The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time: Decide Today whom You will Serve

Today’s readings

Canon law requires a retreat before a man is ordained as a deacon or a priest, so about this time last year, I made my diaconate retreat up at Bellarmine Retreat House in Barrington. It was one of the most important retreats I have ever made, with the possible exception of the retreat just before my priesthood ordination. I took the occasion of that retreat to meditate on the three promises I would be making to be sure I was ready to make them. Those promises, of course, are celibacy, obedience to the Bishop, and the promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day. At the end of the retreat, obviously, I decided I was indeed ready for that commitment, and I was able to approach my ordination as Deacon last November with great joy.

I mention this because I think the making of a decision is an essential aspect of any retreat. No matter what kind of retreat you are on, the hope, I think is that at the end of it, you will have made some decision to approach your life, your vocation or your work with a renewal that will bring you joy. Many of you have been on Marriage Encounter retreats, and may have made a decision to approach your marriage with renewed appreciation for the love you share. A lot of you have made the ChRHP retreats and have made the decision to live your discipleship with a renewed energy and commitment to this parish. Some of the youth have made RPM or Reflections retreats and have made a decision to live your faith as you grow into young adulthood. Perhaps some have made personal retreats, and have made decisions that have strengthened your spiritual life. No matter what kind of retreat you may make, a decision is pretty standard fare at the end of it.

Today marks the last Sunday of a retreat of sorts that we have been making as a Church. For the last five weeks, we have taken a bit of a break from our reading of the Gospel of Mark to look at chapter six of the Gospel of John, commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.” So this retreat has been all about the Eucharist, its importance in our lives, and a renewal of our joy for receiving it. Back on July 31st, we heard about Jesus feeding the five thousand on just five barley loaves and two fish: this wonderful miracle showed us how Jesus notices our needs, makes up for what we lack, and feeds us physically and spiritually with food more wonderful than we could ever imagine. The next Sunday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Transfiguration. We were able to catch a glimpse of Jesus’ resurrected body even before he suffered and died: we were challenged to each transfigure our own world for the better, not the worse; for good and not for evil. The following Sunday, we returned to John’s Gospel and heard about Jesus being the true bread come down from heaven. That day, if you were at one of the Masses I celebrated, we reviewed how to receive Communion with reverence, faithfulness and joy. And last Sunday, Jesus proclaimed that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever, that his body and blood are real food, come from heaven, to nourish all of us who believe. We dined at the rich table of Wisdom and the great banquet of the Lord and reflected on why the Eucharist and the sacraments are so important to us as Catholics.

This retreat has been rich and nourishing. It has provided us the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful gift of the Eucharist, and the Real Presence of Christ in our midst. We have been challenged, and we have been fed, perhaps we have even been refreshed. Hopefully the Eucharist, the receiving of which can become a routine when we do it week after week or day after day, has become even more important and awesome to us as we have reflected on it in these last five weeks. This has been such a wonderful opportunity for us to give thanks for the great Paschal Mystery which is the lifeblood of our Church and our spiritual lives. God willing, this retreat will nourish us and feed our spiritual lives in the months to come.

One of the hardest parts of any retreat is always the end of it. As wonderful as time away and time spent on our spiritual lives may be, we all have to go back to “real life” and all its responsibilities and demands. Back on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago, Peter, James and John found the same to be true. They had experienced the Lord in an incredibly intimate way, but now they had to come down the mountain and live their lives. We have to come down a mountain of sorts every time we end a retreat, as we are doing today. And so as wonderful as our reflection on the Eucharist has been, we now have to come down the mountain into our lives as Christians. And for this retreat, it really is a coming down. From here on out, when we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s all going to be about the Cross. Everything will be told from Mark’s point of view as a shadow of the suffering and death of Jesus. We will have to take the strength of the Eucharist upon which we’ve reflected in these last weeks into the real demands the Gospel and the Cross make of us as disciples.

Today’s Liturgy demands a decision of us. Now that we have reflected on the Eucharist, what’s it going to be? Are we going to follow Christ or not? Who will be our God? And make no mistake, brothers and sisters in Christ: these are not frivolous questions about which we can make a flippant comment and let that be that. No, these questions are life and death questions that will define who we are as a people and define who we are in the sight of God. If you come up to receive Communion today, you will have publicly answered those questions for yourself, and the implication of those answers for your life will be absolutely irrevocable. We know how powerful this decision is because, in the very first verse of the next chapter of John, we are told: “After this, Jesus moved about within Galilee; but he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him.” There are no promises of glamour or grandeur here, brothers and sisters, because sometimes discipleship is just that serious.

In today’s first reading, Joshua puts it very clearly to the Israelites: “Decide today whom you will serve.” They are told they can either serve the gods of their ancestors, a kind of ancestral spirit worship. Or they can serve the gods of the people whose land they have taken over. Those gods were based on worship to affect the richness of the land. Or, they could serve the LORD, whose mighty deeds and outstretched arm delivered them from their oppressors in Egypt and literally gave them the land in which they were now dwelling. Joshua then makes a declaration that has always inspired me, a decision that has echoed through the centuries ever since: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” The decision he was asking them to make was one that would absolutely define who they were as a people. Either they would continue the ancestral worship of their fathers and mothers and be defined as individual clans, or they would worship the gods of the Amorites and be identified with the people they were supposed to be overcoming. Or they could worship the Lord and be defined as God’s people. They chose the latter, and that has defined them ever since, and it is the background of how we define ourselves as a people.

In the Gospel reading, it is Jesus who demands the decision. People have just heard his Bread of Life discourse, and many found it troubling. Either they were angry that he was claiming to be “bread come down from heaven” when they knew his mother and father and where he was from, or they were put off by his teaching that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood. One claim was pure blasphemy, and the other was just plain gross. The drinking of blood was also specifically prohibited by the deuteronomic law. So for one reason or the other, many of those who had been eagerly following Jesus now turned away, murmuring as they went: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Jesus then turns to his disciples and very bluntly asks them, “Do you also want to leave?” His question makes no specific judgment but does demand a decision.

It is Peter who answers, and not just for himself but for the other eleven too. He makes a beautiful profession of faith in three parts. First, he states that there is no one else to whom they can go, because nobody else preaches authentically as Jesus does. Second, he states that Jesus proclaims words of eternal life, words that really matter, words that are backed up by action, words that will lead them to the Kingdom of God. Finally, he professes faith in a Messianic identity of Jesus: he and the others are absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Holy One of God. Peter and the others have made their decision. Just as Joshua and the Israelites defined themselves as followers of the LORD, so Peter and the other disciples would define themselves as followers of Jesus. The implication of that decision for Peter and the other disciples (except for Judas) was martyrdom, as we know that they were later to suffer death for the faith they now professed.

So the questions are poignant for us now, aren’t they? We have just heard the same discourse the disciples did. Do we also want to leave? Who will we serve? Who will be our God? What will our faith look like? How will we choose to live? What meaning does the Eucharist have in our lives? What are its implications? We have many ways that we can answer those questions. We have many opportunities to continue this retreat we have been enjoying these last five weeks. We can join a small Christian Community as we will be hearing about today. We can go to Hesed House and serve the poor as a way of feeding others as we have been fed. We can teach the faith to our children, junior high students, or youth as we have been asked the last few weeks. We can become lectors or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. And those are just to name a few. Perhaps some of us may even need to discern a call to priesthood, the diaconate or religious life.

But all of these decisions begin with the one we will make in a few minutes. We will soon have the opportunity to come forward to receive the Eucharist about which we have been reflecting all these weeks. Receiving our Lord means we have decided who is our God and how we will live. As we receive the broken body and blood of our Lord, so we too have promised to lay down our lives for others. It’s that simple and that difficult, friends. Decide today whom you will serve.