Denouement
  • Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pentecost 13

First reading: 1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43; Ps. 84 Alternate: Josh. 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ps. 34:15-22 • Eph. 6:10-20 • John 6:56-69

“Evil people make use of all the good creations of God,” St. Augustine wrote about this week’s passage from John. “Good people, on the other hand, make good use of the evil actions of the wicked. And who is as good as the one and only God?” Jesus had fed a multitude, but only a handful has remained to receive his teaching. His words have been greeted with disbelief and hostility. He has watched even some tested disciples slip away. And yet he has made good use of it all, treating this, one of his greatest disappointments, as a “teachable moment” of the first order.

Jesus knew that many in the crowd would not understand his words about “bread from heaven” and “eating his flesh and drinking his blood.” Nicodemus, a man learned in the law, had found even simpler, less offensive images completely baffling. Jesus knew that others would understand his words perfectly well but would bristle at the way they equated eternal life with humility, dependency, and absolute trust in him.

But these words were unavoidable. He had come down from heaven to share them — their hard edges unbuffed and startling tones unmuffled. The scandal of these words, in any case, would seem hardly worth mentioning next to the deeds they promised. “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” He still must climb the cursed cross and lie in the borrowed tomb, send out his ragtag captains to call the world into this new country of eternal life. The scandal has barely begun.

For all their offensiveness, these are sacred words. They are “spirit and life,” Jesus says. The mystery of eternal life begins when they are believed and practiced, and this comes only by the work of God’s Spirit. He says “the flesh,” our natural way of knowledge and judgment, “is of no avail.” Luther’s Small Catechism captures the idea squarely: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.”

So faith comes only by the enlightening gift of the Spirit, God’s faithful, persistent tug at the heart. “No one can come,” Jesus tells those who remain, “unless it is granted to him by the Father.” They shall be his chosen, selected by his mercy for God’s own special purposes. And yet he invites them to declare their loyalty, to choose boldly, as Joshua challenged the Israelites, “whom this day you will serve.” Peter chooses decisively: “We have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus unfolds the mystery of election and free choice, the scandal of the cross, the work of the Spirit, the challenge of precious and irreplaceable if seemingly offensive words. Quite a lesson for those willing to stay behind to catch the end of the story.

Look It Up
Read John 21:15-19. Another day, by the same lakeshore, Jesus will command Peter to use “the words of eternal life.”

Think About It
Peter promises to remain with Jesus because “you have the words of eternal life.” What does his pledge suggest about the place of words in Christian discipleship?

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