The law of God takes us from earthly life to the eternal
By Father Joseph Brando
August is a different kind of month liturgically. For the first time in a long time, and this year, we have five Sundays in a row in the same month that all the Sunday Masses are of Ordinary time.
For the first time in my memory, we can follow a theme in the Gospels as it develops through five consecutive weeks. With one worthwhile exception, the same is true of the New Testament readings. The exception is the last week when we go from Paul (who died in 63 AD) writing to the Ephesians to James (who was martyred about 42 AD) exhorting the Christian communities wherever the Gospel had been rooted. Yet, that may not be an exception since James’ topic makes a seamless connection with the message of St. Paul.
So, let us begin our monthly journey by entering into the mind and faith of Paul. Four of the five “second readings” come from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. As opposed to the Letters to the Corinthians, which were written fairly quickly to answer specific problems, this letter was written in relative calmness. Paul had plenty of time to think about his topic. He tells us in the Epistle that he was writing it in jail. That fact would draw a knowing smile from his old cellmates who might be free by this time. During his more than three years in Ephesus, Paul spent two years in prison.
One could surmise that Paul was good at sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his fellow prisoners. Now they were on the receiving end of a letter from jail. Paul had plenty of time to put his thoughts together carefully. It also seems plausible that Paul saw his effort as so successful that his next letter, to the Colossians, had the same ideas with one-third of the verses virtually the same. Indeed, 83 words in a row are exactly in the same order in both Ephesians and Colossians.
The fact that Paul used the same words to explain the same topic in two different letters may well indicate that Paul’s meditation on “how new Christians, who had been pagans, should live” had reached a critical point. His words said it as well as could be. Two thousand years later there is still nothing to improve on Paul’s thought. So, let’s look at the second readings for the first four Sundays of August and learn from Paul what the first generation of Christians read and lived.
The 18th Sunday in Ordinary time offers us the selection of Ephesians 4: 17, 20-24. Succinctly, Paul gets the idea across that these gentiles (never having been Jewish or Christian) have to live a completely different life than they had once led. Their previous life could be characterized as corrupted through deceitful desires.
Now, as Christians they must be renewed in the spirit of their minds and put on a new self…in righteousness and holiness of truth.
Notice that Paul brilliantly pits the wanton desires of paganism against the righteousness and holiness of truth. In one sentence, Paul incorporates the rational and emotional components of humanity and shows us how to balance them so that our encounter with Christ may be successfully lived out the rest of our lives.
On the 19th Sunday of Ordinary time, Paul answers the question implied by the passage we read in the previous Sunday’s epistle. He told the Ephesians (and us) what they had to do. Now he tells us how.
“All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling and malice must be removed from you.” Think what that would do for us. It would make us calm and approachable. Our relationships with others would be built in a spirit of joy and peace. As Paul writes, “be kind to one another, forgiving one another, as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
That term, in Christ, is a typical phrase for Paul. It refers to the reality that John calls eternal life and what Matthew, Mark, and Luke call the kingdom. They all refer to our relation to the risen Christ and through Him, to the Father. Yet, another word for the same experience is grace. In Christ we both encounter God and we live with him. We walk with God. Righteousness is no more (or less) than walking with God. In doing so, we change from being pagan to living as in Christ.
On the 20th Sunday of Ordinary time we study Ephesians 5: 15-20. Paul takes us the next step. After becoming Christian and changing to a practice of the virtues and learning what this transformation into the presence of Christ entails, then we need to know how to keep this new life up. Paul, thankfully, simplifies things for us. All we need do is ask ourselves a question, do we want to be wise or foolish. Continuing to choose wisdom is deciding to grow in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The path begins with the fear of the Lord, that is, with an encounter with the power of Christ’s presence. From there we proceed through piety, fortitude, knowledge, counsel, and understanding until we reach wisdom. The closer we get to true wisdom the more spiritual we become and the easier it is to remain in the life of grace as we sing and play (that’s right: there’s no misprint; that is an “l” and not an “r”).
On the 21st Sunday in Ordinary time we conclude this time we’ve spent with Paul as we explore Ephesians 5:21-32. In these verses Paul changes from talking about the individual and turns to the last lesson on becoming a good Christian. Christianity involves becoming part of a community. We live in the plural. The outward sign of our unity in plurality is the wedded couple. The two become one body in marriage.
Let’s look at this concept a little deeper. Take a person who gets hurt, for example. Automatically, the body reaches for the part of the body that’s aching and tries to get rid of the problem. In marriage, Paul is saying, when one hurts both, instinctively, reach to solve the problem and soothe the other back to the joyful feeling of good health. Paul tells couples to submit to one another. That means spouses should never say “no” to the other and even take the initiative to be of help to his or her beloved. To live in love is to become one body. That only happens when both parties give themselves to each other. This is where the singing and the playing of the community originates. In just a few sentences Paul gives us a blueprint of becoming Christian and all of us together to form Church.
On the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary time and the last Sunday of August we change over to the Epistle of James. The reading skims through the first chapter of the letter. What we get is a synopsis of exactly what Paul was saying. Thus, we can make the case that the same message was spread over the length and breadth of Christianity.
Paul and James knew each other and took opposing sides on the issue of baptizing non-Jews into Christianity. All sides reconciled at the “Council of Jerusalem,” described in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. They may have had different views on specific important, but non-essential, issues. Nevertheless, they both shared the major beliefs and core message of Christianity. This passage virtually proves that statement. Compare the following citations from his epistle to what we found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. “All good giving and every perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father.” “He willed to give us birth by the word of truth.” Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows.”
Parallel to the four passages from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and one from James in the Sunday readings of August we have four passages from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel and one from Mark’s. The readings from Paul and James are directed to teaching former pagans the basics of living the Christian life. The passages from John’s Gospel and even the one from Mark guide Jews from the Old Covenant to life in Christ. Let’s take a closer look at them so we can see how God’s Plan comes to us from the Old Testament.
In the sixth chapter of John we learn how to come to Christ through the sacrament of the Eucharist. As we come to the pericope on the 18th Sunday in Ordinary time, Jesus had already multiplied loaves and fish for the 5,000 men. Now he explains what happened by means of a series of dialogues. The Jews ask questions. Some scholars compare the questions from the crowd to the questions asked traditionally at the Seder Supper. In this particular verbal exchange Jesus takes us from the meaning of the Passover bread and the manna in the desert to Eucharist. Manna was earthly food meant to support Moses and his people so they would survive the 40-year journey through the Sinai desert to the Promised Land. On the other hand, the bread Jesus is offering us is his own real presence. He is giving us eternal life. Yet, at these words, the crowd became testy.
In the next Sunday’s Gospel reading, the people ask how this bread can actually be the presence of Christ. Jesus answers, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him on the last day.” And Jesus continues, “Whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” Jesus explains clearly that the manna may have provided earthly sustenance; but it did not give eternal life. Belief in Jesus gives eternal life to those who eat the bread that comes from heaven.
On the 20th Sunday (the third Sunday of August) John reports that the crowd became quarrelsome. This may be indicative of the response Jesus and his disciples received in the Jewish community wherever the Gospel was preached. Jesus, then, gives us the proper response to this state of disquiet. Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.” So, it is a matter of eternal life or death. Old Testament bread was for this earthly life. Jesus’ bread is for eternal life.
The passages from John, chapter 6 conclude on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary time. It gives us a clue to understand the world that met the apostles as they announced the resurrection of the Lord first to the Jews and then to the pagans. Even those who were disciples following Jesus before his resurrection left them saying “this saying is hard; who can accept it.” They began to return to their former way of life. It is interesting to note that leaving Jesus meant a change of the way one lives this life.
As a conclusion to this whole passage Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter comes back with the right answer, “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.” That’s all we have to say as well. Those words show that our faith comes from the Father. ■
Father Joe Brando is retired from the active priesthood.