August 26, 2012 - Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21
Ephesians 5:21-32
John 6:60-69

“This saying is difficult; who can accept it?” That is a sentiment that every human recognizes. Many teachings of the Church are perfectly logical and fit in our worldview with no problem. Then we confront some teaching that makes no sense. That second reading is a difficult teaching for some people. The doctrine of the Eucharist is what the disciples found too difficult to believe. There are different teachings that cause difficulties for different people, but everyone runs into this at some point. If I disagree with a teaching of the Church, should I believe what I think or presume that the Church is right?

Let us start with what we know: God is never wrong. He is perfect. Some people imagine God as being rather like us: not completely in control. This is false. If God were merely powerful, why would we worship him? He would not be God. God is perfect. Nothing he says or does is wrong. This is what it means to be God.

So if I disagree with God, there are two possibilities: Either I am wrong, or I do not understand what God is saying. It is not possible that he is wrong. He is God, and God is never wrong. Perhaps I have misunderstood him. Perhaps if I simply think more about what he has taught, I will come to see that I do not disagree at all. But there comes a point where I have clarified and understood what he is saying as well as I possibly can. If I still disagree with him, I must be wrong. No matter how much it feels like I am right, I must be wrong. No matter how many arguments I can come up with about why I am right, I am still wrong. God is smarter than me. God sees more clearly than I do. God is better than I am. How could I possibly come about that I am right and he is wrong?

This is what Simon Peter responds when Jesus asks whether the Twelve will also leave him. Peter does not understand this teaching about eating the Body and drinking the Blood. To the extent that he does understand it, he is pretty sure that eating a human body and drinking blood is wrong, but he responds with a question, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He realizes that Jesus Christ is the truth, that, unlike every other teacher no matter how wise, he is never wrong.

How did he reach this conclusion? He says that “We have come to believe and are convinced.” First comes faith. First he believed something. Faith is a gift from God. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless this is given to him by my Father.” Faith is not some effort we make or something we earn. We can work against faith by our actions, but the only way to get faith is by asking God for it. Once we have faith, once we believe that God is God, our own opinions are not the most important anymore.

Some people spend their lives straddling the fence. They say that they believe in God, but they have many suggestions on what he could do better, improvements for creating the universe. Joshua is telling the Israelites not to take this meaningless stance. He tells them to pick which god they will serve. He says, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” This is the response of faith. If I believe in God, it is not as if I believe in an equal who could use my advice. If God exists, my response must be to serve his will, because his will for me must be right, even if I cannot see it.

So God is never wrong, but how can we know him or anything about him? How can we know for sure what God says. Many religions tell me about God, but they cannot all be right. Our religion is different. We believe that God became a man and lived among us and taught. Peter saw in Jesus someone who perfectly expressed the will of God. What about us today? Jesus no longer is speaking as he did to Peter. In his place, he has left the Church.

The Catholic Church claims to be the authentic teacher about God, the one true Church of Jesus Christ, infallible in every teaching on faith and morals. Jesus Christ gave us the Church to pass down the Bible and teach us how to interpret it, and he protects the Church from ever being in error when teaching about faith or morals. Some people expect that the Church will change its teachings, but if it does, I am leaving. If tomorrow the pope declares that women can be priests, I will pack up and forget about all of it; not because I am so opposed to women priests, but because today the Church says that women cannot be priests, and I have no interest in a Church that says one thing today and another thing tomorrow. Then it would just a bunch of people making stuff up.

The practices and the rules change. Meat on Fridays or married priests or things like that, but not a dogma or a definition of a sacrament or a moral teaching about human nature. If the Church changes one of those, it would be like a math teacher that says 2+2=4 one day and the next day that 2+2=5. I know that they were either wrong yesterday or today, or both. Regardless, they are fired as my math teacher.

It is significant that in 2000 years the Church has never changed a teaching. Clarified, yes. Changed practices, yes. Adapted teachings to new circumstances, yes. But it has never changed a teaching. This ought to encourage us to have faith in the Church as the genuine guide to the truth about God. If the Church is teaching something that I do not understand or do not like or have trouble accepting, my first response will not be to presume that I must be right. I will believe the Church. I will try to understand until it makes sense to me, but even if it never really does, I will believe the Church. What Peter said to Jesus is what we say to the Church: If we were to leave, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that God loves his Church and will never abandon her to error.