By Carl E. Olson - OSV Newsweekly, 8/26/2012
Decision. Division. Devotion.
All three are evident in today’s readings. Together, they form a challenging coda to these five weeks of readings from John 6, as well as a call to renewal and rededication.
Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses (Jos 1:1-2), called the tribes together at Shechem, which was the center of the political and religious life of the chosen people during that time and the era of the judges. The challenge issued by Joshua was clear and direct: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve.” Those present could leave and follow false, “strange” gods (Jos 24:16,23), or they could serve the one, true God. “As for me and my household,” Joshua declared, “we will serve the Lord.” The people, in responding, noted the powerful deeds God had performed on their behalf: He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, he performed great miracles and protected the people during their journey to the promised land.
This provides a perfect historical and theological background to the choice presented to the disciples in Jesus’ declaration at Capernaum, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53). This was the proclamation of a new covenant and therefore the declaration of a momentous decision: Would the disciples have faith in Jesus and serve him, or would they leave him?
Jesus did not try to soften the shock of his claims and challenge. However, he did not seek to antagonize or frustrate. St. Augustine, remarking on this episode, wrote, “God’s mysteries should draw men’s attention, not enmity.” Yet the fact is that when men reject the mysteries of God, enmity follows, for the severing of communion with God comes through pride and disbelief. Jesus explained that his words “are Spirit and life” and that he knew perfectly well that “there are some of you who do not believe.” And it was those same disciples who “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
While wandering in the desert for 40 years, many of the chosen people longed to return to their former lives as slaves in Egypt (Ex 17:3), even complaining about the miraculous gift of manna (Nm 11:4-6). In a similar manner, those who left Jesus at Capernaum were willing to settle for spiritual slavery while rejecting the true Bread of Heaven. That temptation is ever present, which is why we must continually renew our commitment to serving and following the Lord.
Jesus also asked, “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” This points back to when Jesus had promised Nathaniel that he would see “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (Jn 1:51). The ascension would help the disciples comprehend both the Incarnation and the Eucharist, showing that Jesus’ glorified body is not constrained by normal physical limits.
Peter, to his great credit, responded in faith to Jesus’ challenge, with his own rhetorical question: “Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter would eventually be martyred for his faith, following the sacrificial example of his Master, who gave himself for the Church, his mystical bride, as Paul describes. Devotion unto death overcomes division, opening the way for divine and eternal life.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
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