Sunday reflection: John 6:60–69

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:60–69:

Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”

As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

This saying is hard. Sometimes, it feels like that’s true of every saying in Scripture, does it not? Scripture lays out the plan for salvation given to us by the Lord to choose of our own free will, and that’s easy enough to embrace. We all want to find our way to God at the end of our lives in this world, and hope to find His embrace and love. That plan, however, calls for us to change ourselves to align to His will rather than our own material impulses and desires, and too often we repeat the error of original sin and choose the latter over the former. Where we have conflict between those impulses and desires, and our need to arrange the world to our benefit rather than arrange ourselves to suit God, suddenly we find all sorts of “hard sayings” in Scripture.

We see demonstrations of this entire spectrum in all of today’s readings, in fact. In Joshua 24, Joshua has the Israelites assemble after winning the Promised Land, and after parceling out the territories to the twelve tribes. Joshua challenges them at that point to accept the Lord’s plan or move back out of the land of Israel. Flush with victory, and happy in finally establishing a homeland for their wandering nation, the Israelites all declare that they will follow the commands of the Lord who led them from slavery to mastery. The miracles and salvation of their long trek had made them see the wisdom of God’s law, and His justice for those who serve Him.

And yet, it would not be all that long before the Israelites found the Lord’s commands to be “hard sayings.”

In Paul’s famous discourse on marriage in Ephesians, he speaks of servant love and submission. Many people find this to be a hard saying today, but it may have been just as hard in Paul’s time for other reasons. Properly read, Paul’s exhortation to both husbands and wives challenged the orthodoxy of those times too, when husbands were the unquestioned head of the family, and women were expected to serve them — and had few other options than to do so. Paul taught that husbands were to serve wives as Christ serves the church — as leader, yes, but as a sacrificial servant too. In modern times, some read that wives should submit to their husbands without reading thoroughly and missing the point that Paul calls husbands to serve their wives as well. In the context of the time Paul wrote this, that kind of marital equality, of equal dignity between husbands and wives in sacramental marriages, would have been revolutionary. In many parts of the world, it’s still a revolutionary concept, even properly understood.

And in any event, for the past 2,000 years, it’s been a “hard saying” no matter what the popular cultural context might be. We have an ideal concept of marriage, but few if any of us truly ever live up to it. Some find this a harder saying than others, but even the best of marriages have problems based on occasional selfishness, disrespect, poor communication, and in general a lack of submission of one’s will not to the other, but to Christ.

Today’s Gospel has another “hard saying” from the Lord, one that was even more “hard” at the time it was spoken. In this passage, Jesus has just spoken to the crowd in Galilee about having to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to partake in eternal salvation. To this crowd, this sounded like cannibalism, but worse. Jews are forbidden to consume the blood of animals, as it is considered a sacred life force, let alone that of human beings. Nor does the original language suggest that Jesus was speaking symbolically, as He used terms that equate to “gnawing” or “chewing” to teach this point.  Of all the “hard sayings” in Scripture, this may be the hardest, and yet Jesus does not soften it by declaring it a parable or a metaphor. Instead, He allows the multitude to walk away from him, and even challenges His disciples to do the same. Peter speaks for them all by saying, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Our faith is filled with “hard sayings,” because we have not aligned our wills to the Lord’s, and we fall short, consistently and repeatedly. We sin, we err, we fall back into our inclinations towards abuse of God’s gifts for selfish pleasure. Those failures do not negate those hard sayings in our faith, nor does sin triumph over us for long, even when we stumble and lose our way occasionally. The world will occasionally point to wayward people of faith and declare that their sin proves faith wrong, and sometimes we tell ourselves that too.

But Christ didn’t die for just the righteous; if that was the case, then He need not have sacrificed Himself at all. Christ died so that all who wish to find the Lord can do so. He paid for our sins, as long as we choose — of our own free will — to align ourselves with His sacrifice and form ourselves to His will. We do so imperfectly, falling and stumbling enough to sometimes despair that sin may never loose its grip on us. We persevere nonetheless, recognizing in these “hard sayings” the roadmap to salvation, to formation to His will, and the way to be temples of the Holy Spirit within ourselves and lights to the world, imperfect and flawed though we may be.

Yes, God calls us to His service through “hard sayings,” but Christ reminds us that those are only hard at first blush. “For my yoke is easy,” Jesus tells the crowds in Matthew 11:30, “and my burden is light.” The joy of the Lord lightens these burdens, and even when we lose our way, the joy of the Lord lightens our burden so we may return. May we all be lights of Christ’s joy for our brothers and sisters who struggle on the path, and may we find those beacons ourselves when we find ourselves lost and confused as well.

The front-page image is Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Roselli (1481-2), a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.