21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Choosing Christ - making the judgment of faith.
Whether I’m talking to prospective godparents in order for them to get their “letter of eligibility” or when I’m helping to prepare most young couples for marriage or when I’m meeting the parents who are asking to have their child baptized, it is very common that they are not practicing the faith in the sense that they do not regularly go to Mass or are active in the life of the Church. If they grew up in a home that was practicing the faith, at some point whether it was in college or as a young working person, they stopped going to Mass. In most cases, I get the impression, it was not a decision like, “OK, now that I’m on my own, I’m not going to Mass anymore.” Rather, as they say, “life gets in the way”: staying up late on Saturday night and sleeping in on Sunday, work on the weekends, a weekend trip, having a baby, or a number of other things, and one falls out of practice. Is it a thought-out decision? I doubt it. We live in a culture that is not supportive of the practice of the faith in general but also one that offers many things that actively compete with the practice of the faith. Work on Sundays and youth sports activities - games, practices, and the need to travel to do them, are probably the most common obstacle. No one would say that he or she worships the gods of NFL football, youth soccer, the biking club or the softball league, or even the almighty dollar, but the dominant cultural mentality makes it easy for these things to take priority over the practice of the faith. We use the term “lapsed” Catholic to describe someone who has stopped practicing the faith in these instances. They usually are not antagonistic toward the faith or have left to join another church. They’ve just “fallen away”. The verb “to lapse” refers to something becoming invalid because it is not used, claimed, or renewed. Eg., my membership to the gym has lapsed. It “expired”. I’m not opposed to working out. I actually enjoy it when I go. But after a certain amount of time passing between workouts, you let the membership go. It is only if one is asked about it later does one come up with a reason or excuse to justify not going. I think it is the same with most non-practicing Catholics. It is not because they are lazy. On the contrary, they are usually very busy with many things. They’ve fallen away, but when asked about it, out come all the reasons informed by dominant culture: “I’m too busy”; “I don’t get anything out of it”; “I don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on X, Y, or Z”; “I don’t see the value in it for me”; “The church is corrupt”; “What about the priest scandal?” “Can a modern person really believe that stuff.” “It is not relevant.” How often have you heard someone say, “I grew up Catholic, but….” Yes, the culture is saying all of that stuff about the church and faith, but what is necessary is to answer the question that Jesus once posed to his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15).
We come from a 2,000 year-old tradition - a living stream of faith that we are born into and grow up in, but keeping that faith is not something automatic. What is necessary for that faith to become our own and not something that we fall away from? We can’t simply blame the culture. Freedom is required for real faith. It is not faith to just go with the flow - to practice because that is what everybody else is doing - to be a “cultural” Catholic. “I’m Catholic because everybody in my family is Catholic.” That is not a choice just like being absorbed in the dominant secular culture and being influenced by it is not a conscious choice. Faith is a choice, and we need to be free to choose. One cannot be forced or pressured or coerced to believe. If faith is not entered into freely, it cannot become our own. But we will not have faith unless we personally decide - unless we make that choice on our own. The faith will become invalid for us unless we use it, claim it, or renew it personally. We see in the first reading Joshua speaking to the Israelites who are now living in a foreign land and have absorbed the practices of that culture. He is challenging them to decide - to make a choice. “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.” Joshua recalls for them how the Lord had led Abraham to know the true God and fulfilled his promises to him. The Lord freed them from slavery in Egypt, gave them the land of the Amorites, and delivered them from all their enemies. He asks them basically, “Will you live as if none of this has happened or will you follow what is the prevailing, dominant culture - what is new and all around you?” How do the Israelites come to the decision not to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods? They review their history and point to the concrete events in their lives in which the Lord was revealed. Having a history and knowing the history is crucial to making a judgment. Without that memory being alive, one is easily taken and swayed by all that is new.
Today’s Gospel is the culmination of the “Bread of Life” discourse. For us today, we hear this section of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John as Jesus teaching about the Eucharist and his real presence in the sacrament that gives us communion with the life of God. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up 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 him” (Jn 6:54-56). Yes, this discourse is the scriptural basis for what we believe about the Eucharist, but what Jesus was doing with his disciples was something similar to the challenge posed by Joshua to the Israelites. He is challenging them to choose - to decide to follow him or not - to make a judgment about him. Are you following because “you ate the loaves and were filled” - because your physical needs were met? Are you looking to be entertained - see some spectacular sign? Are you following because you have an intellectual understanding of the teaching and can explain “how this man can give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus continues the dialogue with them until he goes beyond what they can grasp, using language that was not only odd but repulsive and offensive to their religious sensibilities. What he says was shocking - intentionally scandalous. It was too hard to accept. As a result of this, many of his disciples - those who had been following him for some time - “returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (66). Why does Jesus do this? Why does he speak in a way that is beyond the understanding of his disciples? Because faith is not based on witnessing miracles or intellectual understanding, but on the judgment of the heart - judging one’s experience with Jesus over time. When Jesus remains standing in the synagogue with the Twelve disciples after everyone else has left, and asks them, “Do you also want to leave?”, he is not saying, “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?” as if he is begging them to stay. Rather, he is challenging them to make a judgment. “Do you want to leave?” What is the desire of your heart? They don’t understand what Jesus is saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood any more than anyone else in the crowd that day, but they have remained with Jesus. The desire of their heart is to stay with Jesus even if they don’t understand how what Jesus says is possible. Peter expresses the judgment of faith, “Master, to whom shall we go?” This is a judgment of the heart - like someone who has fallen in love. He is saying, “I don’t understand Lord, but I cannot imagine my life without you. My life would not make sense without you. His experience of being chosen by Jesus, forgiven by Jesus, wanted by Jesus, and known and loved in an incomparable way by this man has convinced him and the others that Jesus is God. Peter has been given a new life - a fuller life - by sharing life with Jesus. It would be irrational, based on all he has experienced, to leave Jesus simply because he doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying at the moment. We cannot be convinced or come to believe in any other way. Unless we make that judgment based on our experience - our history with Jesus - our relationship with the Body of Christ, the Church (not based on some abstract theological teaching or a reduction to ideology), we will be swept along with the dominant cultural mentality and worship the gods that everybody else is worshipping or just return to our former way of life as if we have never met the Lord.
We need to ask ourselves these questions: Am I here simply because it is an obligation to go to Mass? Because that is what ‘good’ Catholics do? Am I here simply because going to Mass is what we do in our family - our Sunday routine? Or have I made the judgment like Peter that my heart belongs to Jesus and it is here that my heart is full? Peter has a reverence for Christ. He has been loved by Jesus and overcome by that love. That is why he left his fishing boat and followed Jesus - joined himself to Jesus. It is not understanding what the Church teaches about the Eucharist that will keep us coming to Mass but having the experience of being loved by Jesus through the Church that we stay with Him. Joshua challenged the Israelites to make a judgment about the Lord. Jesus challenged his closest disciples to make a judgment about Him. May we take that challenge today in our freedom for we won’t know we belong to Jesus and won’t stay with Jesus if we don’t.