August 22, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 23, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"They walked with him no longer." John. 6:66
(Click here for today’s readings)

"Many of his disciples no longer accompanied him." I prefer the classic translation, "They walked with him no longer," as presenting a more forceful image.

Not his enemies, but Jesus’ own disciples were falling away from him. They didn’t like what he was saying, and that was that. To be fair, let it be noted that what Jesus was saying was exactly what they called it, "a hard saying." So they applied what we might call "the logic of dislike."

We have all seen it. We have all done it. The logic is very simple. It goes a little like this: 1) I try something; 2) I don’t like it; 3) I will never try it again.

In the case of today’s Gospel: 1) This Jesus is fascinating; 2) I don’t like this business of eating flesh and drinking blood; 3) Goodbye, Jesus.

There are some situations, indeed many, where the logic of dislike is perfectly legitimate. People don’t usually prepare a meal they know they won’t enjoy. Hard rock fans (or opera lovers) won’t normally subject themselves to hours of opera (or hard rock). Ultimately these are matters of no special importance beyond personal taste.

But this is different. "They walked with him no longer" — true then, true today. It is no secret that Churches of most denominations are experiencing a great decline in attendance and membership. There are many reasons, ranging from a deeply painful personal loss of faith, to a gradual drifting away. Not rarely, however, the logic of dislike enters in. If we don’t like the pastor or minister, or the preaching, or some of the church members ("those hypocrites!"), etc., we look elsewhere, we go to a different parish or denomination, or we may dispense ourselves from joining any worshiping community.

Joshua tried to anticipate this kind of situation. In the face of whatever challenges his people would encounter, he proclaimed: "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." The representatives of the Twelve Tribes echoed his determination, but their descendants did not carry out that promise. They failed to "walk humbly with their God" (See Micah 6:8).

"They walked with him no longer." At a personal level, the experience is, I suspect, not unfamiliar to most of us. The loss of friendship, companionship, admiration, or respect is always painful. It can undermine our self-confidence. It seems to have had a similar effect on Jesus. His question to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" is one of the most poignant moments of the Gospel.

Peter cannot be supposed to have liked the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood any more than those who were now leaving Jesus behind. This was a hard saying for him, too, and he didn’t pretend otherwise. But he looked beyond what he didn’t understand, to what he knew from experience. "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." His reply had nothing to do with likes or dislikes, but rather anticipates what St. Paul would later write: "Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7). His faith was in the person of Jesus. The mere failure to understand was nothing by comparison.

There are many things in the Scriptures, or in Church teaching, that remain hard sayings to this day. Even "Live in love, as Christ loved us" (in today’s alternate second reading) may present more of a challenge that we are ready to accept. It is very sad when the logic of dislike causes people to reject them rather than make the effort to understand them. This sometimes turns people away from Christianity, or from religion altogether.

Sure, there are plenty of non-religious groups and movements that we can "go" to, to satisfy our likes. But how many of them have the words of eternal life?

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