Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 27, 2006

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5: 21-32; John 6: 60-69)

Do you also want to leave me? Do you?

Today’s Gospel places at the scene of one of the most moving events in Jesus’ ministry.

Just think. It began with the call of four men by the lake, and in a brief span of time his following has grown into the thousands. Jesus was clearly a most attractive human being. He had a vision full of hope. He touched the real lives of ordinary people. And he performed works that backed up his words.

Shortly before this he had fed 5000 people with a few loaves and some fish.

For the past few weeks we have been led through the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, the so-called Eucharistic Discourse. And now that proclamation reaches its climax – but not one that might have been anticipated.

His popularity has been raising the envy and anger of the leaders of the people. There is even talk surfacing about attempts to kill him.

And it is at this point that he chooses to call his followers to a much deeper realization of who he is and what he is about. Even if he must have to leave them he will remain with them by giving them – and us – his flesh to eat and his blood to drink.

And it proves to be too much. They had broken from their customary surroundings and left their homes to follow him. But this? He’s gone over the top now. It’s no hard to imagine the confusion and disappointment they must have felt after placing so much hope in him.

So they break away. They walk no longer ‘in his company.’

What will become of his mission if this continues? Jesus is very much isolated. He turns for support to his most intimate circle. We can feel the pain in his plaintive question: “Do you want to leave me too?”

And although it is this difficult teaching that becomes the immediate stumbling block, in a sense the whole issue goes far deeper than doctrine. It’s about staying with Jesus He doesn’t say, “Do you, too, reject this teaching?” He asks “Will you leave me?” It’s about commitment. Commitment to a person. It’s a moment of radical choice, to bet their whole lives on this man.

In the events recounted in Joshua it’s a choice between serving Yahweh or serving other gods: the gods of their ancestors in Mesopotamia, the gods of the Amorites in the surrounding countryside. But basically it involves the same dynamic. Choose! Make a decision.

And we must admit that in our day there is no shortage of reasons why one might choose to walk away, to end one’s relationship with this church of ours.

Just think. We have experienced the tragedy of sexual abuse of children and the cover-up b our bishops. Women who have simply given up on a church they find so oppressive. We have gay men and women, and people who are divorced and remarried, who feel themselves marginated and shamed. And our people are treated to the behavior of leaders whose major focus seems to be liturgical choreography. Who can pour the wine? Is this what it’s all about?

It’s very tempting to want to walk away. Don’t forget that a few weeks ago we heard the story of one of the greatest prophets, Elijah, when the burden just got too much and he wanted to lie down and die.

And the reality is that many have walked away – from the church. Whether they have walked away from Jesus we don’t know. That’s a matter between their conscience and the Lord.

Let me tell you the story of a friend of mine. A wonderful Jesuit. Probably the most admired man in my province. In the years after Vatican II when there was so much confusion and splintering of the church he experienced the darkness and ugliness of our community. It was becoming too much for him. He wondered whether staying in the Jesuits was ‘right’ for him.

He asked our superiors to take a leave, to get some distance from it all so he might find the answer that might bring him peace. He went and lived in a row house in a poorer section of Baltimore, among the African-Americans he loved to serve.

I saw him one day and asked him how he was doing. I have never forgotten his chiseled answer: “The Society of Jesus is not God. And the Catholic Church is not God. And I want God!”

After some time and a lot of prayer and guidance he made the choice to re-commit himself to our community. He went on to serve for a lot of years in our mission in Nigeria. He returned from there in his early seventies for reasons of health. And then at 77 he left to go back there because “they need someone to provide spiritual guidance for the seminarians.”

He came back, yes. But he came back with a new clarity. The Society of Jesus is a way to God – but only a way. The church is a way to God –but only a way. The difference was that he had come to realize that they were his way. It was a personal commitment, not just following the crowd.

How do you do that?

We find the answer in the way the Israelites respond to the challenge of Joshua, to the way Peter responds to the challenge of Jesus.

What do the Israelites do when they are asked to confront that radical decision. They remember. They remember the God who had accompanied them at each step along the way. The God who remained true to the promise. They remember the God who freed them when they were in slavery in Egypt. They remember the God who opened the way through the sea for them when they had their backs to the wall and were facing destruction by Pharaoh’s army. They remember that even when they began to lose heart because the journey was so long, when they began to grumble and bitch and fall into the illusion that slavery might have been better, God did not abandon them but fed them with manna. They recall that they had been protected “all along their jour journey and among all the peoples.”

And Peter does the same thing. He draws on their experience with Jesus. “We have come to believe; we are convinced.” Where else can we turn? To whom?

It’s all about the person of Jesus. This teaching is hard to understand. We don’t know where it will lead. We can’t see the future and what it will cost us to continue to follow you. But there is one thing we do know: We know you! We have experienced your fidelity. We have seen you and heard you and touched you. And we are staying with you.

We need to be clear. Faith is not romantic. It’s not sight. And neither is it naive. Faith lives with doubt. Faith lives with confusion. Faith lives with darkness.

The Lord has walked with us at every step of our journey. If we really remember that we can’t turn back.

(Sing) “We’ve come this far by faith,

            Leaning on the Lord.

                  Trusting his holy word

                  He’s never failed us yet.

            Oh, oh, oh, can’t turn around

            We’ve come this far by faith.”