Today’s readings highlight the issue of fidelity to Christ and his Church no matter the circumstances – whether in accepting the teachings of the faith or dealing with the challenges of everyday life. Many Catholics have become alienated from the Church because of their struggles with some of her teachings especially regarding the sanctity of human life, sexual morality, the integrity of marriage, or the charism of celibacy. This is not a new phenomenon as it happened even among the followers of Jesus on earth.
Challenges do not always come with pain and suffering because they can also accompany success and prosperity. This is the case with Joshua and the Israelites in today’s First Reading. Just before dying, Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel at Shechem for a farewell ceremony. Having taken over from Moses, he led the people into the Promised Land. Under Joshua’s leadership, the young nation experienced great political, economic, and cultural prosperity. Nevertheless, Joshua saw the need for the people to renew their commitment to God. He knew that prosperity could breed arrogance and laziness. He recognized that if the Israelites were going to keep their faith alive and strong in this new chapter of their history, they needed to make a firm, conscious renewal of their most deeply held convictions: “If you will not serve the Lord, choose today whom you wish to serve,” he tells them. In their response, the people affirmed their commitment to serve the Lord in what is known as the Pact of Shechem.
The Pact of Shechem was sealed at a general assembly convened to renew the people’s allegiance to the Lord. This pact was designed to incorporate some other groups of people who were not part of the Sinai covenant but joined the party of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness. The Shechem experience has a parallel in the Gospel where Jesus challenged his companions to affirm their commitment to him. After his long discourse on the Eucharist, we see for the first time many of his disciples leaving him because he spoke about his body and blood as food and drink. However, If Jesus had not meant the Eucharist to be his flesh and blood, he probably would have called them back to explain that it was only an allegory or even a joke. Rather, he reinforced the point by contrasting the natural and the supernatural. By our human effort, we cannot grasp the mysteries of God except by supernatural grace achieved through the eyes of faith.
So, rather than compromise his teaching, Jesus turned to the Twelve, those who were to make up the foundations of the Church, asking them: “What about you, do you want to go away too?” It was a pointed question! It was a moment of suspense, just like the Annunciation episode when the angel told Mary that she was to be the mother of the Son of God. Mary did not fully understand what it all meant but in faith, she gave her fiat: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” (Lk. 1:38) Mary’s was a great act of faith. Similarly, the Apostles did not understand the teaching on the Eucharist any more than the many who left, but their faith in the Lord Jesus made the difference.
Peter, speaking for the Twelve, responded to Jesus: “You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God” (v.68). From this statement we see that knowledge (understanding) follows belief (faith) – “we believe, we know”. This is at the heart of the famous statement by St Anselm of Canterbury: “Credo ut Intelligam” (I believe that I may understand). By Peter of confession of faith, pledged renewed their commitment to Jesus and his Gospel. However, human reason cannot pierce the mysteries of God. The Father, through the Holy Spirit, opens our minds, as Jesus promised in John’s Gospel (16:13): “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”. But our cooperation is required for that to happen. The Bible is very clear that “without faith, it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). Sure enough, the journey of faith is a work in progress for everyone, each at their own pace.
Regarding some difficult teachings of the Church, especially in morals, many people easily assimilate them, some take some time to process them, while some others reject them outright. Some people may seek clarifications while some may choose to challenge Church’s authority. This shows the extent of diversity in the Church. Nevertheless, no matter how acceptable or difficult the teachings of the Church may sound, we must have an attitude of faith to enable us to see the full picture. We need to be docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who alone can lead us into the fullness of truth. As the Lord says in the Gospel passage, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”
Dear friends, we are invited today to renew our commitment to the Lord even when we are struggling with some aspects of the Church’s doctrine. As Joshua challenged the Israelites to choose whether to serve Lord or not, so the Lord challenges us today. What would our response be? Like he questioned the Twelve, Jesus is asking us: “Do you want to go away too?” What is your response and what are some steps you will take to serve the Lord more faithfully? In the words of C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
As we approach the Eucharistic table today let us pray for the strength to stay put with Jesus, in season and out of season. Amen!