Sunday, August 23, 2015

Accepting the Hard Sayings of Jesus

Henrik Olrik, The Sermon on the Mount (c. 1880), altarpiece, St. Matthew's Church, Copenhagen

(My homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time was my first in English at IC since May.)

Let me say first it's great to be back with you, back in Arkansas, after my summer studying canon law in Washington, DC, and I’m grateful to everyone for your prayers while I was gone.

It’s also great to be back celebrating Mass publicly, and preaching to people, things I didn’t get to do over the summer. However, I confess that I was a little dismayed earlier this week when I looked at the readings to start preparing for this homily. I was hoping I could sort of ease back into life in the parish with some crowd-pleasing words. But the readings for this Sunday are hard, and so perhaps you’ll find some words in this homily a little challenging as well.

For the last several weeks, we have been hearing Jesus tell his disciples that he is the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, to give eternal life. We understand these words as a clear teaching about how essential the Eucharist is for us, but the disciples didn’t understand him. They had seen the Master perform great miracles – multiplying the loaves and fishes, and healing the sick – but when he commanded them to consume him, to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood, they were baffled, even repulsed. Today, we hear that many of them stopped following him, returning to their former ways of life. It was the breaking point for them – they couldn’t take Jesus seriously any longer.

It’s a sad scene in the Gospel, and yet it’s not one that should be unfamiliar to us. How many of us know someone who who has left the Church, stopped following the Lord or decided to follow him in a different way? Even for those of us who continue in our practice of the faith, sometimes we encounter a teaching that is difficult to accept, and which – whether consciously or not – we tend to just sort of ignore or set to the side.

Sometimes, I think, especially in the modern day, we tend to operate in a mindset that values keeping our options open above all else. We like to be able to decide what we want to eat, what we want to wear, what we want to do from a range of different possibilities. When we encounter something we don’t like or don’t want, we simply choose something else.

But faith doesn’t work that way. Jesus never tells his disciples – "Here... here is a variety of different thoughts and teachings and bits of wisdom, and take which ones you want and leave which ones you don’t." No, Jesus is very clear throughout the Scriptures that we can’t be part-time followers of him; he wants us to be all-in and nothing short. "He who is not with me is against me," Jesus says at one point. If we hold anything back, then we are faced with the same question from Jesus from today's Gospel, “Do you also want to leave?” That question is posed to the Twelve Apostles, Jesus’s closest followers, who probably didn’t understand any better what he had been talking about than had the disciples who had left him. But Peter and the other Apostles looked past their own confusion; they looked beyond their own misgivings and saw before them the one whom they had left everything to follow. 

The teachings of Jesus, the life of following him, is always going to be a challenge in some way for us. Maybe you and I aren’t so concerned with his command to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood because we know he’s talking about the Eucharist – but what about some of his other sayings, such as “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? Or “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”? Or “Every one of you who does not renounce his possessions cannot be my disciple”? What about those teaching of the Church that we find difficult: about understanding and living out marriage as God (and not society) has defined it; or about the obligation to support the poor; to work for social justice; to maintain an openness to life in every embrace of marital love; to welcome the stranger and the migrant; to forgive the criminal and the debtor and anyone who offends you? If you haven’t found any of these things hard, just start flipping through the Gospels or through the Catechism, and I guarantee you will find something challenging soon enough.

Let me give one last example, one which is a little more subtle but perhaps most challenging of all. In the second reading today, we heard St. Paul’s famous exhortation to wives and husbands: in short, wives be submissive to your husbands and husbands love your wives. These words are often misunderstood, especially by our modern ears, but they are nonetheless still challenging. A wife is called to see in her husband as her head, the one that she follows and respects, the one whose voice she follows just as the Church follows the voice of Christ. That’s hard. But believe it or not, husbands, you have the harder task, for you are called to love your wife in the same way that Christ loves his Church – that is, totally, completely, pouring yourself out for her, emptying yourself of any selfishness to the point of total self-gift. If your wife is to see you as her head, then you must see her as your heart; if she is called to be led by you, where exactly are you leading her? A true marriage, as Paul sees it, is one in which each spouse continually puts the good of the other first, out of love for them, and does so joyfully, understanding that in that self-sacrifice, a true image of the eternal love that exists between Jesus and his Church is being displayed to all who know them.

My friends, the fact of the matter is following Jesus is hard, because it’s supposed to be, because it has to be – after all, he’s in the business of making us better, of perfecting us, of saving us from our sins. Perhaps, as I said at the start, I wish I would have had easier words for you this morning – but then I myself wouldn’t really be accepting my challenge to point you down a path of more closely following him. And because that road is sometimes hard, we have to be prepared to have our preconceived notions challenged and our comfortable ways of life and ways of thinking disrupted. When that happens, don’t panic, don’t run away, don’t lose faith – rather allow yourself, as Peter did, to look beyond your discomfort or uneasiness and look instead to the one who is speaking: Jesus, who loves you, who wants to make you better so that you might have life and have it more abundantly. 

As we prepare to celebrate the sacrament by which our Lord himself becomes present for us on the altar, let us ask for him for the grace to continue to follow him – unreservedly, without any hesitation – He who has the words of eternal life.