Today’s reading from the Gospel is the culmination of the past three Sunday’s readings from the same chapter in the Gospel of John. The first sentence begins with the disciples of Jesus murmuring among themselves: “This saying is hard, who can accept it?”
So the first thing we need to know is - what “saying” of Jesus are the speaking about? Well, if we remember anything from last week’s Gospel, we should remember that Jesus was telling the crowds that he is the living bread come down from heaven and whoever eats this bread will live forever. He goes on to say that the bread he will give is his flesh and whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life and he will raise those people on the last day.
But many of his disciples couldn’t buy it. They thought his words were shocking and they doubted that what he said could possibly be true. So, as it says in the reading: “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” And notice, Jesus didn’t call them back. He didn’t say “ Hey wait a minute guys. You took it the wrong way. I wasn’t speaking literally, I was speaking symbolically. Come on back!”
No, he meant what he said. Instead, he says to the apostles, “Well, what’s it gonna be. Are you guys gonna leave too?” And Peter, answering for all the Apostles, says: “Master, where are we gonna go? There is nobody else in the world offering us eternal life. We’re convinced that you are the one sent by God to reconcile us with him and to bring us everlasting life.”
Today’s first reading from the book of Joshua shows us that the same question, the same challenge, was asked more than a thousand years before Christ. Joshua, who took charge of the Israelites after Moses died, gives the people a choice “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve.”
And 3000 years later, here in this church, through the words of his Gospel, Jesus is asking us the same question: “Do you also want to leave? Do you also want to go back to your former way of life? Do you want to serve the pagan gods from across the sea or the gods of the world in which we live. The gods of selfishness, materialism and lust?” He gives us a choice. God’s gift of freedom is always at work in us. And what’s our answer gonna be? Do we believe and are we convinced, like Peter and the Apostles, that Jesus is “the Holy One of God?” In fact, if you believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God, let me hear you say “AMEN!” (Repeat and ad lib as necessary ‘till you get a good, hearty AMEN!)
(If you can get a good response, then try this:)
And if you believe that the bread and wine that we are about to consecratetruly becomes the body and blood of Christ - let me hear you say “AMEN!”
Now those are (hopefully) some pretty resounding affirmations. So that begs the question, how do we show God that this is what we truly believe? What means do we use to show him the reverence and respect he deserves? How do we set this hour apart from all the other, more mundane hours that fill our week? I’d like to suggest that two of the ways are the hour- long fast we are supposed to follow before we receive his precious body and blood on our tongues and by our full focus and participation in the Mass, arriving before the processional hymn and leaving after the end of the final hymn. That’s a good way to show God our respect and reverence.
You know, we Catholics always joke about how the back of the church fills up first. But you would think that if we truly believed that Fr. Bob was standing up here, calling down God, the Holy Spirit, when he places his hands over the bread and wine turning them into the flesh and blood of our Lord and Saviour, the Son of God, Jesus Christ; you’d think that we’d want to get as close as we could, hanging on to every word as he re-presents, Jesus, God, giving himself to us. I think that sitting closer to the front also helps us to focus better on what’s going on at the altar instead of on what’s going on around us or daydreaming about other things.
You know, a few years ago, right before they tore the building down, a buddy and I decided, on a spur of the moment, to go out and see James Brown at the Syria Mosque. So we went out and to our surprise, were still able to get tickets for some seats on the lower level. We got there early enough, that when we went in to sit down, we walked up the center aisle and grabbed two seats right on the end of the second row on the right hand side. The place was filling up and the first row was filled - all except the two end seats next to the center aisle of the first row. So we said “what the heck, how often does this happen”, so we moved and we sat right in the front, center of he stage.
Now it didn’t occur to me when we did it, and you have to understand that, when I go to hear some music, the most involved I get might be a little toe tapping and head bobbing. You know? But what I didn’t realize was that, you can’t sit in the front row of a James Brown show with your arms crossed just nodding your head a little bit. You get drawn into the excitement of what’s going on onstage and by the excitement of the people sitting around you. Your almost forced to participate a little more than you would ordinarily. And it dawned on me not long after that, that we have a better than James Brown here; a better than ‘N*Sync, a better than... Barbra Streisand or Neal Young. And I’m not talking about Paul, our organist over there. If someone told us they would give us front row seats to see one of our favorite singers or musicians, or ticket for the 50 yard line at a Steeler gamewe’d probably jump at the chance. We’d probably wear clothes appropriate to the venue they were performing at or maybe wear a t-shirt with the artist’s picture on it or a Steeler jersey.
But when it comes to Sunday Mass, it’s almost like, “well, let’s get going so we can put in our weekly obligation at Mass.” “Let’s get out of there as soon as we can.” Let me suggest that if we really believe that God is truly present here in the Eucharist, coming to Mass is not an obligation. It’s a gift. It’s a gift from God. Jesus told us that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, he will raise us and give us eternal life. And this is where he feeds us with himself, in his word and in the form of bread from heaven. It’s as true today as when Peter said it 2000 years ago, only Jesus has the words of eternal life. And we don’t get it from gene research or plastic surgery or drugs, we get it from eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ himself. He gives his life for us, and we have nothing that we can give him back, except the dedication of our own lives and the respect and reverence he deserves.
As I mentioned, that includes the hour-long fast before we receive his body and blood; and by the way, we were always taught that the fast includes chewing gum. I always marvel at the number of people who come into church chewing gum. That’s another reason I like to sit near the front when I’m out in the congregation. It keeps me from noticing things like that and I can stay more focused. I end up wondering what they do with it when they go to communion. Do they swallow it? Do they stick it under the pew or in their hymnal so that we have to clean it off later? Or do they just leave it in their mouth so that theirJuicyFruit occupies the same space as the body and blood of Jesus Christ? I don’t know.
But my point is, if we can’t give God the reverence and respect he deserves here in his own house, then we have to think about how much we revere him the rest of the week.
Now let’s profess what we truly believe in the creed we are about to recite.