The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Bread of Life Discourse V)

Today’s readings

Life calls us to make some very difficult decisions sometimes.  Who will we vote for?  What school will we choose for our children?  Is this the person I should marry?  Is this job the right one for me right now?  In today’s readings, though, the players are making a very basic choice: whom will they serve?  It seems like the answer should be easy – God, of course – but for the people of that time, and if we’re honest, for all of us, there are certainly distractions to true worship.

The Israelites were certainly tempted to worship the so-called gods of the lands they moved into.  That would have made it easier for them to get along, but more importantly, would have provided economic benefits as they allied themselves with the native peoples.  For those who had been following Jesus, they couldn’t get past the hard teaching that he was the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, so many of them turned away.  And for people in our own time, don’t we all find excuses to turn away?  Living our faith is sometimes inconvenient because we can’t get the kids to their sports and still come to Mass, or it’s uncomfortable because we are embarrassed to live our faith and stand up for truth when business or social relationships call us to do what we know we should not.

Everyone at some point has to answer the questions we hear in our first reading and our Gospel today:  Decide today whom you will serve.  Do you also want to leave?

Today’s Gospel reading is the conclusion to the five-week study the Church has given us of the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, which we commonly call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We began back at the end of July, when Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish.  The crowds pursued him because they wanted more, and Jesus gave them food of another kind: spiritual teaching about what really feeds us.  In these last couple of weeks he has told them that he himself is the Bread of Life, that if one desires to avoid hunger in eternity, they need to partake of his own Body and Blood, because he is the true bread that came down from heaven.

The people have had two problems with this: first, they objected to him saying he had come down from heaven.  Many of them knew his family, and some probably knew him since childhood.  How then could he claim to have come from heaven?  Secondly, the prospect of eating his Body and Blood was repulsive to them.  They were so scandalized that, of the thousands he had fed, most of them returned home now, and even many of his disciples said goodbye.  So he poses the question to his Apostles – the chosen Twelve: – Do you also want to leave?  Speaking for the rest, Peter professes faith that Jesus is the only One to whom they can turn, that he is in fact the Holy One of God.

The situation is not that different from the one Joshua addresses in our first reading today.  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, 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.”

Peter and Joshua have it right.  They know the real source of grace, they know the One true God, they know the source of everlasting food and drink, and they choose accordingly.  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 ten or fifteen 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 my pastor 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!

And so I leave you with the same question Joshua posed to the Israelites and Jesus posed to his Twelve.  You have been fed at this table on the Bread that came down from heaven; the holy Bread of eternal life, the Body and Blood of our Savior God.  Yes, there are distractions out there, but we all know deep in our hearts where the true food is.  So will you also leave?  Decide today whom you will serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!