Choose this day whom you will serve.
The thing that lures me from time to time to Southwestern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina is not just the wonderful music of that part of the country; it is what draws every flatlander; the topography: the mountains. It is not really something you can adequately experience through a car window. You have to walk it.: feel the muscles in your legs tighten, the accelerated heartbeat, the shortness of breath, and above all the feeling that maybe this mountain is too steep for you, the feeling, always ready to seduce you, that you really ought to turn back to the ease of the downhill walk. All that right before you start thinking about the bears. The one sighted on the bridge right by where you are staying: just a little bear 300 pounds or so, who can run faster than you can, climb a tree faster than you can, and being an omnivore would not hesitate to have you for dinner.
We are always faced with the decision to go forward, or backward., to go up or to go down. It is in fact the theme of the three readings this Sunday.
Joshua gathered all the tribes together at Shechem: he had led them in a campaign of conquest, and had divided up the land among the different tribes. Now the challenge was: were they going to move into the future with the God who had brought them out of Egypt and into the promised land, or were they going to choose the old gods of their ancestors or maybe the local gods of the land they had conquered? Were they going to be comfortable with their ethnic gods or the local gods, or were they willing to follow the uncomfortable but loving God who had disturbed their peace as slaves in Egypt, who had travelled with them through the desert, who had given them a new identity? The rest of the Old Testament is the drama of their response to that question; and so is our own life as Christians today. The temptation is always to make ourselves a comfortable god who will bolster our own ideas; the challenge and the offer of the gospel is to follow the living, disturbing God of life into a future we cannot control.
The way up is long and difficult, our legs and hearts will ache, our lungs and mind cannot make it, will we turn back and go down the easy way?
Jesus upset many of his followers by the language he had used about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and about offering a food which was better than anything Moses could offer. It was too intimate an offer, and too challenging to the inherited ideas of Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Their temptation was to see God as the ethnic God of a particular people, and they could not accept that this God might be present among them here and now; it seemed too close, not spiritual enough, not distant enough – because though we want a comfortable god who fits in with our ideas, we want this god to be a decent distance away; it is one of the great paradoxes of faith that true spirituality accepts the presence of God in our flesh, the nearness of God.
It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer.
The flesh, in the sense of the human mind unable to accept God’s truth, cannot accept that God gives us his flesh to eat; the truly spiritual person is extremely down to earth, discovering in this earth the presence of the intimate and disturbing God who takes us beyond our limited, comfortable and distant picture of God; the truly spiritual person meets this God in the here and now, in the challenges and disappointments and hopes of our humanity.
In the context of these other readings the Epistle to the Ephesians gives us the image of the union of husband and wife as the union of Christ and his Church. It is the Eucharistic offering of Jesus to the Church which makes her the immaculate bride, prefigured by a man’s offering of himself in marriage. The Church loves Christ and is subordinated to him as a wife. The Church becomes the Body of Christ through the Mass. This is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise made by God to Israel. A hard saying and many will go down and turn back at it.
But Peter recognizes that this is the only way: this challenging, disappointing and hope-bearing person, whom he and his friends are following, is the way up, the way forward, the way to life. He may not make life comfortable or easily understandable; he may be the death of us; but there’s nowhere else to go.
Choose this day whom you will serve.
Largely pilfered from Fr. Colin Carr OP and Fr. Hans von Balthasar.