Today our Liturgy of the Word gives us the last of the readings from St. John’s Gospel that we call the Bread of Life Discourse. We’ve been reading from that one chapter of John – chapter six – for five weeks now. It all began with the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus took just five small barley loaves and two fish and fed five thousand men, along with women and children, and not only that, provided twelve baskets full of leftovers besides. The crowds then caught up with him the next day, looking for more. So Jesus took that opportunity to unpack the real meaning of what he was trying to do, and challenged them to believe in him if they really wanted to do the works of God. He said that the bread that came down from heaven during Moses’ days was nothing compared with the bread that God wanted them to have – a bread that gives life to the world, a bread that meant they would never hunger again.
So Jesus was making it clear here that he wasn’t just giving them physical bread, but instead a food that was a taste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God. And Jesus himself was that bread; those who believe in him and partake of that bread will live forever, having eternal life as God intended. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And in last week’s Gospel he made it clear to us. He wasn’t just talking in metaphors, but instead he really did mean that he was the bread of life and people actually had to eat the bread that was him. This began to trouble people.
And that leads us to where we are today. Jesus gave them a wonderful meal in the feeding of the multitudes, but now he wants them to have even better bread. So now they have to make a decision and take action. Will they accept the hard teaching that they need to eat his own Body and Blood to have eternal life, or will they turn away? Some of them indeed do turn away, and Jesus lets them go. But for the Twelve, Jesus’ words might be hard but they recognize them as the only hope they have. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have words of eternal life.” Peter speaks for them, but they all elect to stay with him.
The choice of the disciples in the Gospel story is reminiscent of the choice that Joshua put to the people. Joshua took over leadership of the people after Moses died, and he is now showing his leadership style. He will not be a leader that forces the people to do one thing or another. Instead, in the first reading, he points out the many wonderful things God has done for the people. This is the God who led them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert journey. This is the God who led them into the Promised Land, the land he promised their ancestors he would give them. And now that they have received the many benefits of God’s mighty promises, it’s time for them to make a choice. Will they serve the so-called gods of the pagan inhabitants of the land, or will they serve the Lord their God, who gave them so much. For Joshua, the choice is easy: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
And now the question is ours. We have all of us been on a five-week-long Eucharistic retreat. If you’ve missed any part of it, I encourage you to go back and read all of the sixth chapter of John. It will take you five, maybe ten minutes if you read it nice and slow. And as we stand here at the end of it all, we too have to make the decisions we hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word: decide today whom you will serve; what about you, will you also leave?
It’s a critical question for us. Because there are lots of entities in our world that are vying for our servitude. Will we serve the so-called gods of the people in whose country we live? We who are disciples are aliens here; this is not our true home. So what’s it going to be? Are we going to serve the gods of relativism, of greed, and the culture of death? Will we turn away and no longer follow our Lord? Or will we recognize with the disciples that there is no one else to whom we can turn and say with Joshua, “we will serve the Lord?”
At one point or another in every disciple’s life, he or she has to answer this question. For me, it came in my early thirties, when I had been going to Willow Creek Church with some friends. I was attracted, as many are, to the music and the preaching and I had many good experiences there. There came a point in which I felt like I had to make a decision between the Catholic Church and Willow Creek, and I spoke to Father Mike, of blessed memory, about it. We went back and forth for a while and finally Father Mike put it very bluntly: “I don’t think you would ever stand in that chapel and say Jesus wasn’t present there.”
Shortly after that, I went to Willow Creek while they had their monthly Lord’s Supper service. And that was part of the problem: it was monthly, not every week, certainly not every day. And it wasn’t Jesus: it was just bread and wine that was a mere symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood. They had to project the Lord’s Prayer on the screen, because people didn’t just know it. And the speaker in his sermon, apparently an ex-Catholic, made light of the Sacrament of Penance. And in that moment, I knew Father Mike was right. Christ is present in the Tabernacle, he is present on the altar, present in the sacraments, and there is no way in the world I could ever live without that. I couldn’t turn away, and I would serve the Lord in the Catholic Church. Who would ever guessed it would have led me here today!
So here at the end of our study of the Bread of Life Discourse, the question for all of us is this: what does the Eucharist mean to us? It’s a poignant question because in April of this next year, on Holy Thursday, our diocese will begin a year of the Eucharist, in which we will celebrate and re-dedicate ourselves to the great gift God gives us in the Eucharist. This question means for us: is the Bread of Life good enough for us, or are we feeding ourselves on something less satisfying? Does the Blood of Christ quench our thirst or do we seek inebriation from the offerings of this world? Will we too turn away, horrified at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord? Will we, and our households, serve the Lord?
The Psalmist has been inviting us these past few weeks to “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” And that’s quite all we need, isn’t it? We disciples will come to the Eucharist today, and go forth with our households to serve the Lord, our Lord who alone has words of eternal life.