Thursday, August 23, 2012

At the Expense of Truth

Twenty First Ordinary Sunday Year B

Today, we come to the end of Jesus’ enigmatic discourse on the Bread of Life. We’ve kind of laboured through the gospels these last few weeks listening to what seems to be a broken record of Jesus speaking of Himself as the Bread of Life – “I am the Bread that has come down from heaven.” “I am the Bread of Life.” “I am the Living Bread.” Some would find the repetition annoying or just plain tautology - unnecessary prolonging of a single point. But it is not the repetition that finally proves to be the last straw but the disturbing content of the message that scandalises and disgusts the audience. In last week’s gospel, Jesus ended with these words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” 

Seeing the outcome of Jesus’ pronouncement in today’s gospel, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him,” many of us would be secretly asking ourselves, ‘Has Jesus gone a little too far?’ ‘’Should he not have tampered and moderated his words?’ At the beginning of chapter 6, we saw how He had miraculously fed the 5,000. It was an astounding figure by any measure. Jesus had the crowds literally eating from his hands. But having brought them to the heights of a towering spiritual experience, a re-enactment of the foundational experience of their ancestors when they were fed manna that dropped from the skies, a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Life seems to have come as a catastrophic let down.

It is a moment of reckoning for Jesus. The crowd has found his message unacceptable. It’s a phenomenon not alien to us where we encounter, for various reasons, people leaving the Church – complaints about leadership, scandals, boring services, stringent rules. How to arrest a decline in membership? Many a time, we hear the simplistic analysis that the Church has not caught up with time and in our enlightened hubris, we fail to see that the Church’s teachings on a variety of issues, including divorce and remarriage, contraceptives, abortion, same-sex marriage, are rigid and unrelenting. Many would also claim that the cause for the exodus from the Church is due to her liturgy, which seems archaic and therefore out of touch and meaningless. Even priests, in an effort to stem the decline, are not spared the temptation to play God under the guise of pastoral considerations. As a result, they have adopted certain pastoral measure in attempting to address this exodus of Catholics by trying to adapt and manufacture an environment, tamper the message, relax the strictures of the laws so that it would be sufficiently conducive to ensure that the masses remain in the Church and perhaps even attract others. The overriding priority is to stop the outflow and maintain the crowds, even at the cost of compromising one’s own integrity or the truth at the altar of popularity.

There is nothing unique or innovative about this number game. We’ve learnt it from the Protestants. Mega Protestant Churches have adopted a ‘seeker friendly’ approach in this respect.  The rationale behind a Seeker-sensitive church growth approach is to make a ‘seeker’ feel as comfortable as possible in church. The seeker, a technical term coined by Protestants, is an unbeliever who is seeking or attending church service for the first time or as an initial experimentation. The approach hopes to design a safe, non-threatening, comfortable environment fitted to the needs of the seeker. With these criteria as guiding principles behind the approach, it is often characterised by intensive market research, heavy reliance upon opinion polls, polished advertising targeted specific sectors, and unconventional worship styles which adopts the prevalent pop-culture. A number of social observers have suggested that mega-churches resemble shopping malls in their wide array of consumer-driven services deliberately designed and manufactured to fit the social and religious context of many people. In other words, they offer something for everyone.

But just altering the way, we ‘do’ Church seems insufficient. Many advocates of change also demand that what the Church stubbornly holds onto as eternal Truths should be exchanged for a less exclusive and threatening message – one which draws people rather than repel them.

If today’s gospel account is of any measure, then Jesus is ‘mega seeker insensitive.’ He understands the aversions and limitations of his audience. He recognises the difficulty of his teaching. He should have known better then to deliver a hard raw version of the Truth. Everyone prefers a softer, more politically-correct, less offensive version, one which moderates challenging teachings. In this liberal version of Christianity, both truth and love are mutually exclusive in the sense that truth is uncompromisingly harsh and love is compassionately accepting. In today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear loving at all.

On the other hand, the Pope sees love and truth as intrinsically linked. In Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), he wrote of the necessity of love’s fidelity to the Truth. In Truth and Tolerance he says, "Truth and love are identical." It is only by knowing the truth about God that the truth about what is good, the truth about love, becomes accessible. Often we encounter an abuse of the word “love” in our Catholic setting where homilies are nothing more than the mere repetition of the Beatles’ "All You Need is Love" and “All are Welcome” becomes the staple entrance hymn. We have no understanding of what love truly is.

True love is never attained at the price of truth compromised. When we try to bend or window dress the Truth, we risk losing not just authentic love but also our souls. When we are too busy pretending to be someone else, someone affable, someone popular, someone attractive, at the expense of the Truth, then we are never sure whether the other person loves us for who we are. They may only love the manufactured self that we wish to project. They have come to love a lie or as St Paul puts it, they "exchange the truth of God for a lie" (Romans 1:25). But when Love is tied to the Truth, then we come to recognise that Love calls us to change. Love calls us to commitment. Love calls to choose between what God wants and what we selfishly desire.

The truth is not always palatable. Unless we embrace the hard-teachings of Jesus, we run the risk of Bonhoffer’s caution about “cheap grace” meaning that we embrace a Christianity without the cross. In that way, we are not better than sound bites with the gospel reduced to slick little formulae and mottos and slogans and cute little invitations and contemporary music and slick little motivational experiences and things to move people into some easy acceptance of the gospel. The gospel is hard to believe because the cross is hard to accept. In order to believe the gospel and also accept the cross, we literally have to die to ourselves.

So when we witness Catholics leaving the Church because its teachings are too hard to follow and its ways too unattractive, does this mean that we have failed? I was recently reminded of some potentially prophetic words written by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, our present Pope, in an extraordinary little book entitled "Faith and the Future". He wrote, "From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge - a Church that has lost much.  She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.  She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices that she built in prosperity.  As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges… But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world."  "In faith and prayer she will again recognise her true centre and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God …”

Sometimes, someone speaks to us and tells us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.  Parents tell their children what they need to hear even though they don’t always want to hear it.  Teachers tell their students what they need to learn even though they don’t always want to learn it.  And Jesus tells us what we need to know and believe even though our sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear about the need for rescue and redemption from sin.  Mother Church continues to guides its children in a world tossed by the winds and waves of competing ideologies. But eventually children come to appreciate the advice their parents gave them.  Eventually students come to recognise that the toughest teachers they had actually taught them the most.  And though our sinful nature will never delight in the Word of God, the Spirit has brought you to faith in Jesus and into the Father’s family and has led you to enter into deepest communion with Christ through Holy Communion, so that your new nature may know the joy of the redeemed, the peace of forgiveness, and the sure promise of a perfect paradise with your God for all eternity.  Thank God that Jesus and the Church has told us exactly what we need to hear - what’s necessary for salvation and not just entertainment!

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