Joshua 24:1-2,15-17,18; Ephesians 5:21-32; Psalm34; John 6:60-69
The first verse in the Gospel reading this morning from St. John the Beloved, says, “Many of the disciples of Jesus remarked, ‘This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?’” They were referring to Jesus’ words in the reading from last Sunday, “…if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” To the Jews, who had a strong prohibition against eating blood, as well as touching a dead human body, much less eating human flesh, this would have been shocking, and disgusting. Without 2000 years of Traditional understanding behind us, it would be to us as well. It is really not surprising that those followers who were there perhaps more for the miracles and following a popular teacher at this point turned their backs and walked away. It is a hard teaching, it is a Mystery, it is not a truth that can be grasped by knowledge or intellect, it can only be apprehended by the heart and spirit. It cannot be understood by human reason, it can only be entered into and experienced in love and faith. That is why Jesus said to those who were protesting, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I spoke to you are spirit and life…This is why I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted them by the Father.” The Father, through the Spirit, enables us to proclaim “Jesus is Lord!”, but then what? This is the point at which the Orthodox Apostolic faith, and the prevailing western evangelical mindset differ, radically. Orthodoxy teaches that at this point one prepares for and receives Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion and lives a life in and as the Church working toward our own and everyone else’s Theosis. Many evangelicals teach that nothing else is necessary, proclaim “Jesus is Lord!”, you’re saved, that’s it. Some include Baptism, not all – none are Eucharistic. As Taoiseach Ivan and I have taught for years, however sincere, righteous or holy many people are in these groups, they are not the Church. The Church is the Eucharistic community, the Body of Christ. Why is this important? Does God care how we worship him? Yes, I do think God cares, because God cares for us, and wants us to have the fullness of the Faith of Jesus Christ, wants us to have the best opportunity possible for knowing, loving and serving the Triune God.
In our first lesson from Joshua, Joshua challenges the People of Israel to choose between the Lord, the gods beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites, and Joshua says, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” The People reply that they, too, would serve the Lord. If we have been reading the Bible in a Year lessons, we will understand that this promise, and many similar subsequent promises, were broken more often than they were kept, generation after generation after generation. Always the pagan peoples around them lured the Israelites into the worship of idols and immoral practices. The Church as well, right from the beginning, was influenced by the pagan practices of the society around them, especially after Christianity was tolerated under the Emperor Constantine.
We have an example of this in the lesson from St. Paul’s Letter to the Church at Ephesus, or rather not the lesson itself, but how is has been interpreted, or misinterpreted over the centuries. In most translations it appears that Paul was simply restating the household rules of the pagan Stoics: Husbands were masters in their homes and wives were to be submissive, obedient property, placed in the same category as children and slaves. Even today this is a frequent interpretation of this passage, applying pagan standards to the Christian community. But is this really what Paul was saying? Recent scholarship, based on an analysis of documents, both secular and religious, written in the same timeframe, reveal that, no, that is not what Paul was saying. I find it telling, and interesting, that in the Lectionary, which is the New American Bible translation, verses 21 and 22 read like this, “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be submissive to their husbands…” Now in the original Greek this would have read, “Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to their husbands.” The word translated “defer”, is not even in the second part, it is implied from the first, so the word implied would have to have been the same word, but they have chosen to translate it differently, which implies that the deference of Christians one to another is somehow different from the attitude of wives to their husbands, and it is not, it is the same. And that word, variously translated as defer, submit, subject, is misinterpreted to mean obey. Which used in the first part, Christian’s attitude towards one another is absurd, we can’t all be obedient to each other! The true sense of the Greek word used is more like, to put oneself at the disposal of someone else, as Paul has written elsewhere, to put everyone else above yourself, to assume an attitude of humility, service and openness. Interpreted this way, it is equivalent to the attitude Paul outlines for husbands to their wives. The relationship of wives and husbands is to be the same as all Christians to one another, a putting aside of ego to serve one another in sacrificial love to preserve the Church’s unity in Christ. This teaching of Paul’s was revolutionary in the first century Greek community to which it was written, it overturned all of the traditional standards of the society, I am sure his Letter was received in pretty much the same way as Jesus’ teaching about his Body and Blood, “This sort of talk is hard to endure!” And the truth is, it didn’t endure very long, the Church succumbed to the pressure of the pagan society and began to re-interpret Paul in more acceptable terms. The same thing happened at the Reformation, the reality of the Eucharist, that we truly receive the Body and Blood of Christ, that the very life of God is shared with God’s people, was re-defined as a simple memorial, a pious ritual with no spiritual, or physical, reality.
This is what happens when we move away from the reality of the faith as a Mystery of spirit and life, a mutual relationship of love. If we can say with Peter, in answer to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to leave me too?”, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”, then we must resist the temptation to make things easier, to soften the sharp edges of the Word of God to make them more palatable to the fallen world. The Word of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, is a transforming fire, burning away the dross of sin and brokenness, revealing the pure gold of the image of God within us.
The unity of the Church, the oneness in Christ of every Christian of every time and place is the hallmark, the sign of the Kingdom, the Reign of God, and we must struggle to preserve it, no matter what pressure is brought to bear upon us. The enemies of Christ, both bodiless and human, are always trying to pervert and destroy this unity, and have succeeded many times, and continue to succeed, but they will never prevail, because Christ is already victorious and the gates of hell cannot overcome his Body.
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