21st Sunday – Keys to the Eucharist: Flesh and Spirit

Joshua commanding the sun to stay still’, John Martin

Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18, Eph 5:21-32, John 6:60-69

‘Choose today whom you wish to serve!’ Israel has just entered the promised land, forty years after leaving Egypt. Now they come to a moment of decision. Joshua, who has led them in, presses them: Choose, whom you will servethe gods you served before or the Lord your God. This Word which was just proclaimed could have easily passed us by. For us, sitting here, we could hear it as interesting biblical history, not particularly important for us. But this is the same word our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan would have heard today, had they been able to get to Mass – which they can’t anymore. The Afghan Christians are a small number, but almost exclusively converts from Islam. It was not a decision they made easily before, but now the question comes back with even greater force. Which God will you serve? The God of Islam which you had before or the God revealed in Jesus Christ? To follow Christ under the Taliban is to be martyred. It is to have the women in your family forcibly sold into concubinage or worse; to have the men killed, sometimes in the same manner as Christ himself. What would you do? What would I do, faced with this word?

Israel’s moment of decision came after forty years in the wilderness. They had come through the Red Sea, witnessed all kinds of miracles and the mighty acts of God, day after day. His capacity to protect and provide for them and lead them to a place of abundance and freedom. But this decision would involve understanding the point of their journey out of Egypt. It was not simply to be free from slavery in a tyrannical Empire. It was to be free to be a people of the God who loved them. To give a gift of themselves to the One who had given of himself to them. Hopefully, all these forty years had demonstrated this truth. And now, came the moment of decision. It would mean to give their obedience – which was forced in Egypt – now unconditionally, to God in love. This is true freedom. To not be God’s slaves, but rather his bride, who gives of herself to her husband. It was not a decision to be made lightly – there would be consequences, for violating their oath to God. 

As we come to the last part of this great discourse on the Eucharist, the time had come for the culmination of the gift that God had promised them, just as Israel gave of themselves to God. Jesus was to give of himself, his own flesh so that he would be one with them. It is what Paul speaks of in the second reading. ‘Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy…because it is his body and we are its living parts’ (Eph 5). Just as in marriage, the two become one flesh, in consuming Christ’s flesh, his body, the Church would become one with him. We would become Christ, we would be transformed. But this is not humanly possible, any more than man and woman could become one body. And it is why Jesus says, ‘It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer’.  It should be clear from all that we have seen in this great discourse, that what Jesus means here by flesh is not the human body. Firstly, as we have seen already, the Jews (and Jesus) weren’t dualists – they did not think of the body as a container for the true person, which is the spirit. Man was somebody, a body which was united to spirit indivisibly. 

There are several meanings for the word ‘flesh’ in Scripture. It is used neutrally at times, to refer to the body (Gal 4:19) or to humanity in general (Ps 56:4). Often though, when contrasted with the Spirit (e.g., Gal 5:22), it has a negative connotation as the works of man which are in opposition to God (Rom 8:5-7). The flesh is the stubborn self-will of man which asserts itself as independent of God and won’t submit to God. It is the desire to be in control of one’s own life and destiny – which is an illusion. Outside of the life that comes from God, we have nothing. And now, once again, like Israel of old, the Jews were being asked to give of their unconditional obedience in love. Like their forefathers, they had seen Jesus perform all kinds of miracles. But the miracles in themselves could not save anyone. Those who ate the miraculous Manna had died. Only those who put their trust in the God who worked miracles for them lived forever. Jesus was calling them to trust, when they could not fully understand how he could give his flesh to eat. 

We have spent all these weeks looking at keys to opening up the power of the Eucharist in our lives. As we come to the climax of this gospel, we see that this is not done through human understanding. It is not humanly possible for bread to become the living Christ. But this happens by the power of the Spirit who created all things. It is known by faith, but can be confirmed only in our experience, when we are willing to open our lives to the action of God’s Spirit. There are always events that will come our way, often small, but sometimes big, which will reveal the futility our works: how frail our securities are, the things we trust in. And while we seek to have control of our lives, we can be ruled by our fears, we live with all kinds of anxieties. Then the Eucharist becomes just a consolation; we go back to our fears.

Today as we witness the situation in Afghanistan we see the powerlessness of the works of the flesh, the futility of our efforts to be in control. For them, life has changed in a day – from the freedoms they had enjoyed, to being subject to some of the harshest conditions imaginable. They had the protection of the dominant superpower – the US – and suddenly it has abandoned them, to a band of tribal militants. No flesh – no earthly power – can help them now. Some of the Christians bravely staying simply asked their brothers and sisters (us), be reminded to pray for them. To pray that they might not fall into fear, because ‘mistakes are made when we make decisions out of fear’, as one leader noted (here). They have seen God’s goodness in their lives, they trust him; they know from their own journeys that Christ will provide for his bride even now. Maybe they will be martyred, but it will be under the providence of Christ. To those who trust him, to them and us, Jesus gives the same thing, his living flesh, the Eucharist. As long as we are stubbornly in control of our lives, the heavenly food remains no more effective than the manna which Israel ate. The Eucharist cannot be received – or understood – by what is simply flesh. To trust, starts by simply telling the Holy Spirit, ‘Lord, I want you to be in charge of my life. What are your plans for me? Lead me, as you will.’ For it is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.

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