence on our lives. Meanwhile Pope Paul VI some forty years ago said that the primary means of evangelising is the witness of an authentic christian life.
So today let’s strive to be better witnesses to Jesus. To eat Christ is much more than coming forward distractedly to fulfill the sacramental rite of receiving the consecrated bread. To receive communion with Christ demands an act of faith and an openness of special intensity – so that we can live in and be guided by Christ at all times. What’s important is being hungry for Jesus: seeking from the bottom of our heart to meet him, opening ourselves to his truth in order to be marked with his Spirit and make possible what is our best self, letting him enlighten and transform areas of our life that are still not evangelized.
Therefore to be nourished on Jesus is to return to what is most genuine, most simple, most authentic in his Gospel. It is to interiorize his most basic and essential attitudes; it is to kindle in us the instinct to live as he does; it is to awaken our conscience of disciple and follower in order to make of him the centre of our life. Without Christians who feed on Jesus, the Church languishes hopelessly.
Sunday, 23 August 2015