21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached August 26, 2018, St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

I prepared my Sunday homily today before the morning news, before hearing about the very serious accusations made against the Pope and a number of Cardinals by Archbishop Viganó. Though accusations are serious, no one should be hasty to believe them, but neither can they be lightly dismissed. In either case they reveal the depth of the crisis through which the Church is passing as this moment of history and portend the ugly spectacle of open conflict among bishops and cardinals.

My homily was already prepared before the morning news, but I think it is still very much to the point. Nevertheless, I will add a few introductory remarks.

First let me say that, throughout this summer, following the readings for the Sundays and daily Mass, never in my life has it seemed that God himself was speaking so directly through his word to the Church in our time. That is true also today. We are in a moment of decision. God speaks to us today through the words that Joshua long ago spoke to the people of God: 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.

Now is not the time to abandon the faith; now is not the time to abandon the Church; now we are too look to the example of Jesus Christ who, as we heard in the 2nd reading, Loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, so that he might present to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. Anyone who truly loves the Church wants the Church to be purified of the ‘filth’ of which both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have spoken.

With those words of introduction I turn now to my previously prepared remarks.

Last Sunday we heard Jesus say, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. These are the hard words that caused his own disciples to murmur and then return to their former way of life. Jesus lets them go.

This event is key: faith in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is the touchstone of the whole Christian faith. Either a person believes and continues to follow Christ, or one turns away to his former way of life, or…

There is another horrific possibility: Instead of turning aside a person can become a false disciple and even a false apostle, a traitor.

Today’s Gospel ends with St. Peter’s profession of faith. Lord, 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. You have said it and that is enough for us, we believe, even though we do not yet understand.

That is where our Gospel selection today ends, which means that we did not hear Jesus’ response to Peter. ‘Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?’ (Jn 6:70) The evangelist then comments, He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the twelve. (Jn 6:71)

Faithful disciple, fallen away disciple, or traitorous disciple: it all hinges on the way a person responds to the sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood.

It was he, Judas, who would betray him, one of the twelve, chosen by Jesus. It is very important, very important for us today, that Jesus knowingly chose a man who would betray him to be one of the twelve Apostles, the chosen group from which the Catholic priesthood (this includes bishops, cardinals, and popes because they are priests of the first rank, the high priests) derives its origin. It is important precisely because the choice of Judas is closely connected with the supreme gift of Jesus’ love, the Holy Eucharist; we might even say it is a consequence of that gift.

By creating the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, Jesus places that sacrament, and himself along with it, weak and powerless, into the power of men, in particular into the power of the priests who make the sacrament.  Jesus entrusts himself to the hands of sinful men, knowing full well that they will not live up to that trust, knowing full well that some will utterly betray that trust. Indeed, Jesus loves each one of us, knowing full well that we are capable of betraying that love and that some of us will betray that love. Still, he loves us.

That also means that as the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a gift of the love of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, so also the priesthood through which he gives us the Holy Eucharist is a gift of the love of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is all a consequence of what took place in Nazareth and Bethlehem: The very Son of God, the 2nd person of the Most Holy Trinity, came down from heaven, took flesh of the Virgin Mary, and was born as a man, like us in all things but sin.

When Jesus sweat blood in garden of Gethsemane and prayed, Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, I think it was not so much his coming death that he found so bitter, but the foresight of all the ingratitude and betrayal of his disciples, especially his priests. If we think of the horrific crimes of priests and bishops that are now coming to light, we need to see them precisely in relation to Jesus’ agony in the garden. Yet, Jesus finished his prayer saying, Father, thy will be done, then went out to meet the betrayer, give his life on the Cross, and so he continues to give himself also to us in the Holy Eucharist.

That is one hard saying, the Holy Eucharist, but that hard saying is closely connected to another hard saying, at least for the men and women of our own time, the saying of marriage about which we hear in today’s 2nd reading.

We could start by drawing an analogy between the way Jesus entrusts himself to priests (and through them to the faithful) in the Holy Eucharist and how in the beginning God entrusted himself to man and woman in marriage.

God made man in his own image, male and female he created them. He blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply. (cf. Gen 1:27-28) God entrusted his image to the procreative power of man and woman. Every time a new human being is brought into the world, God’s creative power is involved in a unique fashion stamping his image in each new immortal soul. In this way God bestows upon married couples the great privilege of being his collaborators in the reproduction of his image. That brings with it great responsibility.

Here we find the first, most fundamental reason why the only legitimate use of sex is found within the lifetime commitment of marriage between one man and one woman. Anything else betrays the loving trust the Creator has given to his creature. The God who is love, the Most Holy Trinity, has willed that human beings created in his image be brought into the world and cared for through the loving union of husband and wife.

This is why every use of sex outside of marriage is a grave sin and why even within marriage the use of sex is measured by the standard of the loving union of husband and wife open to collaboration with the Creator in giving life.

As Jesus trusts himself, frail and fragile in the host, into the hands of the priest, so God entrusts himself frail and fragile in the child into the hands of his parents. Need I say that when parents fail children are hurt and also when priests fail children are hurt? Then when the hurt children grow up, they become hurt adults, unless they find in healing in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Marriage is also bound up with the health of the Catholic Church precisely because Christian marriage, as a sacrament, is a sign of the love between Christ and his Church. This in turn comes back to the Holy Eucharist, in which the priest, acting in person of Christ, Head and Bridegroom of the Church, renews the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant, so that the Church, the Bride, might be holy and immaculate in the sight of God.

A healthy Church is built upon the alliance of healthy families and a healthy priesthood, focused together in faith on the great gift of the love of Jesus Christ, the sacrament of his Body and Blood, the Holy Eucharist.

What have we done with the priesthood? What have we done with the most Holy Eucharist? What have we done with marriage?

Have we become traitorous disciples or fallen away disciples? Or can we truly be counted among the faithful disciples who serve the Lord?

Now, in the light of the morning news let me add that the crisis in the Church will put everyone of us to the test. We must each start doing those things we know we need to be doing in order to draw closer to God, but have avoided doing whether through laziness, distraction, or cowardice. We are in the midst of a great spiritual battle and we must fight with bravery and determination.

Now we are all being put to the test and we will not be able to stand on our own. I will dare say that the victory belongs to those who entrust themselves into the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the time of the great sign in heaven, the woman clothed with the sun, the moon at her feet, and a crown of twelve stars about her head. (Rev 12:1) Her true children are those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus. (Rev 12:17)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.