Drawing a Line in the Sand

(Homily for 21st Sunday, Year B)

One of history's most daring leaders was a Spanish adventurer named Francisco Pizarro. Back in 1530 he had just explored the west coast of South America. He was already 50 years old; he had no formal education, he couldn't read or write, but he knew he had touched the frontiers of a great civilization. Pizarro announced to this men that he wanted to lead an expedition right to the heart of the empire. Many of his soldiers thought he was crazy and that it would be suicide. Standing on the beach in Panama, Pizarro drew a line in the sand. He said, "Those who want to go with me, cross this line. I cannot promise you anything but hardships--and possibly death. Those who wish comfort can return to Europe. But you will lose a great adventure--and maybe great riches."

Well, 169 crossed the line Pizarro had drawn in the sand. And they did conquer one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen--the Inca empire. Pizarro had many faults, some we would judge harshly today, but he also had something many of us lack: courage, decisiveness.

Joshua asked that same decisiveness of the Israelites when he gathered the tribes at Shechem. "You can turn back." Joshua told them. "Return to the gods of the culture if you want. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

Jesus also draws a line in the sand; he asks us to make a decision. When he said those astonishing words, "You must feed on my flesh and drink my blood..." many turned away. His words were too hard for them. Jesus did not run after them, saying, "I was only kidding. It's just a sign, a friendly meal." No, Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, "Will you too leave me?"

Jesus has clearly upped the ante. He is like a poker player who pushes everything into the center of the table. If we think he's bluffing, we can bet against him. But most people, especially today, just fold their hand and walk away. But there is a third option. Jesus actually invites us to bet everything on his hand. We can say, "I am so confident you are the Son of God I stake everything on You."

That is what Peter did, "Lord, where can we go? You have the words of everlasting life." To follow Jesus means to recognize nothing else in this life will really satisfy us.

There is a story told about St. Thomas Aquinas. He was praying one day in the chapel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He was alone and Jesus spoke to him from the crucifix. "My son, you have been faithful. Ask me anything you want." Now, St. Thomas had chosen poverty so money had no attraction for him. Nor did look for recognition or fame. But he did not say to Jesus, "I am fine, thank you. I don't need anything." What he replied was, "It is thee I desire, O Lord. give me Thyself."

In a real sense St. Thomas was making the boldest request. He was asking for everything. So was Peter. "Where shall me go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life." That's not resignation. What Peter was saying was, "If you command it, Lord, I will even eat your flesh and drink your blood."

To accept Jesus, to bet our whole life on Him, has a lot of implications. Some people blithely say, "I am a Christian. What more do you want?" We learn from today's second reading that Jesus does not come to us alone. He is, so to speak, is a married man. Of course, during his earthly life he did not marry, he was a celibate, but not because he despised sexuality. He knew that his destiny was to betroth himself to a beautiful bride, the one described in the reading from Ephesians. And Jesus himself would form that bride by his death on the cross.

The Church Fathers taught this: Just as Eve was taken from the side of Adam, so Jesus' bride was taken from his side. When the soldier pierced his side with a lance, blood and water flowed out. The water and blood represent the sacraments of baptism and eucharist by which we become part of Jesus' body, the Church.

Jesus formed his spouse at a great cost--his own death. We cannot accept Jesus without also accepting his bride and in fact becoming a member of her through baptism and the Eucharist. Dr. Scott Hahn, a Protestant minister who about ten years ago became a Catholic gives a beautiful testimony to this. He tells how he used to argue against the Catholic Church, using every possible way to attack her. But little by little, he began to see another side and he became convinced the Catholic Church is actually the one Jesus founded. When he finally made the decision to convert, he used this simple line of reasoning:

Jesus taught the permanence of marriage. That a man should never abandon his bride. But Jesus is the groom of the Church. He is not going to be married to her for fifteen centuries, but then when Martin Luther comes along, divorce her and marry a dozen others. No, Jesus will always be faithful to his bride the Church, for better or worse--until the end of time.

You know, I always have this image of Jesus and the Church in my mind when I celebrate a wedding. By now I have celebrated hundreds, both here and in Peru. After twenty-five years, I have noticed something. Every girl is beautiful, radiant on her wedding day. I can honestly say I have never seen an ugly bride. Never. Why is the bride always beautiful, radiant? The answer is at once simple and profound. She is an image of beautiful reality, the Church washed clean in baptism by the blood of Jesus. The bridal dress, which is usually white, represents that cleansing. It's like the white garment in baptism or the alb that the priest wears at Mass. It does not mean we have committed no sins, but that our sins have been washed away. Now, I want to be clear here. We ardently want all of our brides--and grooms as well--to arrive at their wedding day as virgins. They will have so much happier a marriage if that is the case. We need to work hard so our children can learn the virtue of chastity. But we also know there is such a thing as the sacrament of confession where Jesus forgives our sins and washes us clean. The wedding dress symbolizes that cleansing.

The bride, washed clean of sin, represents the beautiful reality of the Church. What about the groom? He usually does not wear all white, but inevitably he has a white face. Why? The blood has run to his feet. He's scared. Now there is a good reason why the groom trembles on his wedding day. If his bride symbolizes the Church, he is called to represent Jesus himself. Now what man would not tremble at that thought. A priest trembles because he knows he has to represent Jesus the groom at the altar. A husband signifies Jesus for his wife and family.

That's why Saint Paul says, "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. He gave himself up for her." Your authority over your wife is not some kind of macho thing. It is a giving of your life for her--and your children--like Jesus has done for us, the church. Paul is also very clear that a husband has to treat his wife with respect because she is part of his body. No hitting, no abuse. That includes verbal abuse, which is sometimes worse. Another word for verbal abuse is criticism. I'm convinced the major cause of family breakdown is criticism. Some people think "I'm not being abusive, it's just constructive criticism." Baloney. We need to think very carefully before we criticize a person to their face--and never behind their back.

Jesus gave his blood to bring us forgiveness and acceptance. We need to do that for each other.

This Sunday Jesus draws a line in the sand, "Will you too leave me?" We need to pray for the grace to say with Peter, "Where shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." In you--and in your Church--we will find true life.


Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

A "Righteous Gentile" Defends Pius XII

Pictures from Parish Picnic (September 21, 2002)