THE CHOICES BEFORE US
Jos 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Eph 5:21-32; John 6:60-69
Today’s gospel passage brings the sixth chapter of John’s gospel to a climactic conclusion. Jesus has fed a large crowd with bread and fish; he has revealed his divine identity as the “I AM”, by showing his power over the sea; in the synagogue at Capernaum he has revealed that he himself is the bread of life given by the Father—as the bread of the Eucharist. Now upon completion of his teaching, many of his followers murmured, saying, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The grumbling and dissatisfied Jews believed that no one in his/her right mind could believe in this. After this exchange, many of these followers left him. Jesus calls on the Twelve to make a choice: “Do you also want to leave?” They are free to go as they are free to stay on, and follow Him.
Similarly, today’s first reading tells us of one of the greatest moments in Jewish history, that moment in which Joshua had assembled all of the Israelites and put the question to them: Decide whom you wish to serve. Do you want to serve other gods, or do you want to serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? “As for me and my House,” declared Joshua, “we will serve Yahweh.”
- CHOICES ARE IMPORTANT IN LIFE
Life is filled with choices. We choose what TV channels we will watch; we choose our cellular provider (MTN, Orange, CAMTEL or Nexttel); we choose what we will eat. We choose our attitude, our friends, and how we will invest our lives. Choices are a necessary part of life. People who have difficulty with choices normally have difficulty with life. If you do not make choices about where you will invest your time, you will be constantly running and you will feel like you are torn in different directions or you will be overwhelmed, and simply do nothing. If you do not choose what you are passionate about in your life, you will tend to stand for nothing and fall for anything. If you do not choose to make good decisions about your health, you will be prone to illness and will never feel energized and alive. Some choices are made by default (when we refuse to make a choice, we have in essence made a choice). The best choices are the ones we make consciously and deliberately. Jesus wanted his disciples to make a deliberate, conscious and resolute choice for him and the truth of his teaching or quit like others had done. Joshua also gave the Israelites an option to choose to be faithful to the Lord of the Universe or to the pagan gods.
- WE MUST STAND FOR SOMETHING
Jesus makes us realize that everyone must stand for something. The disciples were free to stand for him or go back to their previous lives of catching fish, collecting taxes, or medical practices. It was up to them to decide where they stood. In a like manner, Joshua, in Chapter 24:15 says to the people: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”. Joshua did not give the choice of “serve no one” as one of the options. The people were told that there were many gods they could serve and they should choose who it was that they were going to serve.
There are of course many different religions that clamour for our loyalty. In addition to these, other faiths and other task masters are beckoning at us:
- The gods of success (We work to be successful; whatever we gain when we reach that goal)
- The gods of material accumulation. We are enslaved to getting stuff. We live to buy more things (that later we will consume, throw away, or lock in boxes)
- The gods of academia. We serve the latest fads, studies, or theories.
- The gods of public approval (peer pressure). We want other people to like us. Some people even sell their soul to the devil in order to gain the approval of others. Our dress, our spending, our language, our friends are all chosen to get the kind of approval we crave.
It is good to take some time and ask ourselves an honest question: “Who or What am I serving?” “What is it that occupies my greatest attention?” “What causes me to become most animated and passionate in my conversation?” The answers to these questions may point us in the direction of “the gods” that are calling most forcefully for our allegiance.
- WE ARE CALLED TO MAKE AN INFORMED CHOICE
If someone is going to have some kind of surgery, the Doctor, or hospital, would make sure that the person is told of all the known risks in that surgery. He/she would be told the worst case scenario (what could happen to you if things go bad) and the best case scenario (what the Doctor hopes will be achieved). He/she could be told that the surgery will correct one problem and create another. In this way, before one makes a choice on whether or not to have surgery, one is expected to give an “informed consent”.
Jesus did not leave his disciple in the dark as to what it entails to follow him. There is no doubt that Jesus spoke of a lot of blessings that will come to those who follow him. The blessings can be obtained both here in this present life and in the life to come. Hardly any Christian will be offended by the promise of any such blessings. But Jesus also speaks unequivocally about his followers having to take up their cross and follow him. Indeed, in several instances he said that the cross is the price of following him.
- “If any want to be my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mtt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). (This statement appears in all the three synoptic gospels)
- “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mtt 10:38)
- “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27).
Jesus is calling his followers to something greater than the half-hearted devotion that characterizes most of our lives.
Let us gain some inspiration from Joshua in the 1st reading. The word that Joshua uses for “serve” has the sense of “being devoted to”. Joshua qualifies this service with the words “in sincerity” and “in faithfulness”. Jesus calls us to a service of the Lord that involves giving him authority and ownership over our life. He wants his followers to commit to the Lord with an informed consent.
There are Christians today who protest vehemently, saying that suffering is not their portion. Others would tell us that suffering, any cross in life, is a sign of not being in the good books of God. They somehow conveniently forget that suffering was the portion of Jesus, and that he drank the cup of suffering to the dregs. “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days, rise again” (Mk 8:31). Yet, he was the “Son of the Father, the Beloved, in whom the Father was well pleased” (Mtt 3:17)!
- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “CHOOSE THE LORD”?
Choosing Jesus means more than joining a church, performing religious rites, or saying some magic words, or receiving Holy Communion every time we attend Mass. Faith is not primarily assent to a creed about God but a personal covenant with God. Choosing to follow Christ is a commitment. It means at least these five things:
- a) It means we must be willing to quit straddling the fence. “Straddling the fence” means having one leg on each side of the fence. Politicians get elected by learning how to sound like a person of conviction while telling everyone what they want to hear. Straddling the fence for a Christian would mean declaring that we want to follow the Lord but still wanting all the stuff that the world offers: the power, the indulgence, and the freedom to choose which commands of God we will obey and which we will not. God wants an exclusive commitment.
- b) We must be willing to root out everything that hinders our commitment. Joshua told the Israelites that they must get rid of their idols. Jesus, on his part tells us to “deny ourselves”. If we are going to truly become followers of Christ, we must be honest about our sin. It means we must eliminate the things in our lives that draw us away from him, no matter how painful these things might be.
- c) We must seek to influence the world rather than being influenced by it. Those who follow Christ must be willing to stand up and confront sinful behaviours. We must resist worldly thinking. We have to live true to the gospel even if doing so will be unpopular. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” Rom 12:2).
- d) We must pursue our discipleship as a serious commitment. Joshua warned the people that if they professed faith yet continued to play with the idols of the world, they would face God’s judgment. In the book of Revelation (3:14-16), the Lord told the church at Laodicea that they were lukewarm in their commitment and as a result he was going to spit them out of his mouth. The Lord preferred that they were either hot or cold. If they were HOT, or fervent in the faith, they would have the kind of devotion that God desires. If they were COLD, at least no one would be confused where they stand. It would be obvious that they do not follow the Lord. Lukewarm people compromise the gospel.
- e) We must be willing to make a lifetime commitment. We have surely met people who “were religious” for a while. For instance, Peter once said to Jesus with all enthusiasm and devotions: “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (Jn 13:37). Then, all of a sudden, he denied Jesus three times, for fear of harmless bystanders. Here, his discipleship seems wobbly.
The kind of discipleship God desires is one that is TOTAL. Some people prefer to be FANS of Jesus, rather being his FOLLOWERS. Jesus warns us that “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62). If one truly decides to follow Jesus, then there is no turning back. It means one is truly going to “bet one’s life” on him. It means one will stand or fall with him. It means moving beyond being an “almost Christian” and starting to follow Jesus fully.
- PETER’S COMMITMENT
The words of Simon Peter ring in our ears today: “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” If we really want to be disciples of Jesus, we must be prepared to accept his message in its entirety, both the aspects that we find pleasant and others that we are uncomfortable with, just as the twelve did.
We are human, yes! But we have been entrusted with the mystery of the Divine. It is quite normal for us to go through periods of doubting the teachings of the Lord. It is normal for us to ask, “How is God only one, if the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God?” It is quite normal for us to ask: “How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man?” It is quite normal for us to ask: “How can this bread and wine, material objects before the Mass, now be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ?” It is quite normal for some Catholic to show reluctance in frequenting the sacrament of confession or abiding by the laws of the Church. It is indeed, normal for us to feel discouraged when we experience tragedy or go through suffering and pain.
As we sit in this Church today, let us pray the prayer of the father of the epileptic boy in the gospel of Mark (Mk 9:24) whom Jesus asked, “Do you believe?” We join this man and pray, “I do believe; help my unbelief”. By this, he meant: “Lord, I believe, but help those parts of me that do not believe.”