Hard sayings and hard choices: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 6:60–69:

Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”

As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Not long ago, I watched the film A League of Their Own for the first time in a few years. When reading today’s Gospel, a line from the film jumped out at me. For those who don’t recall, the film offered a fictionalized account of the women’s professional baseball league during World War II, focusing on characters on the Rockford Peaches. Its coach, Jimmy Dugan, had lost the last years of his major-league playing career to alcoholism and self-pity, having lost faith in himself and perhaps the game as well.

As the film progresses, Dugan regains his belief in both himself and the game, but is stunned when his star player quits abruptly when her husband comes home from the war. As she’s leaving, Dugan confronts her and tries to explain how much he’d lost by turning his back on the game, to no apparent avail. “It just got too hard,” Dottie Hinson tells Dugan.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” Dugan says. “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”

Today’s Gospel reflects that wisdom. In the passage from John, Jesus watches as His followers melt away when He tells them bluntly just how hard salvation will be. Jesus tells them that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to be saved, a horrifying prospect to the first-century audience. Unlike Jesus’ other teachings, He does not couch this in parables, but instead declares it as a challenge to those who would follow Him.

In this, we recognize the Eucharist, which transubstantiates into the body and blood of Christ in the Mass. In those days, however, Jesus’ audience had no context for understanding this. Even the disciples are taken aback by His statement, and Jesus again directly challenges them to make a choice. “Will you also go away?”

Even beyond the obvious teaching of the Eucharist, though, this teaches us about faith itself. Faith is hard, while cynicism is easy, even in an abstract sense. Faith in the Lord is harder yet, putting our trust into a mystery that we recognize can never be truly revealed until the next life.

Cynicism makes no demands on us. Hedonism is easy, especially if one has the means, and it makes no moral judgments. The choice of not to trust in the Lord is the easiest one we can make — and that was the choice of Jesus’ audience at the synagogue. While Jesus preached about the meek inheriting the earth and the poor and rich changing places, they were pleased to come along for the ride. As soon as the choices got hard — as they always do when it comes to faith and trust — they turned their backs.

Moreover, faith demands where cynicism does not. Our first reading demonstrates this as well, when Joshua demands that the tribes of Israel choose which gods they will serve. If they choose the Lord, they will enter into the Promised Land, while choosing other gods might be easier in the short run. Joshua declares, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

What makes it so hard? Faith requires more than belief. It requires choices for action on those beliefs, actions that force us to trust in the Lord more than in ourselves or the material world around us. Living an authentic Christian life is nearly unheard of — so unheard of, in fact, that the few who manage to do it we declare saints as examples to follow. Putting our neighbors ahead of ourselves is hard. Caring for the poor and the afflicted is hard. Forgiving those who trespass against us to the point of turning the other cheek is hard.

It is the hard that makes it great, though. Jimmy Dugan’s character is an interesting example of this in the film. In the start, Dugan is an utterly self-centered wreck, bereft of faith and joy, buried in an alcoholic haze and bitter almost to the core. Over the course of the film, Dugan redeems himself by rediscovering his love of the game and by helping the women on his team become better players. There is no small irony in having Dugan deliver this line, full of regret for what he had lost to his lack of faith and refusal to live an authentic athletic life while he still had the ability to do so.

The Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament are filled with hard truths about faith in the Lord and the authentic life of Christians. It’s much easier to live by our own impulses and appetites, but where does that lead us? Do we not end up as Dugan does, utterly dissipated and useless, and what’s worse, knowing that we have become utterly dissipated and useless?

It is for this reason that Peter proclaims the hardest truth of all in response to Jesus’ challenge. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is the truth on which all other acts of Christian faith and trust are built — the truth that Jesus came to us as the Word of God made flesh, with the specific teachings on how we can choose to serve the Lord and hope in our salvation.

Of course, the hard truth that there’s no crying in baseball is also wisdom that Dugan passes along, but that’s a subject for another reflection.

The front-page image is a detail from “Christ’s Charge to Peter” by Rafael, 1515. On display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

View Original Source Source