Have you ever been to a restaurant and been unable to decide what you want because there are so many things to choose from? Then the server comes to take the order; you’re still not ready so you say you’ll order last, and the server is getting closer and closer to you, and you still haven’t decided! Or, the Chinese restaurant that has a menu with all the items helpfully numbered from one to a hundred – I usually just default to sweet and sour chicken.
In today’s Old Testament & Gospel readings, we also hear how a choice is being given, but in these situations, there are just two options, and they basically come down to this: do I stay or do I go? And that is a choice that is offered to each one of us: do we choose to follow the Lord or not? It is not a choice to be made lightly, because it has lasting consequences – eternal consequences.
In the first reading, Joshua, who took over leading the Israelites when Moses died, says to them: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua is giving them a choice: either serve the Lord or don’t. Those are the only two options. The option he does not give them is: serve the Lord with your lips but not with your heart. In other words, if we say we are going to follow the Lord, then that must be reflected in how we live our lives. When we make that decision to follow the Lord, our lives must change. We cannot continue to live as before. Whereas before we were guided by our own will or the ways of the world, if we choose to serve the Lord, then we must be guided by Him and Him alone.
Our Gospel reading picks right up from last week’s Gospel, or what would have been last week’s Gospel, but which was preempted by the readings for the Assumption. So today’s Gospel begins with many of Jesus’ disciples who have been listening to him murmuring among themselves, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The saying they are referring to are these words of Jesus: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
Many of Jesus’ disciples, who have been following him for quite awhile by this point, are astonished at these words, which they call a “hard saying.” Yes, Jesus’ words are strong; they are shocking; they ought to grab one’s attention. And as the Gospel tells us, because of them, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied” Jesus. And by the way, that verse from John’s Gospel, when many of Jesus’ disciples decide to no longer follow him, just happens to be John chapter 6, verse 66: 6:66. Whether that numbering was intentional or not, I do not know.
And Jesus let them walk away. He did not modify his words to make them easier to accept. He gave them a choice to follow him; he did not force them to do so. And some of them of course eventually decided they could not accept this hard saying that Jesus gives us his flesh and blood as our food and drink, which in turns gives eternal life.
Each one of us likewise is given that choice to follow the Lord. God does not force anyone. He desires that we respond to his love with love, and force does not lead to love. So He gives us too that choice. If we grew up Catholic and were brought to Mass every Sunday, perhaps went to Catholic schools or religious ed week after week for years, we kind of absorb the Catholic faith and perhaps take it for granted. It is not usually a conscious choice at first. But as we get a little older, perhaps high school, perhaps not until college age, or perhaps even later, I think most of us reach a point at which we are confronted with that choice; we have to consciously choose one of those two options: do I believe this? Do I choose to follow the Lord? Or do I go my own way? Again, God does not force us. Although He knows what is best for us. And that only one of those options leads to eternal life.
There are many, many things that pull us in the direction of not choosing to follow God. There are so many, in fact, that sometimes it seems like a miracle that anyone does choose to do so. In fact, it probably is a miracle: it’s only through God’s grace that we make that choice for God. One of the things – or rather, one of the categories – that compels us to walk away from God is the world, the culture, the society that we live in, whatever you choose to call it. Every human being grows up and lives in a particular moment in the history of the world, within a particular cultural context, which has its own assumptions about reality, some of which are true, some of which are half-truths, and some of which are false. They are like the air we breathe – we absorb them whether we realize it or not. And they inform and influence our own outlook on reality, what we believe, and how we live our lives. It is amazing how so many people never question these assumptions. We often question our faith – because that is human nature, but also because our society as a whole is very skeptical of faith in general. But how often do we – and by this, I mean society at large – just uncritically accept the assumptions our society makes about reality?
What are some of these assumptions? That could easily be a whole other homily or series of homilies. So I will limit myself to just a few examples. One could be the assumption that we need x amount of money or things in order to be happy, to be considered successful. Another could be assumptions about truth and reality that we absorb from our media-entertainment complex, churning out content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Another is what our society says about marriage, sexuality, and even the human person.
Another thing that can influence us to walk away from God, sadly, is scandal. And by scandal I mean the bad example given by people in authority, particularly in the Church. We’re all well aware of all the scandals in the Church. Unfortunately, scandal is nothing new in the Church. The bad example set by Church leaders sadly does make people reject the faith. And it is all very depressing. But then I think of Peter’s words: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” God forbid that we reject Christ because of the bad example of other Catholics or the members of our Church hierarchy! It is not worth it!
Authority in the Church that becomes self-serving is not true authority. Jesus’ teachings and his very life and death reveal that to us. And in our second reading, the reading about husbands and wives that make modern ears sting, we might feel uncomfortable when St. Paul says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” We feel uncomfortable because our understanding of true authority has to be purified. True authority is not about dominating others; rather, true authority is exercised by serving that who are “subject” to us. This is the kind of authority St. Paul is talking about. And this is the opposite of the world’s understanding of authority.
Jesus gives us his flesh and blood as true food and true drink to lead us to eternal life. He gave us the Church to serve as his authority on earth, an authority that can only legitimately be exercise in service of others and in service of the Truth. May we renew our commitment to follow Jesus in His Church today and every day of our journey through this life.