August 24, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b)
Reading II (Ephesians 5:21-32) Gospel (St. John 6:60-69)
In the first reading today from the Book of Joshua, Joshua gathered all the people together after they had entered into the Promised Land. They had crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the desert. Joshua looked at the people and he placed before them a challenge. He said to them, “Choose today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served on the other side of the River, the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are now dwelling, or the Lord.” You see, it is part and parcel of our human nature that we must serve someone. As much as many of us like being the center of attention and think that we are pretty impressive, the reality is that all of us know fully well we are not the end-all and the be-all. We know there is something beyond ourselves. And all of us, every last one of us, place ourselves at the service of someone or something. The question is simply what it is going to be or who it is going to be. If Joshua were alive today, he would call us together and he would give to us the exact same challenge: Choose today whom you will serve, the gods of secular America in which you are living or the Lord; it is one or the other.
Now we can look at where our priorities lie and that will tell us whom we have chosen to serve. And we must be very clear; it is not, in this case, about belief because that would be our immediate protest: “But I believe in the Lord!” So did Peter in the Gospel reading today: “Lord, we have come to believe that you are the Messiah. You have the words of eternal life, to whom shall we go?” It is not merely that He has the words of eternal life – He is the Word of Eternal Life. To believe is something that is up in the head. If we took a poll of everyone here today, everyone would say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is God. I believe that He is the Messiah.” You would not be here today if you did not believe that. The question that Joshua is posing to the people is not a question of whether you believe that the Lord is God. He is posing the question of what is in your heart, not what is in your head. “Whom are you going to serve?” is the question he is asking. To serve follows from love, not merely from belief. There are lots of things we can believe in that we reject, lots of things; not that we reject the fact they are true. I hear in the confessional all the time from people who come in about the hideous sites on the Internet. I believe that they are there. I reject them; I will not serve them. That does not mean that I do not believe they are there. So knowing something in the head is one thing, loving in the heart and serving is something entirely different.
For those who are old enough to remember the Baltimore Catechism, you remember the second question: Why did God create me? To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. We cannot love what we do not know, so first we have to have that faith, we have to know the Lord. But then we have to love Him. We need to get it out of the head and down into the heart. And to love someone requires that we make an act of the will to act upon what we love, which is why we serve. If you look in your life you will see that if there are any people whom you truly love you will place yourself at their service. To love someone is to seek their good, to do what is best for the other. It is not sitting around having emotions of love, but rather it is looking at the relationship and pouring yourself out for the good of another.
And so the question today is not one of faith, “Do you believe that Jesus is God?” That, I think, goes without question. The question is “Whom will you serve?” Now all you have to do to answer that question – at least, whom have you served – is just look back over the last week and ask yourself, “Who is the lord of your life?” Where have you spent your time? What have you put as the focus? In the last week, has God gotten one hour of your time, on Sunday morning when you showed up for Mass? Or has the Lord gotten a chunk of time everyday in prayer? Do we act upon our faith throughout the day? Are we embarrassed of the Lord? Or do we live our faith? Do we love Jesus Christ? Or do we just simply give Him lip service while our hearts are far from Him? Remember that He condemned people for that. It is the same issue we are dealing with today. It is not about whether we believe in Him; it is about whether we love Him and whether we will serve Him.
For most Americans, I think it would be pretty fair to say that the gods of the present world, on one level, would be some professional sports team, whatever it may be, or in some places it is even a college team. The whole world revolves around that particular sports team, and that is the most important thing. We change our schedule for it; we will sit in front of the TV for hours on end; we talk about it; we read all the articles we can about it. Ask yourself when the last time was that you put that kind of effort into loving God, spending that much time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, reading articles and books, trying to get all the information that you can, learning how to love the Lord more perfectly. For other people it is money. The Lord said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” You have to make a choice. You will either serve money or you will serve God, if money becomes that important. It is not that money in itself is evil. Saint James says that the love of money is the root of all evil. In this society, it is a necessity to be able to live and pay your bills. It is not that the money itself is something evil – it is the love of money. You have to either love the Lord or love something else. So that is the challenge being placed before us today.
In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that we are members of the body of Christ. And so this should not even be a question for us; there should be no issue. It is part and parcel of who we are. It is precisely the vow that we have already made in Baptism, and in Confirmation. It is to live the very being of our life as Christian people. The Church is Jesus Christ, the mystical Christ, and you are members of the Church. So there again we can ask ourselves, “Are we living our faith? Do we go regularly to the sacraments? Do we pray everyday? Do we stand up for what is right and reject what is evil? Or do we gather around with all the other people telling dirty jokes and vile things and yuck it up with them because we want to fit in just like everyone else?” Whom will we serve? Obviously, we have chosen not to serve the Lord if we do those sorts of things. The Lord would not be involved in that kind of activity and neither should we. Do we let people know about our faith? Do we try to evangelize them? Or are we embarrassed to be Catholic? When was the last time anybody would have seen a crucifix on or near you? A picture or a statue of our Blessed Lady? Anything regarding the Faith?
For many people, if you go into their homes they have paraphernalia from some band or some sports team or whatever it may be plastered all over their walls. Try to find a crucifix or a picture of Our Lady; they are nonexistent. You can tell what is important in a person’s life by simply surveying very quickly what they have surrounded themselves with. So if you have an office space, when you go to work tomorrow look around and ask yourself, “What have you placed around yourself?” What image are you projecting to people so that they will know who you are and what is important to you? When you walk into your house this morning when you go home, look around and ask yourself once again, “What am I telling people who walk into my house what is most important to me?” Whom will you serve, the Institute of Art or Jesus Christ?
This is critical for us. It is the exact same question the Lord posed to the disciples. When we look in the Gospel reading today, it begins really with where we left off last week. Jesus told His disciples, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you,” and that His flesh is real food and His blood is real drink. Many murmured against Him and said, “This saying is hard; who can listen to it?” Then in the verse that I call the “diabolical verse” (John 6:66) it says simply, “They walked with Him no longer.” They walked away from the Lord because they could not accept the teaching on the Eucharist. If you have ever wondered why Judas betrayed the Lord, it is right there in this morning’s Gospel reading. Right in the context of the Eucharist it tells us that Jesus knew the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray Him. This morning’s reading stopped at verse 69, but in verse 72 it tells us once again why Judas betrayed the Lord. Twice in the context of the Eucharist we are told about Judas and his betrayal. “Did I not choose twelve of you? Yet one of you is a devil,” Jesus said. Judas betrayed the Lord because he could not accept the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
We have gathered here today to offer the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He has made His choice, and He has chosen to love you, to love you so much that He would sacrifice Himself for you. Then you will come to receive Holy Communion where Jesus will give Himself entirely to you out of love for you and in service to you. When we come forward, we are telling Him that is what we intend to do. And if we do not intend to serve the Lord, we really have no right to receive Him in Holy Communion. The Eucharist is not the prize one gets for coming to Mass. The Eucharist is God. It is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the whole complete and entire Person of Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ is both God and Man. If we do not want to love and serve the Lord, we should not be expressing that by receiving Him in the Eucharist.
So this choice that we have to make is a critical one. It is critical in this life, and, of course, it is critical for all eternity because the choice is the same one we have been presented with over and over again. It is God or it is the devil. It is life or it is death. It is a simple choice. There is only one God. If we are not choosing God then we are choosing something else, and it is not of God, and it does not lead to God. So that is the simple choice we have. Choose today whom you will serve, the gods of secular America, some other pagan god that there may be somewhere out there, or the Lord. I hope that each and every one of us will be able to repeat the words of Joshua that he spoke to the people of Israel: As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.