13th Sunday after Trinity

23 August 2018

Proper 16: Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34.15-end; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

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EACH of this Sunday’s readings involves some kind of ending, and each of them summons us to commitment in the face of a spiritual struggle.

In our first lesson, Joshua gathers the people at Shechem. They have experienced God’s grace in the Exodus and in their desert pilgrimage. It is now time for them to make a deeper commitment, to “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity”.

Joshua warns against equivocation: “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve.”

As we conclude our reading of John 6, Jesus teaches that we must “eat [his] flesh and drink [his] blood” to “abide” in him. His invitation demands a decisive response, summoning disciples in every generation to live eucharistic lives — lives sustained and shaped by his sacrifice at Calvary.

But, for a good number of his hearers, this summons is too demanding: “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

Jesus then asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” As St Athanasius observes, “It is the part of true godliness not to compel but to persuade. Our Lord himself does not employ force but offers the choice.”

Jesus’s question elicits a confession of faith. Perhaps this is the apostle’s most moving, in its heartfelt simplicity: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” While Peter is impetuous and unreliable — promising much, as Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, and then denying him three times — he recognises in Jesus the only true source of meaning and fulfilment.

As at Shechem, it is the recognition of dependence which matters most of all; for this allows God to provide everything else. The real spiritual danger arises when we are forgetful of our need of God, or when we seek after false signs — signs that promise a way to “eternal life” which bypasses the cross. The message of John 6 is that the true sign from God is Jesus’s broken body, and the blood which flows from his riven side.

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Joshua and Jesus invite their hearers to choose life. In both instances, this choice demands sacrifice and courage. The final chapter of Ephesians is a summons to faithfulness in this spiritual battle. We are told that struggle is “not against enemies of blood and flesh”, but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.

There is both a warning against spiritual naïvety, and a recognition that the struggle is being waged for “the gospel of peace”. Gandhi observed that former fighters were the most effective of his non-violent activists; for a peaceable battle against the forces of violence required huge reserves of courage and self-discipline.

The Ephesians’ struggle demands a grace that goes beyond their own abilities: they must put on “the armour of God” and pray “in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication”.

As Margaret MacDonald argues, the passage is not escapist: “It is important to recognise that the spiritual powers in Ephesians are understood as deeply affecting the society in which believers live.” The Ephesians are being reminded that “how one lives on the earthly plane finds its true significance in the heavenly places” (Sacra Pagina: Colossians and Ephesians).

While the Ephesians have earthly opponents, they must continue to love them as they struggle. The message of Christ is a gospel of reconciliation, transforming “strangers and aliens” into “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2.19). The armour in our reading enables the Christian to “stand firm” and resist “the flaming arrows of the evil one”.

The Ephesians are told to take as footwear “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace”. Their cause determines the manner of the battle: it is being fought for, and through, the sacrificial love of Christ.

For the Ephesians, as for the disciples in John 6, the temptation is to seek security in something other than this incarnate, sacrificial love. But, in the words of a homily of Benedict XVI, the Gospels proclaim Jesus as the “transparency” of God. “For while we are constantly seeking other signs, other miracles, we do not realise that he is the True Sign: God made flesh. He is the greatest miracle, the whole of God’s love contained in a human heart, in a man’s face.”

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