The Comfort of Religion?
Twenty-First Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr reflects on our tendency to create a comfortable god in place of the God who challenges us.
Once in my life I have abseiled. I did it from the parapet of a 3-storey building, which is no big deal; but as I was climbing over the parapet I had a horrible feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I wanted to go back indoors and make some urgent phone-calls I’d suddenly remembered about (I didn’t have a mobile phone at the time). But fortunately I didn’t go back: I went down the building with greater and greater confidence, and once I was back on the ground I immediately wanted to have another go.
Our faith-story is often about having to make a decision to go forward, or backward. It is the theme of our first reading and of the gospel reading today.
Joshua gathered all the tribes together at Shechem: he had led them in a campaign of conquest, and had divided up the land among the different tribes. We have to acknowledge that the story is uncomfortable for us who have learned about Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Cambodia and Srebrenica and who are troubled by the situation of Palestinians in the Holy Land today; we have learned sensitivity to The Other from the same scriptures which contain books like Joshua, and can learn even from such disturbing books how the people of Israel were challenged to renew their commitment to the Saviour-God. So now the challenge was: were they going to move into the future with the God who had brought them out of Egypt and into the promised land, or were they going to choose the old gods of their ancestors or maybe the local gods of the land they had conquered? Were they going to be comfortable with their ethnic gods or the local gods, or were they willing to follow the uncomfortable but loving God who had disturbed their peace as slaves in Egypt, who had travelled with them through the desert, who had given them a new identity? The rest of the Old Testament is the drama of their response to that question; and so is our own life as Christians today. The temptation is always to make ourselves a comfortable god who will bolster our own ideas; the challenge and the offer of the gospel is to follow the living, disturbing God of life into a future we cannot control.
Jesus upset many of his followers by the language he had used about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and about offering a food which was better than anything Moses could offer. It was too intimate an offer, and too challenging to the inherited ideas of Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Their temptation was to see God as the ethnic God of a particular people, and they could not accept that this God might be present among them here and now; it seemed too close, not spiritual enough, not distant enough – because though we want a comfortable god who fits in with our ideas, we want this god to be a decent distance away; it is one of the great paradoxes of faith that true spirituality accepts the presence of God in our flesh, the nearness of God.
It is the spirit that gives life,
The flesh has nothing to offer.
The flesh, in the sense of the human mind unable to accept God’s truth, cannot accept that God gives us his flesh to eat; the truly spiritual person is extremely down to earth, discovering in this earth the presence of the intimate and disturbing God who takes us beyond our limited, comfortable and distant picture of God; the truly spiritual person meets this God in the here and now, in the challenges and disappointments and hopes of our humanity.
Peter recognizes that this is the only way: this challenging, disappointing and hope-bearing person, whom he and his friends are following, is the way to life. He may not make life comfortable or easily understandable; he may be the death of us; but there’s nowhere else to go.
Readings: Joshua 24:1-2,15-18 | Ephesians 5:21-32 | John 6:60-69