Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
When I was in eighth grade, I participated in a national engineering competition called “Future City.” Our team ended up winning regionals and we represented the state of Wisconsin at the national level in Washington D.C. Part of the prize for winning regionals was a fancy pen. Not the most exciting thing for an eighth grader. But on the outside of the fancy case that held the fancy pen there was a quote. This quote, attributed to an anonymous author, made a strong impression on me at the time, and it’s something that I’ve remembered ever since. The quote is titled, “True Character.” It goes like this: “Your true character is revealed by the clarity of your convictions, the choices you make, and the promises you keep. Hold strongly to your principles and refuse to follow the currents of convenience. What you say and do defines who you are, and who you are…you are forever.”
While not explicitly religious, this quote resonates with our readings today, especially our first reading and our gospel. In our first reading, Joshua presents the Israelites with a stark choice: either to serve other gods, or to serve the Lord their God who led them up out of Egypt. The character of the Israelites will be revealed by their choice of whom to serve, and whether they keep their promise to stick to that choice. Their choice will define who they are—not just in time, but in eternity. Joshua is profoundly aware of this, and with great clarity of conviction, he makes his own choice known to the Israelites: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The twelve disciples in our gospel are faced with a similar choice and they make a similar response. Jesus has just told the crowd that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they do not have life within them. For His flesh is true food, and His blood is true drink. As a result of this teaching, many of Jesus’ followers choose to leave Him and return to their former way of life. Only the twelve choose to stay. Jesus asks if they also want to leave. But with a clarity of conviction reminiscent of Joshua, St. Peter, speaking on behalf of the twelve, makes their choice known: “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.”
What if Joshua had chosen to serve other gods, instead of the Lord? What if Peter and the twelve had chosen to leave Jesus and returned to their former way of life? In these two moments, both in our first reading and in our gospel, these men were faced with a choice. Two paths were set before them: towards God or away from God. There was no in-between. They had to chose one or the other. And their choice would define who they were—not just in time, but in eternity. Perhaps God, being merciful, would have given them a second chance later on in life. Perhaps He would have given them an opportunity to change their mind and choose to serve and follow Him. But although our God is a God of second chances, He is not a God of infinite chances. He can’t be because our lives are not infinite. We have a finite number of choices to make in this life, we don’t always know how many more choices we’ll have, and some choices are hard to come back from. All our choices matter, but some choices matter more than others. Some choices make bigger ripples—both in time and in eternity.
I was faced with such a choice the second semester of my freshman year in college. I was hanging out with some of my friends in the dorms, when one of them came to me and pulled me aside. He told me that in a little while they were all going to go upstairs to another room and do things that he knew I wouldn’t approve of. He then told me that the rest of my friends wanted to invite me along without telling me this, but he felt that I had the right to know. In that moment I was faced with a choice: to follow my friends up to the room, or to leave and risk losing their friendship. Knowing how weak I was, and how susceptible to peer pressure, I knew I needed to get out of that situation right away. So, picking up my coat, I literally ran out the door, ignoring the questions that followed me: “What’s going on? Where are you going?” Running away from this situation was a hard and painful decision to make. It cost me several long and meaningful friendships. But I knew I had to make this choice. I knew it was one of those moments when I had the chance to reveal my true character. Two paths were set before me: towards God or away from God. There was no in-between. I had to choose one or the other. And my choice would define who I was—not just in time, but in eternity.
Choices like this do not always come every day, and they are not always so dramatic or emotionally charged, but they come more often than we think. And these choices can change the trajectory of our lives in an instant: either towards God or away from God. In fact, each time we are tempted to commit a serious sin we are faced with one of these choices. But even if it’s not a serious sin, each time we give into temptation we are chipping away at our resolve to serve and follow God. Each time we do this, we weaken ourselves, making ourselves susceptible to making the wrong choice when a more serious situation arises.
“Your true character is revealed by the clarity of your convictions, the choices you make, and the promises you keep. Hold strongly to your principles and refuse to follow the currents of convenience. What you say and do defines who you are, and who you are…you are forever.” Friends, the currents of convenience are quite strong these days; the pressure to capitulate to the prevailing winds of our society and the present influencers of our culture is almost overwhelming. But what we do and say matters. Our choices matter: not just for time, but for eternity. We are not mere mortals; we have immortal souls. We are forever. May we have the courage this week to make the right choices. May we stand with Joshua and St. Peter, and with great clarity of conviction, make our choice to serve and follow God known, even at the risk of losing our jobs, our friends, or our reputation. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” “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.” Amen.