The choice of faith

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Aug. 26, 2012
Josh 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Ps 34; Eph 5:2, 25-32; John 6:51-58

This is our fifth and final week in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, and we have come to the time of decision. Our Lord Jesus has done much and said much; and now it is time for his disciples to respond, to choose. Just as we heard in the first reading that Joshua had said to the People of Israel some 1400 years earlier, “Choose you this day whom you will serve”—so our Lord’s disciples had a choice to make.

The chapter began the day before, when our Lord Jesus miraculously fed the crowd of 5000 with just five loaves and two fish. And then, the next day, the crowd came looking for him. And he told them not to work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life (6:27), and he revealed that he is the Bread of Life, the true bread from heaven (6:32, 35). And then he went further and said: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (6:51, 55-56)

And that shocking to them. It was offensive; it was disgusting; it seemed blasphemous. For, remember, they didn’t know yet what we know now. They didn’t know about the Eucharist that our Lord Jesus was going to institute at the Last Supper; they didn’t know about transubstantiation. They didn’t know that he would institute his ministerial priesthood, through whom he would change ordinary bread and wine into himself—into his own Body and Blood, soul and divinity—truly changing what it is, yet without changing its appearances, so that he could give his flesh and blood to us in a miraculous and non-disgusting manner.

They didn’t know that! They only knew the words he had heard. No wonder they said: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” I suspect they used much stronger language than that!

And remember: this is not the crowd now; and it is not the religious leaders who were questioning and arguing with him. This is Jesus’ disciples: people who had been impressed enough by his person and words and deeds that they had identified themselves as wanting to be with this man and learn from him.

But these words!—they seemed offensive and impossible and insane! How were they going to respond to them? And we see two different responses:

  • First, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
  • Second, the Twelve, and others of his disciples, continued with him.

Two very different responses! Both groups had followed him; both had heard his words and witnesses his miracles, including the multiplication of the loaves and fishes the day before; and both had had a problem with his words about his flesh and blood. Yet one group left, while the other stayed. What made the difference?

  • The group that left decided that their own assessment of Jesus’ words outweighed all the positive things that they had known about him. They trusted themselves more than they trusted in him; and so they did not believe his words, and no longer believed in him.
  • Whereas, in contrast, the group that stayed decided that their faith and confidence in Jesus outweighed their own assessment of his words. That is, although these words seemed to them hard, offensive, disgusting, insane—they decided that their own assessment had to be wrong. They had to be missing something! Because of who they knew Jesus to be, they knew that his words had to be right and good—they had to be!—even when they themselves couldn’t yet see how.

In other words, the group that stayed had faith.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict has declared a Year of Faith that will begin this October and will last until November of next year. And so it is good that we consider this point of decision for Jesus’ disciples in today’s Gospel reading—because we face the very same decision as we encounter Jesus Christ, his Church, and his teachings.

For faith is first of all a response to a person—to find him “faithful,” worthy of our trust and confidence. And then, secondly, upon that foundation, to be able to believe what he says about things that go beyond our ability to evaluate them—to believe his words and act upon them.

In a sense, this happens all the time in our human interactions and relationships. As the Catechism reminds us (154), “it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us about themselves and their intentions, or to trust their promises.” And this is what our Lord Jesus asks of us, in response to his opening and giving of himself: faith. To find him faithful; and so to be willing to believe his word, to believe it and act upon it; even to stake our whole lives upon it.

But just as in that synagogue in Capernaum some 2000 years ago, so for each of us today it can seem that his words—what he teaches through his Church—can seem wrong, impossible, offensive. Perhaps you, or those who know, have found one or more teachings to be so. We can easily list off the most likely candidates. For so many Protestants in recent centuries:

  • there is this very teaching about the Eucharist itself.
  • There is confession, penance, the other sacraments, the priesthood.
  • There is the truth about Mary and the saints;
  • Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition;
  • faith and works;
  • the teaching authority of the Church.

For so many in our culture today, there are many issues related to sexuality:

  • the importance of chastity; and the sinfulness of sexual activity outside of marriage; of pornography, masturbation, and homosexual activity.
  • There is the teaching on marriage and divorce, and the impossibility of marriage between two persons of the same sex.
  • There is the teaching on abortion, contraception, sterilization, and reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization.

For you, or for others you know, these may seem like “hard sayings”: they may seem wrong, impossible, or offensive. I know because, 15 years ago, I too disagreed with our Lord’s Catholic Church about most of the teachings I just named.

But I have come to be convinced that the Church’s teachings are true, in every one of these cases; and not only true, but truly good, healthy, and beneficial for every person. And it is wonderful to be firmly founded upon this response of faith to our Lord Jesus.

How can you, or those you know, come to accept these words of our Lord? I have three quick steps to suggest:

  • First, listen carefully to the teaching. The disciples who left him in the Gospel reading today never even heard the full explanation of what he meant. Take the time to read or to hear the teaching fully stated, with its contents explained and its reasons given. Don’t reject something before you even know what it really is.
  • Second, bring your objections into contact with the teaching. Don’t hold back out of fear—whether fear that you will have to change; or fear that the Church will be shown to be wrong. Have confidence that such an encounter will bear good fruit. This might occur through your own interaction as you read and study; or I would be happy to make an appointment to talk with anyone about any one of our Catholic doctrines.
  • Third, be sure to pray. Deepen your relationship with our Lord Jesus. Get to know him better, so that your confidence in him can grow. And ask for the grace to discover the truth of his words. As we heard him say, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”

Our Lord appeals to you. He has revealed the truth about himself and about you; he has given himself to you, given even his own flesh and blood, as he promised. He has made himself vulnerable to you; for now the decision is yours. Many have turned away from him. “Do you also want to leave?” May your answer be the same as St. Peter’s: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

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