Author: Fr. Mike Byron
August 26, 2018

This coming week I will be traveling to Montana for the funeral liturgy of my oldest, closest friend.  Matt and I met in the 1st grade in our Catholic school, and for more than 50 years we have been right there for one another—a rare, precious gift.  We vacationed together in Hawaii in February, and he was at the time nursing a terribly painful back ache.  The day after our trip he went to the doctor, who told him that he didn’t have a bad back; he had late stage cancer of the pancreas and liver.  For a few weeks he did aggressive chemotherapy, but it became clear that it wasn’t doing any good he decided to stop it.  He knew that it would mean his death relatively quickly, but as a man of great faith he also knew that for Christians there are a lot of things that are worse than the prospect of dying.  Being separated from God would be the most important of those worse things, and he knew that while death separates us from many precious things, his wife, his children, his beloved three years old grandson, it doesn’t separate us from God.  In fact it brings that relationship to its final consummation and joy.

We don’t need to romanticize the terrible pain that comes with the death of a loved one, but neither should we imagine that that is the greatest tragedy.  The attempt to live apart from God and God’s gift of faith is the truly most awful thing.  My dear friend met the end of his life with great serenity and confidence.

For most of us, most of the time, we are able to avoid or postpone or not think about that radical kind of decision:  whether to live well now, or whether to live in the embrace of God’s love, because usually we are able to have it both ways.  I am aware that, for the most part, I can pursue the things that make me happy and content in this world and do that within the context of faith in Jesus Christ and His church.  It rarely comes down to a bald either-or kind of choice, and in that sense it is fairly “safe” to be a committed Catholic in the United States in the year 2018.  It’s true that our faith makes appropriate demands of us regularly—to speak God’s truth against voices of sin and selfishness, to give of my time, talent and treasure as I am able, to put the concerns of the common good and the faith community ahead of more narrowly selfish desires, to live simply and generously for the sake of those who have little or nothing…That’s all true, but it’s not demanding of my very life, or an ultimate “yes” to God and a “no” to everything else.

And it was the very same way for the first disciples of Jesus too.  For a while they were able both to be in his company and to be the beneficiaries of a good life—miracles worked among them, popular acclaim, safety, a sense of belonging.  Yes, those 12 apostles had given up a lot to stay with Jesus, but so for the payback seemed to have been pretty good.  Until it all changed.  Until Jesus began to speak hard things to them, about the need for an ultimate and absolute decision to remain with him to the end, even when that would now mean a more radical kind of service and suffering and even death itself…It would mean a letting go of every safety net other than the faith given by God alone…Until the day that “both/and” ceased to be an option for them, and the moment of “either-or” came upon them…as it came for my friend Matt recently, and as it most assuredly will come for all of us, later if not sooner.

And so, as John’s gospel tells us today, many of Jesus’ followers left him and returned to their former livelihoods.  The ask had been too demanding for them.  The cost of discipleship had become too hard, too absolute, too scary.  And so it must have been with a great sadness that Jesus turned to the 12 and wondered whether they would leave him too.  They had not, after all, shown themselves to be particularly great models of courage or wisdom up to that moment, and that wasn’t about to change any time soon, as the story unfolded.

But Peter offered up what was perhaps the most brutally honest—if not the most noble—of sentiments in reply.  He told Jesus that they were staying with him, not because they were confident of success or happiness, not because they much understood where he was leading them and why, and not for any immediate reward.  But, quite frankly, because they had nowhere else to go, and no leader who was promising anything better.  Not exactly a proclamation of confidence and enthusiasm, but genuine.  And that’s all Jesus required of Peter and the 12, or any sincere seeker ever since then.

Today we gather for worship in the midst of heaviness, disillusion, grief, anger and embarrassment in our larger Roman Catholic Church.  We’ve been betrayed again by people who have held themselves out to us as our spiritual leaders.  We’ve been lied to, and our presumption of trust has been extorted as surely as was the trust of all the abuse victims.  And it’s still going on in some quarters.  We who struggle to be faithful disciples in the church have been forced to confront the “either-or” choice, because the “both-and” has been taken off the table, at least for now.  Do we stay with Jesus and his community even when it seems to be too hard and too agonizing?  Or do we look elsewhere?  And where exactly is there an “elsewhere” that can lead us to God apart from Jesus and the Christian community.  What can make us enduringly happy if not this place?

We cling to Pax Christi—to the people here in this room, gathered by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit—perhaps not because it is easy right now or because it redounds to any immediate reward, but because all the other hurting members need us to be here together, and to honest, many of us have nowhere else to go.  Just as Peter said in the gospel.  That was reason enough for Jesus to remain with him and them, and we pray that it is still true for us today.  In an article I read this week, titled “Why I don’t Leave the Church,” the author stated that he refuses to hand over the body of Christ, the people of God, the true church to a small group of wolves presenting themselves as shepherds and inflicting immense suffering on the rest of us.  That’s good theology and good gospel, and the necessary response to that nagging question, “Lord, to whom else would we go?”  We’ll stay right here, because we can do nothing other.  

We are here in an “either-or’ moment, and yes, we are here.


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