“Do you also want to leave?”
Father Hanly’s excellent homily for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, is telling and to the point.
Readings for Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
- First Reading: Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23
- Second Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32
- Gospel: John 6:60-69
Someone passed on a kind of humorous remark that they heard in the Philippines attending a conference on sermons, how to give sermons.
You know Constantine was the great leader of the Roman world who actually was the first Roman emperor to recognise the Christians and bring them out of their caves and their hide-outs and into the free world. And his mother was a saint, Saint Helena, and he himself was baptised at his death.
But the sword of Constantine was always spoken of that Christianity finally triumphed over the Roman world by the sword of Constantine.
And so someone compared this to a sermon. They said it’s just like a sermon: when the priest gives a sermon, it’s like the sword of Constantine.
And the question was, “In what way was it like the sword of Constantine?”
They said, “Well, the sword of Constantine was very flat and very long.”
This is the kind of Gospel you don’t have to be too flat and long about.
Jesus stands before his disciples today — you, me, all of us. We look at him and he looks at us and he says to us — he has already said to us in all the passages about the Bread of Life — “I have come from God. I am one with you and I am inviting you to be one with me.
“That means flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. You must become one with me and one with the Father, and I become one with you. And that’s the whole meaning of my call.
“Now come follow me and give yourself to the Kingdom of God. Nothing in life is more important. Your family, your friends, all of the things that you hold near and dear, they are second to the call that you be one in heart, mind, soul with me, as I am with you.
“And the sign of this will be you will eat my flesh and drink my blood, and then you will become the people of God.”
This is very hard to take today — as it was in those days.
Then he says, after everybody goes away…
And people always go away. Because he is asking for our lives — he is not asking for it to be like your Friday night television programme, or a kind of a weekend in the park, or Christmas time feeling good and happy about the little baby bouncing around, and coming at Easter to hear the singing.
He’s saying, “Day by day, one with me. My life is your life and your life is my life.”
And this is the great mystery. This is not a philosopher. This is someone making the ultimate demand. The only way he wants us is he wants our love. And the only love that God thinks of is a love of service, service to each other.
And this is today and he stands there and everybody is walking away and he says to his disciples, “Will you also go away?”
And lovely St Peter, he says, “Where are we going to go?”
This is a great answer, you know.
He is not saying, “We are overwhelmed by the might of your words and how sweet the language and how wonderful be the Kingdom.”
He just says, “We don’t know where else to go.”
And they’ve heard him say, “I am the Bread of Life. I am the truth. I am the way. I am the light. I am the light of the world.”
And these things, they were so dazzling and unbelievable to their ears, and yet they knew that he spoke to their heart and his heart spoke to them in these kind of words.
The only way, though, that he wants us to come is love.
Come because we’re afraid, come because people will say things one way or another — this is not the language that Jesus is talking.
When he says, “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, one with me,” the only way he can be talking like this is your total gift of yourself as “I give mine first.” He knows that he will die for them, lay down his life for them — and he expects us to lay our lives down for him and each other.
There’s a great story. I don’t know what relevance it has, but it will make the sermon a little shorter.
There’s a great story of an old black minister in southern United States.
Like many old black ministers in the southern part of the United States, he’s a Baptist, but a faithful lover in the Lord Jesus and a faithful lover of God and faithful to the end and his faith is very strong.
But he gets a little doddery when he gets a little bit older and maybe he slips here and there in his sermons. And, one day, one of the younger men of the congregation decided that he’d be playful with him and tease him a little bit.
So what he did was, at the end of the sermon of the old man, he comes up to the old pastor and he has got his hand cupped.
And he said, “Old man, you speak very well and I know you are noted for your wisdom and I know that you can answer all things because God speaks to you.
“Now, in my hand I have a little bird — a little bird — and I want you to tell me, if you are from God, whether the bird in my hand is dead or alive.”
And the minister looks him in the eye and he knows what it means. Because if he says, “The bird is alive,” he will squash him, and if he says, “The bird is dead,” he will open his hands and let him fly.
And so the old minister says to him, “The life of the bird is in your hands.”
You understand that? “The life of the bird is in your hands.”
Jesus is saying, “I have given myself to you and now it’s your choice.
“If you come with the question of what can you do with the Gospel I have taught you, you are free to crush it, or you are free to let the life of it move you and let the bird go free, you see.”
You all understand that, don’t you?
“I came to give you life and give it in great abundance.”
What he means is, “Stop crushing the word of God and let the word of God fly free and bring you to that freedom, because only a person who is free can let life be free, you see.” That is what he is saying.
And that’s today’s sermon. And I should end here.
This is what Jesus asks of us.
Don’t get frightened now. Because the wonderful thing about this whole thing is, do you notice, in the story of Jesus and Peter, Peter is going to walk away. At the time Jesus needs him most, he is going to walk away and say to a little girl, “I never knew that man. I don’t know what he is about.”
And so he crushes the bird.
But does he?
No, because Jesus is with him, following, always with him, close beside him, ready to forgive, knowing Peter’s heart is a good heart, not ashamed that he might fall every now and then, because, in the story, it is Peter who walks away, but God never walks away.
And, of course, this is what makes all the things that he has said possible.
It is not that it’s going to happen today, tomorrow, quickly, in one way or another.
But you know this: that for the rest of your life, you are holding the bird in your hand and Jesus is walking with you.