The Purpose of the Church
(Readings: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6: 60-69)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday shows how the Jewish people in the Old Testament period received their identity through the Covenant that God established with them. Later, the appearance of Christ revealed God more fully and inaugurated a New Covenant between God and humanity. He formed a new community, the Church, as the means of drawing people more closely into communion with God.
Let's begin Mass by acknowledging that we often forget the basic purpose of our membership of the Church and by asking God for his pardon and strength.
In the first reading today we go back to the moment in the history of the Chosen People when they've just crossed the river Jordan and they're about to enter the Promised Land.
The Hebrew people, as we know from the stories in the Old Testament, had a bad habit of lapsing from their faith and mixing up their belief in God with elements from the various pagan religions.
They had done this more than once while they were travelling through the desert, and so Joshua, their leader, takes the opportunity of this historic moment, at the end of their journey, to appeal to them to re-dedicate themselves to God and re-commit themselves to their traditional faith.
The accusations that he puts to the people are meant to remind them that their identity as a community isn't based on the racial group they belong to or the geographical boundaries they might establish. What brought them together and what unites them is the Covenant God summoned them into when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them to their new homeland.
Their identity as a community of faith is something God gave to them, not something they invented for themselves Ė it came into being by Godís initiative, not theirs.
When we turn to the gospel reading, Jesus seems to be addressing a similar situation. Some of the people who had been following him up until now were finding it difficult Ė understandably enough - to accept the claims he was making, identifying himself with the eternal God and using this strange language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood so that they could live in him and he could live in them.
Jesus asks his followers the same kind of question as Joshua: who has faith, and who hasn't? Are they able to accept that in the person of Jesus, God has appeared among them in an unprecedented way, or are they now going to "stop going with him" because the claims heís making are just too unbelievable?
Jesus is talking to his closest followers at this point, the disciples and the people who started to follow him during his ministry. But Saint John, the author of the gospel, obviously intends to aim this question at the believers of the future, at every member of the Christian Church in every age.
The choice of falling away from faith - or taking the same stance as Peter - "Who shall we go to, Lord? You have the words of eternal life" - faces the Christian community in every period of history, and it's a choice that's just as acute for us, now, as it was for the converts in the Church's first generation.
In many ways the question Jesus puts to his disciples is the same as the question Joshua asks the Chosen People all those centuries before. And the new community of Jesusí disciples resembles the community of the Chosen people, in one way at least.
In both cases, membership isn't based on any of the usual reasons why people band together: having a common interest in something, a shared pastime, or working for some set of shared goals, like a pressure group or a political party.
Membership of the Church is based on the Covenant God has established with us, the invitation he makes to all of us to approach him and to enter into his life. Saint John touches on this when he has Jesus say here: "It is the Spirit that gives life. The flesh has nothing to offer".
What John is getting at is the two basic principles that people can direct their lives by. We can go through life with a completely worldly attitude, looking at everything in terms of our own self-interest, so that there's nothing more to life except material enjoyment, and we might as take what we can of that, while we can.
Or else we can see things according to the Spirit, which means being freed from, or rising above, our selfish instincts, and discovering the spiritual aspect of our nature, the aspect that opens us up to the influence of Godís grace.
If we think of the Christian community itself in a worldly way - according to the flesh, in St John's language - we'll see it as a purely human association, a collection of human beings who happen to have a shared interest.
But if we're looking at things according to the spirit, we can see that the Churchís basic purpose is spiritual. Its job is to put each of us, individually, in touch with God and to help us grow in our relationship with God. Itís no good getting caught up in all sorts of other church activities if we havenít established that foundation.
One of the problems, possibly, in our recent past, was that membership of the Church wasn't seen in this way.
In our part of the world, at any rate, there was a tendency to see membership of the Church in an almost tribal way: our duties were to marry another Catholic, baptise our children as Catholics, send them to Catholic schools, join the Catholic social club, and so on. Other people saw the Catholic community the way they see the Muslims now: as a self-contained community with its own rules and customs, separate from the larger society.
Today, we suffer perhaps from a different tendency: in the Church now, everybody is an activist, a minister, an organiser or a manager.
I know from personal experience that in parish affairs people can be a lot of time spent talking about how much money there is in the bank, what building projects need organising, what sort of parties can be laid on for the children and so on. Nobody talks about how many genuine disciples there are or whatís the real level of faith.
The problem with both those notions of Church membership is that we can end up with the situation where people are good, loyal Catholics, heavily involved in church work - but that doesnít necessarily mean that they know God very well.
Whereas thatís got to be the foundation. Christ's whole mission was aimed at enabling us to know God more fully and enter into his life more closely Ė and itís only when weíve made some progress along those lines that we should go on to engage in some form of practical activity.
So the lesson I would take from the readings this Sunday is that they remind us fundamentally of what the Church exists for.
The important thing is that we havenít invented the Church and we donít control the agenda. All that arises from Godís initiative, and we receive our vocation, as members of the Church from him. This is the basic purpose which weíre always supposed to serve, and which weíre never supposed to lose sight of.