Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Love Which Nourishes, Even When It May Not Understand
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August 22, 2021: the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Psalm 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
* Because the translation of the second reading is so central to the author’s reflection, we have included (below) the complete text of Ephesians 5:21-32 from
The Inclusive New Testament, a 1996 publication by Priests for Equality.
Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Those of you who are in committed relationships should yield to each other as if to Christ, because you are inseparable from each other, just as Christ is inseparable from the body – the church – as well as being its Savior. As the church yields to Christ, so you should yield to your partner in everything.
Love one another as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for it to make it holy, purifying it by washing it with the Gospel’s message, so that Christ might have a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without mark or blemish or anything of that sort. Love one another as you love your own bodies. Those who love their partners love themselves. No one ever hates one’s own flesh; one nourishes it and takes care of it as Christ cares for the church – for we are members of Christ’s body. “This is why one person leaves home and clings to another, and the two become one flesh.” This is a great foreshadowing; I mean, it refers to Christ and the church. In any case, each of you should love your partner as yourself, with each showing respect for the other.
A reflection by Rev. Richard P. Young
If you have ever seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof, you know it has a sweet and precious scene that explores the meaning of the marriage between spouses, Tevye and Goldie. They had been married twenty-five years and struggled to bring up five daughters. Their lives during the show were being upended thoroughly by political revolution and social change. Their precious traditions were being challenged, and it was so hard to keep their balance. Now, horror of horrors, their daughters want to change things even more. The wanted to have husbands they LOVED (Can you imagine that?) before marrying them. That would be a big change from the standard practice of pre-arranged marriages where men and women were expected to learn to love each other later (or at least get along). Tevye is stunned by this strange development, and he says to his wife, “It’s a new world, Goldie, a new world! Goldie… do you love me?” She looks at him as if he had totally lost his mind or as if he were a visitor from another planet. “Do I what?!” And they sing the most charming song in the show, trying to figure out what love had to do with their marriage (Click here to hear it).
Life is all about love, and it’s all about relationships. Always has been. That’s what Tevye and Goldie learn from their kids. Ancient and wise teachers have always taught us life is about relationships. It’s what Joshua teaches the Israelites at Shechem. It’s the lesson that is intended in our second reading from Ephesians that got cleaned up in our inclusive language lectionary (all that “be submissive” language had to go.) And the importance of relationship lesson is Jesus’ point from last Sunday’s gospel and today’s. When it comes to our most significant relationships – with God, with the significant people in our lives, even with ourselves – it makes no sense to depend on the legalisms or doctrines to do what only love can. Doing what God wants, living fully and effectively, the Scriptures seem to tell us, is a matter of the heart, of making connections, of being there, of body and blood (Real) presence. It’s about communicating and making commitments and struggling with change and not walking away when we don’t understand or our faith gets shaken. It’s about the hard and ultimately rewarding work of love.
In the first reading, Joshua presents the Israelites with the option to enter into deeper covenant, a more personal relationship with Yahweh. They were given the choice to just walk away from this God, who delivered their ancestors from slavery and performed many great works for them. They could have followed other gods, if they wanted. But Joshua did a thorough sales job, and the people went along. It was a clear give and take: Yahweh demonstrated great love for us; we will love and serve Yahweh in return. Yahweh will be our only God; we will be Yahweh’s people. Simple, if not always easy.
I greatly appreciate how the inclusive language version of our Ephesians reading is rendered. It’s so much more appealing to the modern ear than what I heard growing up. But regardless of the translation, what was often missed (in its traditional form) is the revolutionary command, “Husbands, love your wives.” Since wives were property in those days, there was no legal requirement to love them – certainly not as intensely “as Christ loved the Church.” It’s easy to miss the profound change in family dynamics being proposed. Indeed, the writer (most likely not Paul) wanted to see ALL Christians loving one another the way Christ loves us. Imagine how remarkably different the world would be if we did that. Can we “defer to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as that inclusive language version puts it? Those of us who are married (to any gender) often learn to do that as a natural part of making our relationships work. But the Ephesians author seems to imply that it’s more than just “I got to pick the restaurant last time. I’ll defer to you this time.” Jesus loved the Church in a deeply and fiercely heroic way. The text notes he was “submissive” to our needs, deferring to us, by saving us from forgetting our dignity as God’s children, facing danger along the way, eventually going to his death, and then sending the Holy Spirit. We are to submit and defer to one another in heroically loving ways as well. “Defer” is not a strong enough word. It is about flesh and blood heroic deferral and self-sacrifice. It’s about giving of the self fully so that another can more fully live. It’s giving up a kidney for your sister. It’s risking rejection by your family to make a public commitment to a same-sex spouse. It’s a wife who finds no sacrifice too great to comfort her dying husband in his final days. That is what is meant by “defer to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and all relationships, not just the married ones, work best, when committed to Christ’s amazingly unselfish example. It’s about not walking away too quickly when the times get tough.
That brings us to what Jesus (or more properly, John) has been trying to teach in the gospel last Sunday and today. It’s a bit of John’s theology of Eucharist, of course, written long after the Eucharist was instituted. John depicts a dialogue between Jesus and a crowd during which he preaches about the need to experience God through him. “I am the bread of life,” John has Jesus proclaim. John’s Eucharistic theology says that you have a relationship with God by engaging in the fellowship of the Holy Communion meal. You feed on the Christ, who is the Bread of Life, and you are intimately connected with the Divine Relationship! Real as bread and wine; real as flesh and blood. Today’s passage says that was too much for some to accept. Some were, no doubt, thinking, “Why would God come to us through some guy who calls himself ‘the bread of life’ and says that feeding on him will enable us to live forever? Sounds crazy. I don’t get it.” And some followers walked away over that, the story says. If relationships are to endure, they have to persist through times of not understanding. It’s part of life. It is then that we stay focused on the person, as The Twelve did. Our gospel passage for today says that they just said, “To whom shall we go?” and stuck with him. Relationships transcend theologies or philosophies or disagreements. We can only imagine that The Twelve must have loved Jesus in a way that no longer required complete understanding. By this time in Jesus’ ministry, they must have heard Jesus say many things they didn’t understand. But they had seen over and over again that heroic deferral, that amazing submissiveness that they knew amounted to genuine Divine Love. So later followers had to know there was something to it, when John called him “the bread of life.”
Like Joshua in the Old Testament, Jesus invites his followers to make a choice regarding whom to follow. Of course, we have made that choice. We have not walked away. But because relationships (with God and each other) are dynamic, there are always more choices to make. May we make them with a love so dynamic that it nourishes, even when it cannot understand.
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He co-chairs the Social Justice Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity chapters since the late 70s.
He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts.
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