Reflection on the 21st Sunday of year B

by Fr Zweli Ngwenya

First reading: Joshua 24: 1-2, 15-17
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 33
Second reading: Ephesians 5: 21-32
Gospel: John 6: 60-69

Today’s first reading contains one of the most familiar lines from the Old Testament, Joshua’s charge to “choose this day whom you will serve,” combined with his own response, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”. Joshua has summoned the people to Schechem to renew their covenant with God. He recounts the history of this covenant relationship. He begins by remembering their distant past, when the ancestors of the Israelites lived in the land beyond the river. He then tells what God did for their ancestors: he gave them descendants and good land; afflicted their enemies and brought them out of slavery; brought them to a new land and gave them victory over the Amorites. Joshua exhorts the people to fear and serve God in complete faithfulness. The Israelites themselves give two answers, the first reason to serve God is because of what God has done for them. They were listening to Joshua’s sermon! They echo back the history that Joshua himself recounted in detail for them. The second reason emerges naturally from the first: If God has done this for us, then he is our God.

In the gospel Jesus likewise recognizes the necessity of “choosing to serve God,” even though it will be difficult. In response to Jesus’ hard teachings, some leave. Jesus recognizes that the twelve may want to leave, too. Peter responds, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” They can leave, but why would they? Jesus has brought them this far, and he is their God, with the words of eternal life. Let us remember that Chapter six of John’s gospel begins with a huge crowd that needs to be fed and is interested enough to track down Jesus across the lake, but soon becomes disenchanted and grumbling. Even many of his disciples who stay around through the long sermon, in the end, cannot accept it. At the end of the chapter, only twelve are left, and even one of them will betray Jesus.

Yet God is working life in the midst of apparent failure and rejection. The church is still called to see that it is in such places that the Word of Life is doing its work around us, among us, and within us. Our natural inclination is to turn and leave, to avoid the difficult call and above all to avoid the cross. Yet the Word, the Spirit, and the Father continue to call, and enlighten, and draw us to life. In life there are difficult circumstances that reveal our hearts to us, that reveal the level of our faith. How do we respond to such exposure? Does it drive us to despair or to deeper dependency upon the Lord? For those whose trust in God alone, even the exposure of their lack of faith can be an occasion of deeper faith. We are not saved by faith, but by the one in whom we have faith, whom we may trust to increase our faith through a deeper experience of himself as we, by his grace, live in obedience to what we have received from him.

Paul in the second reading tells us that Every Christian is called to integrity of life, to holiness, and for most people this is achieved within and through their marriage partnership. St Paul saw the faithful living of family life as a basic way to holiness. The Church links holiness with lovingly embracing our role in this world. The married Christian’s vocation is to show genuine love as husband, wife, mother or father. Of course, to exercise this love with integrity is not so easy.

Most of us have met people of extraordinary courage who remained faithful despite the strain of their partner’s prolonged illness, or separation due to conditions of economic need. These unusual situations are a true test of commitment. The promise made in Christian marriage is the commitment to no longer being the sole master or mistress of our own destiny. The married Christian can no longer think merely in terms of “my life” for everything is now related to another. This commitment is not one-sided but is mutually shared and mutually life-giving. At root, it is the mystery of Christ’s love, laying down our life for another. It is in and through this loving relationship, in the joy of giving and receiving love, that the married Christian is called to holiness.

Let us pray today for all Christians who find themselves in difficult circumstances. Let us invite them to look back to their history with the eyes of faith, to remember all the things that the Lord has done for them, to recommit themselves to the Lord following the example of Joshua and Peter. Let us also pray for married couples that in the midst of a culture that promotes polygamy and unfaithfulness, they may continue to be faithful to one another and continue to demonstrate the love and faithfulness of Christ towards her spouse the church.