The Slavery of Politicized Faith
Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today the Church interrupts a long series of readings from Mark’s Gospel, from which most of this year’s readings come, and turns to the Gospel of John, where we’ll be spending the next few weeks.
Why is this? The miraculous feeding of the 5,000, which we just heard from John, is in Mark’s Gospel too. In fact, it’s the only miracle of Jesus’ ministry that appears in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So there was no need to turn from Mark to John for this story.
But it’s only in John — John 6, one of the best-known, most important passages in the New Testament — that Jesus goes on from the feeding of the 5,000 to the great “bread of life” discourse that we’ll be hearing in the weeks ahead.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (John 6:35). That’s next Sunday.
“The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). That’s the following Sunday.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). Actually, three weeks from now we won’t hear that one, because it’ll be preempted by the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year.
But that preempted passage is the climax of the whole chapter and the whole series of readings, so it’s good to consider it now.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” the crowd grumbles. Ordinary bread and fish they could understand! They had eaten their fill, and they wanted more — more of the same, quantitatively more.
Our Lord wants to turn their minds from earthly food to something higher, qualitatively more. Food of the spirit, not of the flesh. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). (That one we will hear, in four weeks. A preview of coming attractions!)
Flesh and Spirit
Jesus’ response to the crowd’s grumbling raises the stakes:
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
The crowd isn’t ready for these words, no more than the Samaritan woman at the well was ready right away to hear about the living water welling up to eternal life that Jesus offers. No more than Nicodemus was ready right away to hear about being born again.
Of course we’ve heard all this before. The true meaning of Jesus’ words in these passages is no secret for us.
To be reborn of water and the Spirit is to be reborn in the waters of baptism into the love and communion of the Blessed Trinity.
It’s on the cross that Jesus gives his flesh for the life of the world, the one sacrifice by which all of humanity is redeemed from sin and all of creation set free from corruption and futility — a sacrifice re-presented on our altar, where bread and wine become the Lord’s body and blood, given to us to eat and drink.
We understand the Lord’s words — but understanding by itself is not what matters. Simon Peter didn’t understand the Lord’s words, any more than the crowd did — but he had something the crowd didn’t: trust.
When the crowds are leaving, and Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks if they too wish to go away, what does Peter say? “Lord, to whom would 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” — the Messiah.
Are We the Disciples or the Crowd?
We who believe easily identify with Simon Peter and the other disciples — but is it possible that sometimes, in some ways, we may be more like the crowd?
After all, they recognized Jesus as the Messiah too. John tells us that when the people saw the sign, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.”
They saw the connection between the miracle of the loaves and the bread from heaven, the manna in the wilderness, that the Israelites ate while following Moses. Moses had prophesied the coming of another prophet like himself — and Jesus is that prophet. The Messiah, the chosen one, bringing the kingdom of God to earth!
And yet when the crowd catches up with Jesus in next Sunday’s Gospel, he tells them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
And yet it’s not like that they had no faith. They recognized Jesus as the Messiah. They wanted him for their king!
But what kind of kingdom? What kind of messiah? Jesus’ reply reveals that their minds were set on earthly things.
What about us? Where are our minds set? What kind of messiah do we want in Jesus? What does the kingdom of God mean to us?
Pope St. John Paul II, in a 1998 address to the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, says that the “fundamental truth about the Church,” emphasized by the Second Vatican Council, is that the Church is “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery.” Because the Church is a mystery, he says, she can never be reduced entirely to “social or political categories.”
But there’s a danger, the Holy Father warns, of Catholics “succumb[ing] to the temptation, widespread in modern western culture, to judge the Church in predominantly political terms.” To “‘politicize’ the Church,” he says, is contrary to the Council’s intentions — and yet today, nearly a quarter century later, what John Paul II called “reductive” political understandings of the Church seem more widespread than ever.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, writing about faith and politics, says that “the kind of politics that declares the kingdom of God to be the result of politics” is “the real threat of our time” — a “a politics of enslavement.”
Do we allow our faith to become politicized? Where are our minds set?
Often this temptation starts with what C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, calls “Christianity And” — that is, Christianity and whatever political or cultural baggage the devil can persuade us to link to our faith. And over time the baggage grows — in volume, or importance, or both — and what is essential is obscured.
Before long, we may find ourselves looking at issues or controversies in the Church in political terms: left and right, liberal and conservative. These bishops and priests are the good ones, those are the bad ones, depending if we see them as liberal or conservative, as if they were politicians — not always inaccurately, tragically, because bishops and priests (and deacons!) are no more immune to this temptation than anyone else.
In the end, if we continue down that path, every political preference we have becomes an article of faith and our Lord himself is effectively reduced to a mascot for our party. When our candidates win and laws we like are passed, that’s the kingdom of God. Anyone who criticizes our party or our candidates has left the true faith, and our political opponents represent the powers of darkness.
When we think like that, instead of God, we worship power.
Alone With Jesus
Benedict says that “the first service that Christian faith performs for politics is that it liberates men and women from the irrationality of the political myths” that promise the kingdom of God through political means.
Jesus has come to set us free from political myths — of the left and the right. How? How do we follow him to freedom?
I can’t give you steps to follow. What sets us free is not a program or an idea or even a set of beliefs, but a Person — more, a communion of Persons, the Blessed Trinity into whose love we were baptized.
Deep in your soul is a private place where you are alone with yourself. Each of us, with the help of God’s grace, must open that private place to God, to be alone with him in prayer and contemplation.
In that private place, we must cross-examine ourselves and let him cross-examine us. Let the readings at Mass cross-examine you. Don’t assume that it’s other people who are like the crowd, and we’re like the apostles. Lord, is it possible that in some ways I might be like the crowd? Lord, give me faith like St. Peter, trusting even when I don’t understand.
It’s a Person who comes to us today in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, who offers his flesh for the life of the world on the altar, who gives us his flesh and blood to eat and drink, that we may abide with him and he with us.
We’re gathered together today as the Church to celebrate the Mass, but each one of us, deep in our soul, is either alone with him or just alone.
Lord, give me the grace to open my heart to you. Abide with me, Lord. Amen.