JOS 24:1-2A, 15-17, 18B
PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
Last week, I visited the Alamo with my family. At this former mission-turned fortress, Colonel Travis, who was only 26 at the time, led a fatal stand against the Mexican army led by President Santa Ana. The fight for Texan independence was so precious to Travis and his men that they were ready to die in defense, which they knew they would do as they watched the Mexican army surround and outnumber them. Almost everyone who fought at the Alamo died, so we don’t know exactly what those last days looked like. Because they are uncertain, and because their final actions are legendary, many legends have subsequently emerged. In one, Colonel Travis makes a speech telling his men that they will die if they defend the Alamo. He then draws a line in the sand with his sword and asks his me to choose which side they will be on. Will they fight with Travis, or leave? Almost every man steps across the line.
Historians dispute whether this actually happened, but regardless, it is a chilling story. It is natural, I think, to love when people make such a firm, certain, and brave commitment. This is what we see happening in our first reading. Joshua gathers the leaders of the tribes of Israel and asks them who they will serve. Then he steps across his metaphorical “line in the sand” and declares, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
In our gospel, we have the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse with Jesus having a sort of “Joshua” moment. The people are grumbling that his teachings are hard; “Who can accept it” Jesus responds in an almost confrontational way “The words I have soon to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” The gospel tells as that many of his disciples leave Jesus at this point. Only the Twelve remain, with Simon Peter again taking the lead:
Master, to whom shall 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.
How could you not love Peter’s conviction and decisiveness here? But we know how short-lived it is with Peter. He will waver. He will doubt Jesus. He will get it wrong. He will be the one to deny Jesus not once, but three times.
Here in Texas where I live (at least for a few more days) it is common to hear people ask “have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” or “Have you committed yourself to the Lord?” There is a tendency to think about faith as a sort of “line in the sand” moment where you either step over or leave. But faith isn’t a one-time decision most of the time. It is a continual recommitting to a person, the person of Jesus Christ. This overlaps with Patrick’s comments from last week’s lectionary post:
The Christian worldview brings with it certain startling claims about what it means to know something, and what it means for something to be “true.” In one his Wednesday audiences, Pope Francis made this curious remark: “The truth is not grasped as a thing, the truth is encountered. It is not a possession, it is an encounter with a Person” (15 May 2013). It is curious because it stretches the boundaries of the concept of “truth” as it usually functions in common speech. How can truth be a person, except in some highly metaphorical sense? Yet the claim that “truth is a person” is not some poetic afterthought to the gospel; indeed, it comes directly from the mouth of the Lord himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). So unless John is also being highly non-literal here, Christians are committed to the claim that “truth is a Person” in a fairly straightforward sense.
Accordingly, maybe the question that needs to be asked is not so much, “have you accepted Jesus?” but “do you know Jesus? What is your relationship with Jesus like?”
The second reading from Ephesians, despite its very problematic nature in terms of gender and marital equality, helps us forge a better understanding of faith with the analogy of spousal love. We are, in faith, members of a body which is the Church. The author tells us that “no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it. But nourishing and cherishing one’s own body (or one’s own spouse for that matter) are not things that we do well by making a one-time commitment. Relationships, even with our own flesh, need to be constantly re-negotiated and we need to consistently re-learn what it means to love well.
So it is with faith. There will be moments when we have to make a commitment, to step over a line. But most of the time the life of faith is the slow growth in love that, by grace, will lead us into becoming one flesh with Christ’s body. In this way, it makes sense to think of faith not so much as a decision or a commitment, but rather as a habit, a habit which Thomas Aquinas says finds its form in and is perfected by love.