Today’s Old Testament Reading from the last chapter of the Book of Joshua records a pivotal moment. The people of Israel have settled in the Promised Land, and Joshua calls them together at Shechem to renew their covenant with God. Joshua asks the people of Israel a question:
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’” (Joshua 24:2& 15)
Do the Israelites want to serve the Lord their God, or would they prefer to follow their ancestral gods, or those of the land in which they now live? Joshua tells them what he will do:
“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Joshua makes a clear choice, and the Israelites follow his example. They are mindful of what God has done for them:
“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:16-18)
Their religious faith is a conscious act of the will, they choose to serve the God who has saved them. God has shown that He is the God of Israel.
In this morning’s Gospel we come to the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ teaching has offended some people. All this talk of eating flesh and blood sounds to them like cannibalism, which was strictly taboo. The mere suggestion of it was offensive in Jewish culture; it went against everything people had been taught. It is thus hardly surprising when some of His disciples say:
“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6: 60)
Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, and those present are not used to this kind of teaching. It turns everything they know on its head. In Hebrew the word for flesh (baśar) and the word for good news, glad tidings, or the Gospel, sound the same. Such word-play is intentional, and may be linked to the Hebrew Wisdom tradition:
“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:5-6)
Jesus notices that some of His disciples are grumbling, just like the Israelites in the Exodus story we read a few weeks ago. So he says to them:
“Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (Jn 6:61-65)
This strategy seems a strange one. If people were not shocked enough to begin with, Jesus goes on to make other claims which could be taken as blasphemous. For us to have life in Jesus we need to be baptised. For our sins to be washed away, we need to hear the Good News. We need to eat the Eucharist, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. These are all outpourings of grace, of Divine generosity, given to transform us, more and more into the likeness of God.
Jesus’ teaching has a profound effect, rather than attracting people to follow Him, it leads to the exact opposite response:
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6: 66-69)
Jesus asks the Twelve if they too would like to leave Him too, which leads to a profound declaration of faith by St Peter. They have a choice to make, and they choose Jesus, as no-one else can offer what He does. Here Peter is confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. To be a Christian is to make the same confession as Peter, and to have the same hope of eternal life in and through Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ teaching is hard to accept, and difficult to understand, but we can experience it, when we receive Holy Communion. For Peter, and for us, belief precedes knowledge. We believe and then we come to know.
It is a question of commitment, which involves love and sacrifice — the two go hand in hand. It is what marriage is all about, and it also describes God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It will see Jesus die on the Cross for us, to show us just how much God loves us, and wants to restore our relationship with Him, and each other. To be close to God is wonderful, but it isn’t something God forces us into: we may choose to accept God’s love, or to refuse it. This love is freely given.
St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Ephesus is another difficult text, which revolves around making a choice. For St Paul Christian marriage is all about loving service of one another, as demonstrated by Christ. Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in marriage in particular, and in society in general, loving service and self-sacrifice are the ways in which we should live. It is a generous form of life, because its model is Jesus, the most unselfish person ever, who created all that there is, and who redeemed it by offering His life as a ransom for many. We see this on the Cross and we commemorate it in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him.
So let us come to Jesus, let us choose Him, and put our trust in Him. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that we may spend eternity singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.