As I write this, it is mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Like each season, winter has its time, its three months. To many of us, there seems to be a metaphorical winter in the Church and in our culture, one that has lasted for years.
Those of us who are older probably remember a time when Masses were crowded. The church parking lots were packed full, and if you didn’t arrive early enough you often had to park elsewhere and then stand during Mass. Catholic Schools had long waiting lists, and parents made sure to put their children on the list long before they reached school age. If you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them.
Beginning in the mid-sixties, however, weekly Mass attendance by Catholics began to drop. According to some polls, nearly 80 percent of Catholics were regular attendees in the mid-fifties; today, that figure has dropped to as low as 20 percent (depending on the polling methodology). Open dissent from Church teaching grew among the faithful and the clergy, especially after Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which re-affirmed the rejection of artificial contraception. The autumn of our discontent and the “falling leaves” of defection of clergy and religious sisters from their vows and the faithful from their pews ushered in a long winter from which we have yet to emerge. Added to this are scandals of the worst kind, rooted in a loss of faith by the very ones sent to prophetically announce that faith. Corruptio optimi pessima!
What is evident in the Church is even more apparent in our culture. The West, which was once called Christendom, has descended into a cold and fierce secularism. The darkness and moral confusion grow deeper; opposition to once-widely-held moral norms is outright celebrated. Artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual acts, euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide, and many other things we once considered shameful are now promoted and called “rights.” Our culture has become crass, coarse, and angry.
Yes, it is the depths of winter in the Church and in our culture. Jesus once said, False prophets will arise and mislead many. Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:11-12).
Where is the plentiful catch of fish, the abundant harvest of which Jesus often spoke? What are we to do in this long winter when little seems to grow?
Perhaps the first step is to realize that there are seasons through which the Church must pass and that one day the seasons will change. Even in winter, farmers work to prepare for the next harvest. What does this mean for us? St. Paul wrote this to Timothy regarding the seasons:
Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So, they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-4).
Therefore, even in winter we must still work for that which will bring in the harvest when winter has passed. We are to preach and live the Word in season and out of season, whether popular or unpopular. We are to pray, to prune, and to accept pruning ourselves.
Back in November as climatic winter approached, I pruned my roses and crape myrtles. Pruning cuts away what is excessive and no longer fruitful in order to encourage future growth. Soon enough the warmth of spring will come; tender shoots will appear and then leaves and flowers. Similarly, the Church must prune and be pruned. The pruning has been severe and evidently quite necessary; much that was unhealthy is being cut away.
Even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “The harvest is plentiful,” but that doesn’t mean that the harvest is necessarily right now.
The bottom line is this: just do your work. Keep living the faith, passing it on to your children, and insisting on what is true. Obey what the Lord commands and know that the harvest He announced will be brought in someday. Yes, the harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Scripture says,
Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. They go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown. But they will surely return with rejoicing carrying the harvest of grain (Psalm 126:5-6).
Although it is winter, continue to do your work. We may not live to see the harvest for which we prepare, but others surely will. Jesus says,
Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).
I have reaped harvests that others have sown. When someone comes to confession after forty years away, I reap the harvest that others prepared—planting, watering, and fertilizing. I, too, will prepare so that others after may harvest.
Whatever the season, do your work. It will bear fruit in due time.
This Sunday’s Gospel describes the call of Simon Peter, one that takes place in several stages. While it is presented in a compact time frame, for most of us it takes place over a longer period, as the Lord works to deepen our faith and heighten our call.
The upshot of the Gospel is that Peter’s faith is strengthened by his obedience to the Lord’s command.
Let’s see how the Lord grows Peter’s faith.
The Help that isn’t Hard– The text says, While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
It may astonish us, but God seeks our help. What did Peter have? He had a boat at the ready and, as we shall see, a tender heart. What do you have? All of us have talents, gifts, access, and availability that God can and wants to use. The way the Lord has set things up, He “needs” our help. God, who made us without our help, will not save us without our help. Call this what you will—cooperative grace, collaborative grace, or my personal favorite: responsible grace—but God seeks to engage us in our own salvation and in the salvation of others. He wants our help.
The main point in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request (to put out from shore) is a small one; it’s not hard for Peter and helps him to learn the obedience of faith.
This is where the Lord begins with both Peter and us. He trains us in greater obedience through small things. Don’t overlook the small, daily acts of obedience to the Lord. Through them the Lord trains and equips us for greater things. If the Lord can trust us in small matters, He can and will trust us with larger ones.
The Hesitation that must be Healed – The text says, After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”
Peter is willing to do something routine for the Lord. After all, how hard is it to let the Lord use your boat for a while? Now the Lord invites Peter to go a little deeper, to “put out into deep water.” For a moment, Peter hesitates. He is tired and discouraged—so much work and so little to show for it. There was probably some doubt in Peter’s heart and a hint of sarcasm in his voice, because later he repents and calls himself a sinful man. Yes, here is a hesitation that must be healed if Peter is ever to see his blessings and reach his destiny.
So, too, for some of us. Perhaps we’ve heard the Lord calling us to some task but hesitated because we were tired or discouraged. I’ll come to Church and say a few prayers, but please, Lord, don’t ask anything more of me.
Perhaps we are fearful. Deep waters bring greater threats. As the water gets deeper the stakes get higher. Somehow, we must step out in faith, to get out of our comfort zone and head for deeper waters. Like Peter, we can hesitate, thinking of all sorts of reasons why what the Lord asks of us is not a good idea.
How is Peter healed of his hesitation? In a countercultural way, Peter is healed by the obedience of faith; that is the central point of today’s Gospel.
Yes, Peter’s healing is caught up in his acknowledgement that the Lord commands it. Peter says, But at your command I will lower the nets. Peter finds strength and consolation in the Lord’s command. Paradoxically, there is something freeing about being under authority.
We live in a culture that tends to regard authority with cynicism, even rewarding some amount of rebellion. Further, our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. Again, there is something freeing about being under authority.
As a Christian, I derive a lot of serenity and courage when I understand that the Lord commands something of me. While the world may balk at the demands of the moral life and find much of it too difficult or demanding, I often find that it is enough for me to know that the Lord both teaches and commands it. This gives me both serenity and confidence. Even if some aspect of my flesh may hesitate, knowing that my Lord and His lawful representatives (my bishop and the Magisterium) command something frees me and gives me the courage to understand that I am doing God’s will. Any natural hesitancy I might have is often quickly dispatched when I realize that I am being commanded by the Lord.
On a given Sunday morning, a person might consider skipping Mass, preferring to sleep in or perhaps finding it difficult somehow. Knowing that it is commanded (the third commandment) helps him to overcome his hesitancy. The same is true for the rest of the moral law and also certain vocational matters and actions required of the Christian, not under a general command but under a specific call from the Lord.
In this way of obedience, the Lord draws Peter to deeper waters. Peter’s hesitation must be healed if he is to see his faith deepen and his call heighten.
The Harvest that is Hauled – The text says, When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
In this matter the Lord grants Peter a great grace: enjoying the fruits of obedience in an immediate way. In other cases, the harvest is not so swift, but this much is always true: it is promised, and it will come, whether today or years from now.
The Lord says elsewhere, using a more terrestrial image, the harvest is plentiful (Mat 9:37). The Lord is providing an audiovisual aid. Obviously, the harvest that the Lord heralded was not about fish; it was about human beings. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful. Consider all the people whom the Lord has touched after these humble beginnings in a backwater of Israel. Not only are there more than one billion Catholics in the world today, but there are countless others who lived before us and many (only God knows how many) who will come after us. Yes, it is a bountiful harvest!
Some days and times are better for fishing or harvesting than others. St. Paul speaks of the gospel as being “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), but even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is only preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “the harvest is plentiful,” and His Word prevails.
In the West it seems that the seasons have turned against us, but we must remember that even in winter the farmer must stay busy preparing the soil, removing the rocks, and laying down fertilizer.
Yes, the Lord is heralding a harvest, and we must work no matter the season. Even if we do not see the full harvest, the Lord will, as will others who come after us. Jesus says elsewhere, Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).
The bottom line is this: just do your work. Obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and will be hauled in someday. The nets will be strained, and the boats heavily weighed down. The harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Just keep working and obeying what He commands.
The Humility that Heightens– The text says, When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.
In falling to his knees, Peter is about to raised higher by the Lord. Peter realizes that his hesitation and doubt have been sinful and that had he persisted in not obeying the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.
Notice that Peter is not described as having a cringing humility but rather a healthy one.
Healthy humility raises us; it does not cast us down. Bowing in healthy humility does not crush us; it heightens our status. The Lord, having led Peter to a healthy obedience and humility, in effect tells him, “Come up higher. Your concern now will not be fish but rather the care of human souls who are precious to me. You will be my co-worker in a far more important enterprise.” Yes, healthy humility raises us.
Thus, Peter’s humility is a productive one. It is the godly sorrow of which St. Paul writes,
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).
Peter’s humility is productive because it is godly. Humility and sorrow equip him for greater duties, duties no longer related fish but to human souls.
How different this is from mere shame (which Paul calls worldly sorrow)! Shame often locks us into unhealthy, paralyzing self-loathing. Godly sorrow increases our zeal to do God’s will and thereby equips, empowers, and enables us when He calls—and the Lord does call.
Peter, through obedience and humility, is now ready to leave everything and follow Jesus. The Lord has led him to this point in stages. It began with a request for help that wasn’t hard, a small obedience, but then the Lord called Peter deeper, to a more difficult obedience. Peter needed to have his hesitation healed. Experiencing this healing, he hauled in a harvest that illustrated what his lack of faith and obedience might have cost him. It humbled him but also heightened him. Having his faith deepened in Jesus, Peter is now ready to follow the Lord. It is always better to walk in humility and obedience than in pride!
In all of this, don’t miss the key, the golden chord: At your command, I will lower the nets. Faith is rooted in obedience and humility. That is the key to our growth as disciples.
St. Peter is still a rookie, but his first season holds great promise. He will not go through life without injury, but in the end, he too will be the rock (in Christ) who is ready to roll.
As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.
A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.
As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.
This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.
This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.
The Protestant Experience:
There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.
However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.
In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.
As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].
The Catholic experience:
The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.
Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.
The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.
That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.
Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.
The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.
There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.
In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.
If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.
What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”
The Gospel this Sunday amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. He is summoning us to faith in Himself and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He was the bread come down from Heaven. This Sunday’s Gospel opens with His Jewish listeners grumbling because He claims to have come from Heaven. Throughout the Gospel Jesus stands firm in His call to faith; He teaches them of the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in four stages.
I. The Focus of Faith – The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Their lack of faith is a scandal. In addition, it shifts our focus to the need for faith and emphasizes how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and the difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.
Recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, leaving 12 baskets full of scraps. It was this very miracle that led many of them follow Him to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. The Gospel of John recounts Jesus saying, for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).
Yes, their lack of faith, their grumbling, and their murmuring was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle Jesus had worked to this point and it would not be the last. Recall that he had
Changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with a hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness, cured the man with a withered hand, walked on water, calmed storms at sea, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus!
What do they focus on? On what Jesus does or on where He is from? It seems clear they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.
How many people today really put their focus on what God is doing, on the many daily miracles of simple existence, and on the many ways that even defeats become victories?
Jesus focuses on faith because we humans are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.
II. The Font of Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Jesus teaches two things here: that our faith in Him comes from the Father, and that we are a hard case.
First, Jesus teaches that His Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture teaches this truth elsewhere as well:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
This is my beloved son, listen to him (Matt 3:17).
But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me (John 5:36).
I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me (John 8:18).
The central work of the Father is to save us by drawing us to faith in His Son, whom He sent to redeem the world.
Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally meets considerable resistance from us. This is evident in Jesus’ words: the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word used here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it implies that the thing being drawn or dragged is resisting. This same word is used in John 21:6 in describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.
Thus, Jesus points to their stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn and stiff-necked, so the Father must exert effort to draw—even drag—us to Jesus.
Yes, we’re a hard case and sometimes we have to be “drug.” Someone once said,
I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, spoke ill of the teacher or preacher, or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug to pull weeds in Mom’s garden and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some fire wood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the woodshed. Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin. If today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place.
III. The Functioning of Faith – Jesus goes on to teach about how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
Regarding the functioning of faith, the Greek text is clearer than the English translation. The Greek word used here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active participle. This construction signifies an ongoing action and is better translated as “He who goes on believing” or “He who is believing.”
The danger is in reducing faith to an event or an act. Some say that they answered an altar call; others point to their baptism. That’s good, but what is going on today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than a one-time event; it is an ongoing reality. Faith is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves learning and trusting in God. It is a basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.
Here are a few other Scripture passages about the ongoing need for faith:
But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard (Col 1:21ff).
Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1).
He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).
IV. The Fruit of Faith – Having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, Jesus also speaks of its fruit: eternal life.
The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but to its fullness or quality. The Greek word that is used here is αἰώνιος (aionios), from which we get the English word (a)eon). According the Greek lexicon of Scripture, the word does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.
Note, too, that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei), which is a present, active indicative. Thus, it does not refer just to something that we willhave but something we now have. Believers live in “eternal life” rightnow, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. We do not enjoy it fully, as we will in Heaven, but we do have it now and it is growing within us.
Thus, Jesus teaches that the believer enjoys the fullness of life in him even now, and in a growing way each day. One day we too we will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in Heaven.
Here, then, is Jesus teaching on the functioning of faith (its ongoing quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e., the fullness of life).
V. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn the heat up a bit and test their faith. Not only does He tell them that He has come from Heaven, but also that He is Bread they must eat. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
This final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and more graphically.
Having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
Without faith, they cannot grasp or accept this teaching. As we shall see in next week’s Gospel reading, most of them turned away and would no longer follow Him because they could not accept what He was saying; they did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter. Instead, they scoff and leave Him. We will say more about this next week as John 6 continues to unfold.
For now, let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps, like the centurion, we can say, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps, like the apostles, we can say, “Increase our faith.” Perhaps we can imitate St. Thomas Aquinas and say,
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, (Sight, touch and taste, in thee fail) Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed) Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says) Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth)
In the end we either have faith or will be famished. We will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.
How few come to the Lord’s table today, in these times when faith is so lacking. Only about a quarter of American Catholics attend Mass regularly. How can we stay away if we have faith in the Eucharist? We cannot. If we truly we believe, we will never deliberately miss Sunday Mass. Our devotion to the Lord will grow daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.
Below is a touching video of a hearing-impaired infant who, after being fitted with a hearing aid, hears the voices of his parents for the very first time. Initially, the child fidgets, afraid of what is happening. But as the voices of his parents reach his soul, a smile of joy and recognition blossoms on his face.
In the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil is a beautiful line regarding an infant’s first recognition of his mother. In this case it refers to seeing, but the same could be said of hearing.
Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem.
Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile.
Spiritually, this video speaks to those of us who may have fidgeted as we were introduced to the voice of our Heavenly Father and Holy Mother Church. At first, we objected to the voice of truth and resisted those who sought to help us to hear. But, prayerfully (and I am a witness), many of us adjusted and began to smile at the beautiful voice of truth.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
The commercial below demonstrates, in a limited way, the chaos caused by becoming “unplugged” from a mere computer. In it, a new employee unwittingly unplugs a main computer, causing everything to go haywire around the globe.
Imagine how much worse things are when we unplug from God. Actually, things wouldn’t be worse, they just wouldn’t be at all! God is ipsum esse, the very act of “to be” Himself. All being depends on Him.
Scripture says of Jesus, For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).
The mere loss of a major computer can cause havoc, confusion, chaos, pandemonium, and death. As our age unplugs from God with increasing fervor, we see these things: havoc, confusion, chaos, pandemonium, and death.
Every now and then someone will come to me and request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s to ask for money! Then I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” (since I don’t recognize the person). “Oh, you may not know me but my mother and grandparents go here; this is our family church.” “I see, but where do you go to Mass?” I usually ask. The response is typically something like this: “Well, you know how it is, Father. I don’t get to Mass too often … but my mother comes every week!”
Well, I’ve got news for you: your Mama’s faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your mother and ultimately the Church to announce the True Faith to you; at some point, though, you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your mother can’t go to Mass for you and she can’t believe for you.
A few years ago a man came up to me in the grocery store parking lot and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he noticed the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He seemed mildly offended and said, “Don’t you know who I am?” With some embarrassment, I admitted that I did not. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the church and that I really ought to know who he was.
“Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was at my grandmother’s funeral, whom you buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I responded, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say that I know you.” “That really hurts, Father, because if it hadn’t been for my family the church wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Mass for over twenty years, pretty much since he’d graduated from the parish school; his only attendance had been for the occasional funeral or wedding. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I told him humorously, but with ironic seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it’ll be a lot worse to hear Jesus say ‘I don’t know you.’”
Indeed, one of the judgment scenarios has Jesus declare that he does not “know” some of those who seek entrance to Heaven:
Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:23-27)
Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, Lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).
We may wonder how it is that the Lord does not “know” someone. Isn’t He omniscient?
Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” referred to in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know” in biblical terms, describes knowing through personal experience.Hence knowing someone implies an intimacy, a personal experience with another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” to refer to sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen 4:17,25; Lk 1:34).
Hence the Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some of the people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known of Him. They may even have spoken and taught of Him; but they did not want Him. They may have used Him for their own purposes, but they did not want Him. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.
Therefore, we must each personally and individually accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built this church,” or “I went to Catholic school,” or “My mother goes here.”
Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13)? They were waiting for the groom (in those days you waited for the groom; nowadays we wait for the bride) to show up for the wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps while five were foolish and did not. The groom’s arrival was delayed so the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones responded that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.
You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.
You know what happened in the story: The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival; when they returned they were not permitted to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began the doors were locked and no one else could enter. When the foolish virgins arrived back, the groom said that he did not know them.
The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Mass for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.
There is an old gospel hymn that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to parrot what your mother said. You have to know Him yourself.
Do you know Him? I didn’t ask, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for your very self.
Below are a couple of renditions of the gospel classic I mentioned. The first is performed by the St. James Mass Choir; the second, by a choir from girls’ school in Poland! Watch the first and then enjoy a very different version as the song leaps across the Atlantic to Eastern Europe. What a wonderful world it is! Despite crossing and cultures and a vast ocean, the message remains the same: Yes, I know Jesus for myself.
As we begin the ordinary time of the Church year, we follow the Lord’s public ministry. The curtain lifts and we are in the synagogue at Capernaum:
Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. (Mark 1:21-26)
Here are two brief thoughts:
First, note the astonishment of the people. The preaching of the Word of God is not meant to be a perfunctory part of the Mass. Even when the preacher is not gifted with eloquence or charisma, God’s Word has the power to astonish us.
The Greek word used in this passage is very strong: ἐξεπλήσσοντο (exeplessonto). It comes from combining exe or ek (wholly out) and plesso (to strike) Thus the most literal translation is that Jesus “knocked them out” with his proclamation. The word indicates the state of being utterly amazed, dumbfounded, or left at a complete loss after witnessing something incredible. One can picture someone gaping in sheer astonishment.
If we carefully attend to the Word of God rather than just listening half-heartedly, we should expect to be astonished. It may make us mad, sad, or glad; it may console or afflict us; but we cannot be unchanged if we open our heart and mind to its power.
Do you go to Church expecting to hear a Word that will change you? When you read Scripture, do you expect to be surprised, astonished, or even intrigued? If not, why not?
Second, notice that the demon recognizes Christ for who He is: The Holy One of God. James rather sadly observed that demons believe and even tremble (see James 2:19). If even demons recognize and are thunderstruck by the glory of God, how is it that so many of us are half asleep during the sacred liturgy?
Those who have attended exorcisms are quite surprised at the power that simple holy water, the touch of the priest’s hand, and the priest’s stole have over demons. This is also true of relics and sacramentals. The demons experience their power, yet so many of us are casual and unexpectant around such realities.
These observations are meant not so much to shame as to remind us that in the sacred liturgy we encounter the Lord of Glory. He is present in both word and sacrament. If a demon can know that and have servile fear, how about us? Can we know this and have a reverential fear and love?
Tomorrow I will post more on the power of Jesus’ preaching.