Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, Grand Rapids, MI
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
August 23, 2015
Jos 24:1-2.15-18, Ps 34, Eph 5:21-32, Jn 6:60-69
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Truly Choosing God
Today’s readings could not be possibly more dramatic — or more relevant for us. They bring us face-to-face with the fact that each of us, like the Israelites in Shechem and the disciples in Capernaum, are called to make a choice, a choice for or against the God who has already chosen us, for or against the God who created us, loved us from the beginning, revealed himself to us, save us over and over again, sent his only Son to die for us, blessed us in innumerable ways and prepared a place for us in heaven. In theory, the choice is simple: Who would choose against God? But in practice, such a choice is challenging and hard, because by its nature, it demands fidelity each day, in each decision, in all the various aspects of our life. Today’s readings are a gift to help us to choose well
In the Gospel, Jesus concludes his five-week catechesis on what is the most important reality in the entire world, his own presence in the Holy Eucharist. After several weeks of describing that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, after encouraging us to work not for perishable food but for this food that endures to eternal life, after describing that this divine gift is far greater and more important for our survival than the manna God used to rain down each day for the Israelites in the desert, we come to the climax, which is just as personal for us as it was for his first listeners: the climax is the choice he wants us to make, the commitment he wants us to give in response to this great divine gift.
The Nature of the Choice to be Made
The Church prepares us in the first and second readings today for that choice and commitment Jesus is asking of each of us today.
In the first reading, after the tribes of Israel had finally arrived in the Promised Land, Joshua assembled them in Shechem and confronted them with the following choice: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, choose today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” In the choice Joshua proposes to the people, we learn a few crucial things about the choice we, too, need to make:
- First, no one morally can be an atheist or an agnostic — We either choose to serve the true God to the extent he has revealed himself to us, or we end up serving something else, a false god or the god of our own egos, the god of money, the god of control (power), the god of pleasure or sexuality. We see this in the life of the people of Israel. Either they worshipped the Lord, or they returned to worshipping the golden calf (a mixture of both animal and money worship), or Baal (the middle-eastern god of sexuality) or nature, in one of various forms. We’re always serving something, or someone, by our actions. Those who often tell Catholics, “Don’t try to force your values on me” are the very ones who want us and society at large to live by their values. Joshua demands that we be up front and explicit about whom we’re serving. We have no choice but to choose which God we’ll serve. The failure to choose is itself a choice, and a bad one.
- Second, past choices are not enough — It was one thing for the Israelites to choose the Lord when he started working tremendous miracles to free them from slavery to Pharoah in Egypt, or parted the Red Sea, or fed them miraculously with heavenly manna and water from the Rock, or when he led them visibly in the pillar of cloud. But now they had to choose again. They had just crossed into the promised land and God was going to have them fight local tribes against great odds to obtain it, led by Joshua and completely dependent upon God’s power and instructions. They needed faith in God and hence Joshua, on behalf of God, was forcing them to renew that choice. “Decide today who you will serve.” They couldn’t live on their past choices. Just like a husband can’t say to his wife, “I was faithful last year,” so a follower of God needs always to be faithful in the present, to choose the Lord in the present, especially when temptations arise.
- Third, the choice for God is the choice against other gods — Joshua helped the Israelites to see that they couldn’t serve both the true God and the gods their ancestors worshipped. Jesus would say the same thing 1300 years later, “A man cannot serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). To choose God means to reject Satan, his evil works and his empty promises. To choose God means to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow Christ. To choose God means to reject idolatry and put everything in our lives at God’s service.
Responding to Christ’s total spousal commitment
In the second reading, we see the type of choice Jesus is asking of us very concretely displayed in a choice many of you here have already made.
St. Paul describes the commitment of Christian marriage, which is a total commitment on the part of a man and a woman to leave father and mother and cling to each other in one flesh, to be subordinate to each other out of reverence for Christ, to imitate Christ’s spousal love in laying down their lives to make each other holy.
We are living in a culture that doesn’t like to make big commitments, that seeks to squirm out of lifetime choices. Many say they want to keep their “options open.” It’s a terrible plague especially for many young women who believe they have the vocation to marry: Guys don’t propose at all or they propose but then extend the engagement for years, never finalizing a date, and often just try to get the woman to start moving in and having children together without marriage.
St. Paul says in the second reading that human love is based on divine love and human marriage is based on the marriage of Christ and the Church. After describing the one flesh union of marriage, St. Paul says, “This is a great mystery, and I am speaking in reference to Christ and the Church.” Christ is not afraid to make a commitment. He died for his bride, to save her life, to make her holy, to make her eternally happy. And we are that bride! Full of love, he proposes to us and wants us to say yes, and faithfully keep saying yes, just as he has said yes and continues to say yes in giving his life for ours.
Christ’s difficult teaching on the Eucharist and our existential reply
That brings us now to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel at the end of his five-week mini-course on the reality of his Body and Blood. Jesus is asking us to make a commitment not just to believe his words that he is the true manna, that his body is real food and his blood real drink and that whoever gnaws on his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life and will be raised on the last day, but to structure our lives in accordance with that belief. He’s asking us to live truly Eucharistic lives, drawing our life from him in this supreme gift. He’s asking us to make him the source and the summit of our existence. He’s asking us to choose him who has chosen us, to commit to him who made the ultimate commitment to us, he’s asking us to be as faithful to him as he is faithful to us in the new and eternal Covenant sealed in his body and blood.
But that’s not easy. It’s certainly not a given.
In the Gospel we read that many of the disciples who heard Jesus’ words said, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” These were not strangers to Jesus. These were people who had been amazed and astonished by his teaching over the previous two years, who had heard him preach like no one ever before. These were people who had witnessed him make blind men see, deaf men hear, cripples walk, lepers restored to the skin of babies, and possessed people exorcised and liberated. These were people who had just the previous day saw Jesus feed a crowd of 5,000 men, 5,000 women and probably 15,000 kids on five buns and two sardines. They were now saying that was Jesus was asking was too hard for them to stomach.
We have to admit that they were right about Jesus’ teachings being hard. At first glance, they’re disgusting. To eat someone’s flesh and drink his blood smacks of cannibalism. Moreover, for a Jew, they couldn’t even touch blood without becoming ritually impure; now Jesus was saying that they needed to drink his blood. What Jesus was indicating seems straight out of a sick vampire novel. Even 2000 years after the Last Supper when Jesus would show how he would fulfill these words by totally changing bread and wine into his body, blood, soul and divinity, the teaching is still hard. It’s hard to believe that the Creator of the whole World, the Savior of the human race, the miraculous carpenter from Nazareth, is actually hidden under the appearances of simple human food on the altar. That the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. That the Eucharist is not bread, but God.
What Jesus is teaching is hard. But why does that surprise us? Jesus never pretended that his teachings were easy. When he talked about forgiving 70×7 times, when he talked about cutting off hands or plucking out eyes if they lead us to sin, when he talked about turning the other cheek, denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following him, when he talked about losing our lives in order to save them, when he talked about loving him more than we loved father and mother, brother and sister, child, work, property, when he talked about loving others just as he loved us by sacrificing our lives for them — all of this was hard.
Accepting Jesus and his teaching
But with regard to the question, “Who can accept it?,” the answer is, “One with faith in Jesus.” That’s what we see in Peter’s response when, after Jesus watched most of his disciples abandon him because they didn’t want to accept his teaching and turned to the Twelve apostles and asked, poignantly, “Do you also want to leave?,” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.” The teaching wasn’t any easier for Peter than for the thousands of disciples who had just abandoned Jesus. It would only become fathomable a year later during the next Passover when Jesus would take bread and wine into his hands, and totally change them into himself as he said, “This is my body: take and eat,” and “This is the chalice of my blood: take and drink.” But Peter knew that Jesus had the words of eternal life and so, because of his faith in Jesus, he put his faith in Jesus’ words. Likewise, we need to have faith in Jesus’ words. In the great Eucharistic Hymn, Adoro Te Devote, written by St. Thomas Aquinas, we sing, “I belief whatever the Son of God has said. Nothing is truer than the word of truth!” We believe in Jesus’ difficult teaching on the Eucharist precisely because we believe in him and believing in him means basing our entire existence on what he reveals.
And so the choice comes to us today, a choice we cannot duck, because to try to duck the choice is to deny the Lord. Over the course of these five weeks, Jesus has been preparing us for this moment. He multiplied the loaves and fish not only to show his compassion and his power but to foretell what he was planning to do with the multiplication of the Eucharist. He told us to labor for this food more than the hardest working parents strive to put food on the table. He told us that he was the true manna that the Father wants to give us to sustain us in the desert of human life, the answer to the prayer he put on our lips, “Give us today our super-substantial bread,” and “Sir, give us this Bread always.” He answers that prayer for us every day, but now we have to respond to his personal response, his daily gift of himself. Jesus wants us to draw our life from him, to live a Eucharistic life, to experience a spousal union with him consummated in the one-flesh loving communion that happens on the marriage bed of the altar when we as the Bride of Christ take within us the Body of the Bridegroom, become one flesh with him and are capacitated to bear fruit, to make love, with him in all our actions.
Are we prepared to make the commitment?
Are we ready to make that commitment today? It’s easy to say “yes!,” but do we really mean it?
We have to note that in response to Jesus’ query, “Do you also want to leave me?,” many in our age like the disciples in Capernaum have wandered physically or spiritually away from Jesus in the Eucharist:
- We can think of so many of our beloved Protestant brothers and sisters who, despite believing that Sacred Scripture is the authoritative word of God and who interpret Sacred Scripture literally, try to pretend, consciously or unconsciously, that Jesus is just speaking symbolically about needing to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But if Jesus were speaking symbolically, he would never have let so many of his disciples — who left Jesus because they had interpreted him literally and thought they couldn’t endure the image — wander away. Jesus knew they were interpreting correctly but just didn’t have the faith in him to believe in the difficult teaching about the Eucharist.
- We can think of so many of our Catholic brothers and sisters who have wandered away from the practice of Sunday Mass, serving some other god on Sunday — whether it be work, or sports, or sleep, or entertainment — than the Lord.
- We can think even of those who come to Mass but who do not receive the Lord Jesus with faith, love and reverence, who basically behave as if they’re only receiving consecrated bread rather than the very God who died for them on the Cross. We can also think of some who may show up but whose hearts can’t wait to leave Jesus’ presence and go somewhere else, who don’t consider themselves blessed to be called to the Supper of the Lamb. They haven’t left, but they don’t really want to be there. Both groups are physically present but not present with faith.
- We can also think of those who show up with hearts and lives divided, who instead of making a total choice for God, are living in some situation where they’re also choosing something incompatible with God, and who nevertheless come up to receive him without converting and going to receive Jesus’ forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession first. There’s a poignant reality, which St. John pointed out, that it was only at the conclusion of this talk in Capernaum, that Jesus “knew the one who would betray him.” Jesus first glimpsed Judas’ betrayal by Judas’ reaction to the Eucharist. And it’s somehow tragically fitting that Judas betrayed Jesus by leaving the first Mass a year later — when Jesus gave us his Body and Blood for the first time in the fulfillment of today’s Gospel — before it was done. And so some come to Mass to receive him only to leave and continue to betray Jesus morally.
All of these ways in which Jesus’ disciples abandon him crush Jesus’ heart. Don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’ own word to for it.
Here at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I cat help but notice the beautiful stained glass window you have right at the back of the apse. It’s of Jesus’ appearance to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1673 in the Visitation Convent in Paray-le-Monial, France. Jesus opened himself to this young nun and revealed to her the mystery of the love of his Sacred Heart. He said that his heart was being broken by the way so many, still then, were responding to the gift of himself in the Holy Eucharist. “Instead of gratitude,” he told her, “I receive from most only indifference, irreverence, and sacrilege, the coldness and scorn that men and women have for me in the Sacrament of Love.” Jesus called the Eucharist the Sacrament of his Love and he’s wounded that so many take him for granted, so many mistreat him just like the Roman soldiers mistreated him on Good Friday, so many respond with coldness rather than burning love in return. Instead of indifference, Jesus wants us to make him in the Eucharist the greatest difference maker in our lives. Instead of irreverence he wants the greatest loving piety. Instead of sacrilege he wants us to receive with souls renewed in their baptismal graces through a good confession. Instead of coldness he wants us on fire, hungering for him more than a man who hasn’t eaten for weeks longs for food. Instead of scorn and contempt, he wants our total praise and thanksgiving.
Jesus would add to St. Margaret Mary, “What pains me most keenly is that those who are consecrated to me treat me in this way!” Jesus wants priests, he wants religious, he wants catechists, he wants his faithful consecrated to him in baptism, to treat him as he deserves, reciprocating his love and loving him in return with all our mind, heart, soul, strength, time, effort and talent.
Actually making the choice
At the end of this five week course, Jesus reveals his heart to each of us and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” He’s asking whether we want to live united to Him in the Holy Eucharist or live in some other way. He’s asking whether we will make him in the Eucharist the source and the summit of our life or whether we’ll just try to keep him in the Eucharist “part” of our life and a “small part” at that, something we do out of duty for an hour or so on Sunday.
The response he’s hoping for is for us to echo St. Peter. “Lord, 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.” Peter, James, John, Andrew and the other disciples except Judas had truly left everything to live with Jesus. They spent every day with Jesus, who taught them, who nourished them, who taught them to pray, and who prepared them to take not just his Gospel but his very presence in the Eucharist to the ends of the earth. Unlike them, we don’t have to leave our fishing boats, tax tables, homes and families in order to be with Jesus. He comes here to our Church every day. The question for us is whether we want really to be with him or whether we want to leave him alone. And if we do, that will change not only the way we look at Sunday Mass, but also the way we look at the awesome privilege of daily Mass and the way we approach Eucharistic adoration. If the Eucharist really is Jesus, and we believe this truth and love Jesus, then we will soon recognize that there’s nothing more we want to do than to come to receive him as well as we can as often as we can. If the Eucharist really is Jesus, and we believe this truth and love Jesus, then we will soon reprioritize everything so that we can come to spend more and more time with him and bring our family members and friends to experience this same treasure.
The New Joshua and his Gift
“Choose today whom you will serve.” These words of Joshua reverberate through time. Most Catholics don’t know that “Jesus” is the Greek name for our Savior. The Hebrew name by which Mary and Joseph, Peter and the other apostles would have called Jesus is “Joshua,” pronounced “Yeshua.” Today it is the Joshua to whom the successor of Moses points — Jesus himself —who says to us, “Choose today whom you will serve.” Tomorrow, Yeshua will say the same thing, “Choose today whom you will serve.” And he’ll continue to do it on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and every day for the rest of our life. May we like Joshua say, “As for me and my house, I will choose the Lord!,” and choose him concretely and joyously in the Eucharist each day, because there is no one else to whom we should go, because Jesus not only has the words of eternal life but is that word made flesh who now gives himself to us so that we may in him have eternal life. And so today let’s all say, individually and as a community of faith, “Jesus, I choose you! As for me and my house, we choose you! We love you! We hunger for you!”
This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. And this is the response that will lead us to experience forever the eternal wedding banquet to which our celebration here is a foretaste. How blessed indeed we are to be called to the Supper of the Lamb! Amen!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 JOS 24:1-2A, 15-17, 18B
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers.
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”But the people answered,
“Far be it from us to forsake the LORD
for the service of other gods.
For it was the LORD, our God,
who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,
out of a state of slavery.
He performed those great miracles before our very eyes
and protected us along our entire journey
and among the peoples through whom we passed.
Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
The LORD has eyes for the just,
and ears for their cry.
The LORD confronts the evildoers,
to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
When the just cry out, the LORD hears them,
and from all their distress he rescues them.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Many are the troubles of the just one,
but out of them all the LORD delivers him;
he watches over all his bones;
not one of them shall be broken.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Reading 2 EPH 5:21-32
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish.
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself.
For no one hates his own flesh
but rather nourishes and cherishes it,
even as Christ does the church,
because we are members of his body.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
This is a great mystery,
but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
Alleluia JN 6:63C, 68C
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life;
you have the words of everlasting life.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel JN 6:60-69
Many of Jesus’disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life,
while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “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.”