What Choosing the Lord Means, Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), August 27, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
21st Sunday of OT, Year B
August 27, 2006
Jos 24:1-2,15-18; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

1) 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 Capharnaum, 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.

2) In the first reading, Joshua assembles all of the tribes of Israel in Shechem and confronts them with the following choice: “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 dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” We learn several important things from this confrontation:

a. No man MORALLY is 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, either our own egos, or the god of money, or control (power), 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.

b. We have no choice but to choose — The failure to choose is itself a choice, and a bad one. Joshua realized that God had created the Israelites, as he has every human being, FREE, so that we might use that freedom to become whom he created us to be. In short he made us free to LOVE, to love God, and to love others and ourselves as God does. But in creating us free, God also gave us the capacity to sin, to choose against God, to choose against love. Freedom is a great gift, but it is also a TASK. Being free, we must choose, and we have the responsibility to choose well.

c. 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 to obtain it, led by Joshua. They were going to be fighting against great odds, 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, especially when temptations arise. In every choice, we need to be expressing our fidelity.

d. The choice for God is the choice against other gods — The Israelites couldn’t serve both the true God and the gods their ancestors worshipped. Jesus said the same thing 1300 years later, “A man cannot serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). A groom today who says yes to one woman is in fact saying no to all three billion other eligible females on the planet. If he’s not in fact saying no to them, then he’s really not saying “yes” to God and to his wife and — not to get into here the grounds for a declaration of nullity — God would not join them in marriage. To choose God means to reject idolatry and put everything in our lives at God’s service.

3) We see these principles at work in the Gospel in Jesus’ teaching about the reality of the Eucharist, as well as in the second reading, in St. Paul’s teaching on the nature of Christian love and marriage.

4) In the Gospel, Jesus presents the disciples with a choice that was even starker than the one Joshua presented to the Israelites. After Jesus had said that unless a person gnaws on his flesh and drinks his blood, he has no life in him, many of the DISCIPLES remarked, “This teaching is hard; How can anyone take it seriously?” and many of them broke away and would not remain in his company any longer. These were Jesus’ disciples, in whom Jesus had invested so much over the past two years, who had watched him cure the sick, expel demons, even raise people from the dead, and whose hearts had burned when he preached. Even though they had chosen him in the past, even though they seemed to have faith in him, they now had had too much, turned their backs toward Jesus and walked away. Jesus presented them with a choice and they rejected him. Jesus, who had created them free, allowed them to make that disastrous choice. He didn’t try to talk them out of it, because they had made up their minds that he was no longer to be trusted. If he said that to have life they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, then they would choose death. They were not willing to enter the new and everlasting covenant he would institute in this way. Rather than watering down this reality to try to get them back, Jesus instead turned to the Twelve, those closest to him, and let them know that they too had to choose: “Do you also wish to go away?” The words of Jesus probably didn’t make any more sense to the Twelve than they did to the others who were walking away. The words would only make sense one year later when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, took bread and changed it into his body and took wine and changed it into his blood and allowed his apostles for the first time to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But Peter, even before the Last Supper, trusted IN WHAT JESUS SAID because he TRUSTED IN JESUS, the truth incarnate, who could not lie. “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter realized that the choice for God is the choice to trust in what he says, to base one’s life on him, to put into practice what he asks. Peter realized that to walk away from Jesus meant to walk toward someone or something else. But he knew that Jesus alone had the words of eternal life, and so Peter chose Jesus again.

5) Jesus was showing us clearly as well that HIS choice is that we know the truth — about the Eucharist, about its relationship to eternal life, about Who he is — and choose to base our lives on that truth. He clearly was not interested in numbers for number’s sake, as he watched most of his disciples, for whom he was going to die one year later, abandon him. He came to give witness to the truth (Jn 18:37) and they were not willing to accept it. How it must have pained the Good Shepherd to watch the sheep for whom he would lay down his life,abandoning him over the teaching of the Eucharist, the summit of his self-giving love! How his heart must break still today when so many of those who call themselves his disciples do not take his words about the Eucharist seriously! We’re talking of course about the vast majority of Protestants, who do not accept Jesus’ teachings on the Eucharist, and, even if they did, do not have the Eucharist because they do not have valid priests who alone can confect the Eucharist in the person of Christ. But how Jesus’ heart must break, too, over the Catholics who do not make practical choices in accordance with the incredible treasure that is the Eucharist, in terms of Mass attendance, or the state of their soul in receiving the Lord, or in terms of how often they come to adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. If Jesus were to ask us today, “Do you also wish to go away?,” or “Are you in a hurry to get out of here?” or “Do you wish to change your lives to become more and more like me whom you have the awesome privilege to receive today?,” or “would you be willing to arrange your week so that you could come to receive me each day?,” how would we respond? That’s, in fact, the choice we have, which is implicit in every communion. We’re either going toward Jesus, trying to put his Words of ever-lasting life into practice, or we’re in fact going away. There are no plateaus in our following of the Lord: we’re either going up hill with Him, or sliding down-hill. We cannot keep our options open by failing to choose, because, as we talked about above, failing to choose God is already a choice. Today the Lord wants to help us to choose Him, to decide to act on his life-giving words, and to imitate the self-giving love we receive in this sacrament.

6) For most Catholics one of the most important ways the Lord calls us to imitate his love is in the sacrament of marriage, which is the subject of the second reading. St. Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy.” Christ calls all husbands to the type of love we see in the Eucharist, which comes from Christ’s self-giving in the Last Supper and on the Cross. He calls them to lay down their lives for their wives and their children — to say, “this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you” — in order to make them holy. Most husband and fathers I know, including my own father, would willingly take a bullet for their spouse or their children if it ever came to it. But sometimes those bullets come in the form of making the time to pray with your family, setting good example, doing whatever necessary to help make your wife and children holy. That’s the love to which Christ calls husbands. That is their mission. What about women? St. Paul says, “Wives, be submissive to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” To be sub-missive for St. Paul means to be literally sub-missio, under the mission of the husband. That mission is to lay down your life for the one you love, to make the one you love holy. Wives are called to share this mission and to respond to the husband’s efforts in this regard just as the Church, the bride of Christ, responds to Christ the Bridegroom. Christian marriage, as St. Paul says toward the end of this passage, is meant to be a sign to the world of the love that exists in the marriage between Christ and his bride, the Church. The essential truths about Christian marriage all derive from the truth about the marriage between Christ and his bride: because Christ will never divorce his bride, Christian marriage is indissoluble; because Christ is always faithful, human spouses are called to the same fidelity; and because the marriage between the divine Bridegroom and the Church produces abundant fruit in acts of love, so Christian couples are called to be fruitful, literally “to make love.”

7) The greatest help that a couple can receive in being faithful to loving each other as Christ loves his bride the Church is the holy Eucharist. If you ever go to the ancient basilicas of Rome, like St. Peter’s, you’ll see a huge baldachino or canopy over the main altar. The reason is because in the ancient world, there were canopies over beds — much as we still have today in some upscale hotels and honeymoon suites. By using the baldachino, the early Christians wanted to communicate clearly that the altar is the marriage bed where the marital union between Christ and the Church is consummated. When a marriage is consummated, the bride takes within herself the flesh and blood of the husband, they become one flesh, and that one-flesh union is capable of giving new life. So in the Eucharist, we, the bride of Christ, receive within us the flesh and blood of the divine Bridegroom, Jesus; we become one with him and are called to bear fruit in acts of love with him. For Christian married couples to be faithful and especially for them to grow in love as Christ calls them, they need to come as often as possible to the marriage bed of he altar, where they will receive within the Lord’s own strength and love and become strengthened to love each other as Christ loves the Church, as Christ loves them.

8 ) God created us free so that we might love, and the greatest example of love we find in the Eucharist, when Jesus shows us the greatest of all loves, to lay down one’s life for his friends (Jn 15:13). Today the Lord puts before us his own example and says, “Do THIS in memory of me,” which means “love one another as I have loved you,” in this same Eucharistic, self-giving manner. Today the Lord places before us the choice he placed before his disciples in Capernaum — “Do you believe?” or “Do you wish to go away?” Today Joshua challenges us to “choose today who you will serve.” We ask the Lord’s help so that like St. Peter, we may say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!.” We ask his assistance so that today, when the priest says, “The Body of Christ,” we may say “Amen!” to the truth of the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist not just with our lips but with our whole beings. We ask his grace to choose Him as completely as He has chosen us (Jn 15:16).