Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind-yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
Many of the disciples of Jesus remarked, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe."
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Paul's text today presents marriage as the most widespread way, life and holiness in the Church. Every Christian is called to integrity of life, to holiness really, and for most people this is achieved within and through their marriage partnership. This idea might make some people nervous, because they have too austere an idea of holiness; consequently they find it hard to see how their marriage fits into it. Traditional devotional writing linked holiness to heroic devotional or charitable activity, usually undertaken by women and men with vows of celibacy. Hence many still see the vocation to holiness and the choice of married life as two parallel lines which don't intersect. By contrast, St Paul saw the faithful living of family life as a basic way to holiness. This is not some second-best option for those who have neither the talent nor the zeal for apostolic works.
Our Church links holiness with lovingly embracing our role in this world. The married Christian's vocation is to show genuine love as husband, wife, mother or father. Of course, to exercise this love with integrity is not so easy. The statistics of breakdown suggest how hard it is to sustain a permanent relationship. Far from the self-absorption which marks so much of modern living the ideal of faithful, life-long love looks more and more like a holy ideal, a glimpse into another and better world.
Most of us have met people of extraordinary courage who remained faithful despite the strain of their partner's prolonged illness, or separation due to conditions of economic need. These unusual situations are a true test of commitment. The promise made in Christian marriage is the commitment to no longer being the sole master or mistress of our own destiny. The married Christian can no longer think merely in terms of “my life”– for everything is now related to another. This commitment is not one-sided but is mutually shared and mutually life-giving. At root, it is the mystery of Christ's love, laying down our life for another. It is in and through this loving relationship, in the joy of giving and receiving love, that the married Christian is called to holiness. And living it is the married vocation. (Peter Briscoe)
Many of the hearers left him, while others decided to stay with him. What do we make of that? Fishing fascinated me when I was young. The tackle was basic and the catches were modest. One of the memories that stands out in my mind today was hunting for the best place to fish. As soon as someone caught a fish further along the river or lakeshore, I'd gather my gear and run off to fish there. What often happened was that soon someone else hooked a fish just at the place I had left! Maybe that's why I was not such a great fisherman! Stability and sticking at it were not my greatest virtues!
Today's Gospel is about coming to a decision and sticking by it. Jesus had the rare ability to offer a straight option–you were either for him, or against him. He himself was fully committed to his mission, and to all that was best for us, even if at times his disciples complained. He was used to being criticised by his enemies, but when he could not depend on the loyalty of his friends, he had to call them to account.
In a way it was hard on the disciples, because, by the nature of what Jesus offered, it could not just be some sort of an a la carte menu, from which they could choose whatever suited them. When some of his followers began to walk away, he didn't run after them and try to reason with them. That was not his way. Rather he turned to those who stayed and challenged them to commit themselves. There are three types of people in every gathering. those who cause things to happen; those who watch things happening; and those who don't know what is happening! Peter was the one who stepped up to the occasion. “Lord” he said “You alone have the words of eternal life. We know, and we believe that you are the Christ, the Holy One of God.” For Jesus, losing the others was worth it, if it left him with loyal followers like Peter.
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!'
In our culture success can often be a game of numbers. A successful television programme is one that has a very large viewing audience. If the numbers watching declines, the programme is in trouble. Democracy is based on majority vote. The candidate with the most votes gets elected. Every political party is anxious to maximize their vote on election day. In all kinds of ways, numbers matter in our society. The schools with the biggest number of graduates going on to University are considered the better schools. If some event that is organized only attracts a small crowd it is considered a failure.
The gospel this morning suggests that Jesus was not too concerned about numbers. The gospels for the last four Sundays have been taken from chapter 6 of John's gospel where Jesus speaks of himself as the Bread of Life and of the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have life. In this morning's gospel some of Jesus' own disciples express their unease with this language. 'This is intolerable language', they say, 'How could anyone accept it?' Jesus is portrayed in that reading as being very aware that some of his followers were complaining. Yet, he did not make any effort to soften his teaching in order to hold on to his numbers. Rather, he insists that the words he has been speaking, all his words, are spirit and life. As a result, the gospel tells us that 'many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.' Jesus suddenly lost a whole swathe of his following. From the perspective of the culture of the time and of our own culture he was suddenly less successful. According to the gospel, Jesus even turned to the Twelve apostles, his core group, and asked them, 'What about you? Do you want to go away too?' He was prepared to suffer a haemorrhage from that core group rather than compromise on the teaching that he had given. It seems that numbers were not important to him. What was important to him was proclaiming the truth as he had heard it from God his Father. On this occasion Jesus held onto the Twelve. Peter, their spokesperson, grasped the moment to declare their faithfulness to Jesus, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.' Yet, Jesus would go on to lose even some the Twelve. At the time of his passion Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him. If success is to be measured by numbers, by the end of his earthly life, Jesus was a total failure.
The whole life of Jesus shows that the value of something does not bear any necessary relation to the number of people who support it. Popularity does not necessarily show where truth is to be found. We can be tempted to think that if a lot of people reject some viewpoint that, therefore, it must be wrong. Numbers are not everything. We follow Jesus not because he was or is popular but because, in the word of Peter in the gospel, we recognize that he has the message of eternal life, or in the language of Jesus himself in that same reading, we acknowledge that the words that he speaks are spirit and life. We will find some of his teaching very challenging. We may be tempted to say, in the words of some of the disciples, 'This is intolerable language. How can anyone accept it?' We may not be troubled so much by his identification of himself as the Bread of Life or his call to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It may be some other aspect of his teaching, perhaps his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. Some people react negatively to some of Jesus' parables. They feel sorry for the older son in the parable of the prodigal son and for the men who worked all day and who got the same wages as those who worked for the last hour in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It should not surprise us when we find ourselves struggling with some of what Jesus says. In the language of the prophet Isaiah, God's thoughts are not our thoughts; God's ways are not our ways. It has been said that Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. We all need Jesus to do both for us. We need his comforting and sustaining presence when we are afflicted, but sometimes we need his disturbing presence in our comfort.
The teaching and the life of Jesus will always challenge us at some level of our being. There may even be times when we will feel like walking away from it. That is why it is so important for us to keep renewing our response to the Lord's presence and invitation. The Eucharist is the primary moment when we commit ourselves again to the Lord's vision for our lives; it is our weekly opportunity to make our own those words of Peter in today's gospel, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.'