Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Jos 24:1-2,15-17,18  +  Eph 5:21-32  +  Jn 6:60-69
August 26, 2018

In your home, you might have a plaque or a sign with one of the sentences from today’s First Reading.  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  That sentence is found in the last chapter of the Book of Joshua.  But we need to relate that single sentence to the entire Book of Joshua, and we also need to relate that sentence to today’s Gospel passage.  In both, there are challenges made to the People of God.  The People of God have to decide what their response will be.  You need to reflect on the responses we witness in today’s Scripture passages, so that you yourself—as a member of the People of God—can respond to the spiritual challenges facing you today.

First, what do we know about the Old Testament Book of Joshua?  It’s the sixth book of the Bible, and continues the trajectory of the first five books.  The first five books focus upon the Law of Moses.  God gave the Law to Moses in the midst of Israel’s Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  That Promised Land is very important, because it’s the goal line of the Bible’s first five books.

Remember that God had promised the land of Canaan to Abram way back in Chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis.  The fifth book of the Bible ends with Israel on the verge of completing its exodus.  But Moses dies in the last chapter before Israel can enter the Promised Land.  The Lord permits Moses to see the Promised Land from a nearby mountain, but not to enter.  This is the Lord’s punishment of Moses for his failures as a leader during the Exodus.

The next book of the Bible—the Book of Joshua—picks up immediately where the fifth book left off.  In fact, listen to the first two verses of the Book of Joshua:  “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, ‘Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan [River], you and all this people, into the land which I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.’”[1]  The entire Book of Joshua, then, shows how these words came true through Joshua’s leadership.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the last chapter of the Book of Joshua.  Having accomplished his God-given mission, Joshua is near death.  His last act is to gather “together all the tribes of Israel… summoning their elders, their leaders, their judges, and their officers.  When they stood in ranks before God, Joshua addressed all the people”.

There, Joshua issues an ultimatum to the People of God.  Joshua had witnessed their many infidelities during the course of the Exodus.  Chief among their infidelities were their violations of the First Commandment:  in a word, idolatry.  Starkly, Joshua forces them to make a choice:  “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve….  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  This is the challenge that Joshua makes to the People of God.

Israel’s reaction was to declare, “we also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”  Their words say that Joshua, the Israelites, and the Lord God are all on the same page.  That’s what their words say.  Whether Israel’s actions will match their words is heard throughout the rest of the Old Testament.
Yet while the Israelites profess to stand with Joshua, Jesus’ disciples are much more divided in today’s Gospel passage about whether to stand with Jesus.  This division has been simmering throughout the course of the Bread of Life sermon, which we’ve heard for five Sundays now.

The evangelist told us that the “Jews murmured about Jesus because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down from Heaven’”.  Then in last Sunday’s passage, the crowds went from bad to worse:  from murmuring to quarreling.  The “Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”  Jesus responded to their quarreling not by apologizing for causing a misunderstanding.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that He was only speaking symbolically in talking about eating His flesh.  Instead, Jesus decided to up the ante.

To explain how Jesus ups the ante, we have to consider a sad truth about the current translation of the Gospel that the Church uses for Holy Mass.  When the “Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”, the last word in this English translation is “eat”.  Jesus then replies by saying, “he who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life”.  According to the English translation, Jesus uses the word “eats”, which is just a different form of the same word that the Jews had spoken.  In English, there’s just one letter difference between the two words:  “eat” and “eats”.  But in the original Greek that St. John the Evangelist wrote, these two are different verbs altogether.

When the Jews quarrel, asking, “‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”, the Greek verb is the infinitive “phagein”.  But when Jesus responds that one has eternal life if he “eats” Jesus’ flesh, the Greek verb is from the infinitive “trogein”, a different verb altogether.  Jesus is using a different verb than the verb the crowd used, in order to focus their attention.

So what’s the difference between these two verbs:  “phagein” and “trogein”?  Given our English translation, both verbs must be related to the action of eating.  But what’s the difference between the two verbs?  A sophomore from Kansas State can show us the difference.

Joe is from Abilene, Kansas, and is in his second year of college at Kansas State.  During the fall semester he meets a lovely young lady from Garden Plain by the name of Mary, and Joe falls head over heels for Mary.  They study together, they go to football games together, and they even go to Sunday Mass together at St. Isidore’s.

Well, when November rolls around, Mary asks what Joe’s family will do for Thanksgiving.  Joe explains that his whole family is going on a road trip during the entire week of Thanksgiving to visit his brother in North Carolina.  Because of his work-study job on campus, Joe is only going to have two days off that week, and can’t go with his family.  Mary invites Joe to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family in Garden Plain.  During the entire Thanksgiving meal, Joe is trying to remember everything his mother and sisters have ever taught him about dining etiquette, so much does he want to make a good impression.  Joe is eating in a specific way at Mary’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

Now, by way of contrast, consider what happens when Kansas State’s football team not only wins their conference, but has such a good record that they’re invited to the nation’s top bowl game at the start of January.  Joe and Mary have attended all the home games, and even a few of the away games, and they manage to get tickets to the championship game.  In the parking lot before the championship game, Joe and Mary attend a tailgate party hosted by a campus group with a reputation for out-of-this-world BBQ.  Now, as Joe is chowing down on an entire side of BBQ ribs, do you think that he’s going to “eat” those ribs the same way that he “ate” Thanksgiving dinner at Mary’s family’s home?  Not likely.

The way in which Joe eats those ribs is akin to the meaning of that word which Jesus uses to describe eating the flesh of the Eucharist.  This is how Jesus ups the ante during His Bread of Life sermon.  Jesus not only does not apologize for saying that His disciples must eat the Flesh of the Son of Man.  He not only does not say that His language is just metaphorical, symbolic, and spiritual.

Instead, Jesus ups the ante by using a word for eating that reinforces His point about the physicality of what’s He’s speaking about.  Jesus wants there to be no mistake about the reality of His Real Presence in this sacrament that He will give His followers at the Last Supper.  Note that during His sermon on the Bread of Life, Jesus does not say, “the Bread that I am giving you here and now”, but “the Bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  He will offer the Bread of Life at the Last Supper when He institutes the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  He will offer the Bread of Life here and now in this sanctuary minutes from now.

We’ve heard the responses of two different groups of persons.  In the Old Testament, we heard Israel’s response to Joshua, accepting his call to serve the Lord alone.  In the Gospel passage, we heard the response of the many disciples to Jesus’ Bread of Life sermon, rejecting Jesus and His teaching, and no longer following Him.  But there are three others whose responses we need to consider briefly.

First, consider Peter’s response to Jesus.  Jesus asks the Twelve if they, like so many of the crowd, also want to leave Him.  As the leader of the Twelve, Peter speaks for them:  “Master, to whom shall we go? … We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”  Strong words on Peter’s part.  He’s made a strong affirmation, similar to the words of Israel in response to Joshua.  But there’s another similarity between Israel in the Old Testament and Peter in the Gospel.

Both make a profession a faith, only to show themselves later unwilling or unable to keep their faith.  Much of the rest of the Old Testament after the Book of Joshua is a sad commentary on the infidelity of Israel to the solemn covenant that had made with the Lord.  For his part, Peter throughout the course of the four Gospel accounts, and also at times within the Acts of the Apostles, shows himself a weak, sinful man whom Jesus at one point addresses as “Satan”.  Both Israel and Peter are like the son in the parable who insists that he’ll do his father’s will, but then fails to do so.[2]

Second, consider the response of someone who is mentioned by name in the last two verses of John 6.  For whatever reasons, those who selected the passages to be heard at Sunday Mass chose to conclude today’s Gospel passage two verses shy of the end of John 6.  You might consider reading these two verses in your bible:  John 6:70-71.

Recall that at the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus asks not only Peter, but “the Twelve”, “‘Do you also want to leave?’”  Today’s passage ends on the positive note of Peter’s profession, but the chapter itself ends on a less positive note.  In reply to Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus insists:  “‘Did I not choose you twelve?  Yet is not one of you a devil?’”  St. John the Evangelist comments upon these words of the Lord in the chapter’s final verse:  “He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray Him, one of the Twelve.”

The evangelist’s words at the end of this important chapter of the Gospel reveal an important truth about the Church.  While the chief apostle was like the unfaithful son in the parable, Judas Iscariot was far worse.  Remember that in addition to being an evangelist, St. John was also one of “the Twelve”.  St. John the Evangelist concludes this highly important chapter of his Gospel account with these words about his fellow Apostle:  “it was he who would betray Him, one of the Twelve.”  Judas made His own response to Jesus:  he remained lurking in the background, staying close to Jesus for the sake of the day that he would betray the Son of God.

Thirdly, each of us in our own day has to make a response to the Lord Jesus.  Will we accept His words?  Will we not only profess our faith in Him, but live that faith, also?  Will we do that by means of accompanying the One who lives among us as a Mystical Body:  a Body with many members who are corrupted and yet are nonetheless loved by the Lord and for whom the Lord gave His life on Calvary and gives His life in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

[1] Joshua 1:1-2.
[2] Matthew 21:28-32.

Last Supper - Juan de Juanes