Stiff Neck?

For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday

Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.

Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him.  You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!

The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”

The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith.  But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms.  In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation.  The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life.  This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.

The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat.  She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.

She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene.  So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you.  He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?”  The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.

Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.

Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing.  Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently.  And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything.  When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do?  Stand there, looking on?

It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead.  He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  And then he was taken from their sight.  And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”

Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened.  We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe.   But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth.  The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.

Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching.  Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students.  But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?

Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets?  Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?

Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help?  Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy?  Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?

If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential.  If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer.   There is no joy to be found there.   I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”

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Love Triumphs Over Loss

5th Sunday of Lent 4-7-19

Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3: 8-14, John 8:1-11

There are two pivotal stories of the Jewish people. The first is the Exodus from Egypt, the people being led from slavery to the Promised Land.  They are literally led by God and fed by God on the journey. But most importantly, they must go thru some big changes; God must de-program them from slave mentality, they must leave their fear of Egypt behind, with all the physical and emotion abuse they had suffered.

Their sons had been slaughtered by the Egyptians, their daughters made concubines of the pharaohs, they were used to eating what the Egyptians gave them to eat, and worshiping the idols they were told to worship. They were accustomed to doing what they were told and to cower before their masters. The journey took 40 years not because of the distance, but because of the enormity of the task of freeing them from looking back at their old life, and preparing them for a new life ahead.

The second pivotal story of the Jewish people is the captivity in Babylon for 40 years, and their ultimate release to return to their homeland.  The brutality of the war with Babylon, the total destruction of their temple, their homes, their cities, and their culture – all this left them deeply wounded psychologically.  Again, they must begin all over, and rebuild their buildings, their infrastructure, their very way of life, and their worship of their God that they hardly remembered.

God took the initiative here.  So God tells them, “don’t look back.”  Don’t waste your time rehashing your troubles and clinging to what had seemingly become “the new normal” of captivity.  He calls them to wake up, he says look and see what I’m doing, something new, it springs forth, can’t you see?!  Even the animals can see it, but I do it for the people I formed, “That they might announce my praise.”

This story continues in our psalm, with the people’s response. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.  We need help as large as and powerful as of a mass of rushing water, like a torrent in the time of flood. We are weeping at the destruction of our land and of our hopes, but we will rebuild, and we will rejoice in what we accomplish with your help.”

We know the pivotal story of the Christian people. Paul writes of his losses in the decision to follow Christ. He lost everything he had.  He lost his place and status as a learned Pharisee.  He lost his home, and became a traveler.  He certainly lost friends, he was physically attacked, he lost his wealth, and had to work as a common tent maker to buy food.  Yet he always looks forward to what God is doing. Paul had discovered himself on the receiving end of a divine love that enabled him to live by the law of love.  He says all the things he lost were “so much rubbish” in the light of his faith, in knowing Christ, and the “power of his resurrection.”   Paul says that he lets go of and forgets what lies behind, but strains forward to what lies ahead, and continues pursuit of the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling to eternal life.

The strength of the faith of the Jews as they rebuilt their lives, the strength of Paul as he pursued God, sound to me like that sound rushing water makes in flood time. There is a power behind them, they see the new things that God is doing, a force which stronger than any opposition and better than anything they had lost.

Then we have Jesus and the woman. The woman was as battered and beaten down as the Jews had been in Egypt.  Most likely she was a woman who had been widowed and had no family to support her.  Prostitution was then and is now the last resort for women who are not loved, who have lost hope, and have lost any sense of value of themselves.  Since this situation is clearly a set up by the Pharisees, there is no doubt in my mind that this poor woman was just hoping to have enough payment for her services to buy one meal that day.  Clearly, she was just being used and shamed one more time by people who regarded themselves as superiors.

I remember when my last church was a brand new church, searching for worship space. They were renting a single basement room, it used to be a Sunday school room in a church that was dying, financially on it’s last legs, had spent all its reserves, was in an area where gun shots were heard and the copper gutters had been stolen off the church building. A beautiful old church nearby had been purchased by another independent Catholic group, and some discussions had started about moving there.

It was mentioned that a group of local prostitutes would sit on the church steps in the early evening, getting ready to go “to work.”  Everyone at the meeting acted like they had not heard that piece of information, like it had nothing to do with them.  Afterwards, I approached the speaker, and commented that there was a great opportunity to help those women.  The speaker, sighed, and said quietly, “You’re the only who mentioned that.” Now and then, such women are still considered expendable.

But God was initiating something new that day for the woman in front of Jesus. The Pharisees had no authority to inflict capital punishment on this woman.   That authority belonged to Rome.  She was being used like a trap against Jesus, but she might become the laughing stock of Jerusalem by nightfall and, as a result, die of starvation anyway.  He saved her with a single sentence, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

With those words, he reminds the Pharisees that they, like the woman, had no power in this situation, and thereby shames them with their own sins – the lies they have told and their pretense of authority they did not have, authority they had prostituted to Rome in a desperate attempt to salvage their social status.  Once again, as you read the story, you hear that torrent of water, water of truth, life-giving water, and power…the power to rebuild, to change, for her to become whole again and shine with God’s light.

I hope you don’t drive down the road looking in the rearview mirror, but rather “staining to see what lies ahead.   During Lent weep over the past, but in the celebration of Easter we return rejoicing.  Both long ago and today, Jesus forgives the sinner without denying the sin. Listen, Believe, See something new, And Rejoice.

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.

What is an Inclusive Church?

We are an inclusive church. When we do not strive to be inclusive, we fail to be what we are called to be.  Our church was never intended to be a group of “cookie-cutter” people, all of the same race, socio-economic status, nationality, age, gender, or sexual orientation.  It was intended to be the church that Jesus, out of love, showed us how to be. Very deliberately and purposefully, Jesus called the people on the edges of society to be part of his mission.  Being inclusive is not being weak about our beliefs.  When we are inclusive, we know exactly what we believe, and why we believe it.  Here is an example of how one person saw an inclusive church:

 

Immigrant’s Apostles Creed

            I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.

When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.

I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.

I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

 

Attributed to Rev. Jose Luis Casal, Director of Presbyterian World Mission, himself an immigrant from Cuba.

Love and The Body & The Blood

20th Sunday Ordinary time; August 19, 2018

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ps 34:2-7; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Our Gospel reading today is likely one of the top ten hardest readings to preach on. Even the people Jesus was speaking to “quarreled” among themselves when He spoke about the living bread saying, “…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  You need to know that the word “quarreled” in Greek is a word for violent fighting, not just a mild spat.  These words have been the source of division among Christian communities always, a major fountain of violence during the Reformation, so contentious that people were tortured and killed over different views of the meaning of the Mass. In fact, 3 years ago when we came to these readings, I preached on the 2nd Reading from Ephesians instead of focusing on the Gospel.

Three weeks ago, Bishop Ron told you that John was written to deepen the faith of people who were already Christian believers. The Last Supper or the original “Mass” is found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11.  It makes sense that John would not see a reason to repeat that in his Gospel; but John did spend time and effort teaching about the Mass.

It also makes sense that John would present multiple teachings on the Mass. The first was the “Wisdom and Understanding” approach.  We have a sample of that from Proverbs for our first reading today.  Wisdom is portrayed as a woman (whole different homily) who prepares wine and food and sends out invitations over the city, inviting the simple and those lacking understanding to come to her table.  Our 2nd reading tells us to be wise, to be filled with the Spirit, and to gain understanding of the will of God.

Then there is the symbol of bread that ties into a long history of sacred bread in Jewish liturgy and practices in the temple, as well as in the scared Jewish writings. Unleavened bread and wine are major components of the Passover celebration.  Manna is a significant part of Exodus.  But keep in mind that it was an abomination for the Jews to eat human flesh and drink blood.  Blood was understood then as the substance of life, for without blood we die, and it was a substance of great mystery.  Any contact with blood required a ritual cleansing. All this helps us understand the image of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus to give us life.

So in the opening of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It seems a pretty direct reference to the crucifixion. Of course, the Temple ritual sacrifices called for the slaughter of animals.  Historians tell of blood running down the streets of Jerusalem during Passover, with the slaughter of hundreds of animals.  To make the scene even more vivid and realistic, Jesus uses a word for “eat” which is best translated as “gnaw or munch.” And how can anyone eat his flesh without him being slaughtered like an animal? Then, Jesus adds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  So after the slaughter comes the resurrection.

Jesus does not let this teaching slide by quickly. He goes on to insist that his flesh and blood have genuine value as food and drink.  Also, he adds the image of “remaining”.  Jesus tells us that coming to communion is a way to really be “into Jesus”, a way to remain with him always, the way to have life always. He explains how the bread at communion is not like the ordinary bread we eat, or even the heavenly manna which fed the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt.  Those other types of bread we eat, they only feed us for a day, and do not remain with us.  The bread Jesus gives us stays with us forever, and gives us eternal life.

That being said, we still have an elephant in the room. Catholics teach that when the bread and wine are consecrated by a priest, they become the true body and blood of Christ.  It is called transubstantiation (a change of the very substance of the bread and wine).  Christ then is present whole and entire in each crumb of the bread and drop of the wine. It is one of the mysteries of our faith, and requires a leap of faith, as our eyes do not see the change.  If there is any place in the Bible that says this is true, this reading is identified as that place.

I stand at this altar and I say those words. I have come to believe that altars such as this are very sacred places, and that by saying the words of the Mass, we do indeed enter a very holy moment.  I also recognize that not everyone experiences what I experience when I stand there.  I also know that it is not because of my holiness, but a gift of God.  So I do not pressure others to believe what I believe.  When I offer the consecrated bread and wine to people, I say that it is open to all who come in reverence; they must come respectfully and with dignity, and hopefully with a sense of awe.  My task and duty is to offer an opportunity to understand the ancient history of this sacrament, its basis in wisdom tradition, and the traditions and teachings of the Church which surround it.

But on Tuesday, as I was writing this homily, the Attorney General of PA announced that a Grand Jury had possession of internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showing that more than 300 “predator priests” have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims, dating back to 1947.  Their report said that the numbers may be “in the thousands”, as records have been lost and people are still afraid to come forward.  Quoting from the report, “The men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades… priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have mostly been protected….”  Once again, the Holy Spirit is grieved, as are we.

Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another. He also said in Matthew 18:6 , “… whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea.”  That is very harsh, and we should be quick to pray for the healing of those children, as well as forgiveness for those clergy, and that strong steps be taken to prevent this in the future.

My friends, it is right and good to understand our sacraments and continue to learn about them, expanding our faith. But I would best like to be identified as a Christian by the way I show love to others and the way I protect the vulnerable and innocent.  It makes sense to me that Jesus would want us to be his body and blood by the lives we live.

Both the Giver and the Gift

18th Sunday Ordinary Time 8-5-18

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, Ps: 78:3-4, 23- 25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

If you missed Bishop Ron’s homily last week, you missed a great introduction to the 6-week series of reading we are in the midst of from the Gospel of John. As Bishop Ron explained, John wrote his gospel some 50 or so years after the other Gospels.  He wasn’t writing to convert people to Christianity as much as he was writing to bring already converted Christians into a deeper faith.  Time had given the early Church an opportunity to clarify what they believed; and John was part of that process.

Today, Jesus uses a common strategy which encourages people to ask a series of questions. Jesus would then answer by re-directing their thinking.  He encouraged them to consider what bread might symbolize, and what work might be – beyond just a way to buy bread.

It starts by the crowd looking for Jesus near Tiberias on the west shore of the Lake of Galilee.  He’s not there, but they find him on the north shore near Capernaum.  They ask, “When did you get here?”  Jesus immediately redirects, since the conversation needs to be about “The Bread”.  He says, “That doesn’t matter. Your real goal was to find me, not because of the miracles I do, but because yesterday you got to eat all the bread you wanted.”

Having established the topic of conversation, Jesus then talks about what their goal should be. He says, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that lasts for eternal life, food which the Son of Man will give you…”  He acknowledges that their days are filled with work, work that typically paid only enough to buy food for just that one day.  It was a treadmill –type existence where they were exhausted and all their earnings, their day, and their strength were spent, and their food was gone.  Jesus is not talking about food that lasts eternally, but rather food that gives eternal life.  This food is a gift that comes from Jesus.  The “seal of God on Jesus” is a way of saying that Jesus is telling them the absolute truth.

Bishop Ron also asked us to think of food we eat daily; to consider the role food plays in our lives, about the necessity of food for each and every person alive on earth, to realize how little control we have over food production. We come to realize that even a simple loaf of bread is a work of God.  Jesus is asking the crowd to think in broad ways and look for meaning beyond tomorrow.

So the crowd asks their next question. “What work can we do, then, to please God?”  Jesus has the answer ready: “This is the work of God: have faith in him whom he sent.”  Remember back a month to July 1st, when we read the story of the woman who was healed when she touched Jesus’ robe, and Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you.”  Remember that?  Now Jesus tells the crowd, “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” He is telling them to have faith.

Today we use the word “faith” to mean the teachings and practices of a particular church. That is not how the word “faith” or “belief” was used in Jesus’ day.  Then it meant faithfulness, loyalty, commitment, solidarity.  Belief was the social glue that together; it was not head knowledge, but a deeply emotional value that was obvious to other people; it was a complete and binding relationship.  Faith was not a toe checking the temperature of the water; faith was complete and overwhelming one-ness.

But the crowd has not forgotten the bread; they are still hoping for free bread that does not require work, sort of like us when we buy lottery tickets. At that time, Jewish rabbis were already teaching that there was deeper meaning to the story of the “manna bread” given to the people of Exodus.  They taught that the manna was a symbol of the Jewish scriptures.  Those scriptures were the Word of God, which satisfied the hunger of the human spirit for wisdom and understanding better than anything else.  They also taught that the manna would re-appear.  That was what the people who lived a day-to-day existence heard and remembered.  So the crowd demands a “sign” of manna before they will commit to belief.  Jesus answers: He is the manna; He is the Bread of Life.

John is writing to argue against a Christian faith which does not go beyond a sign or which does not extend to what is signified. What does that mean? In this case, the words “sign” and “miracle” mean the same thing.  So, the miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes was not just about everyone getting something to eat that day, it has greater significance and leads to deeper truth.  That miracle opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity.  We discover Jesus as both a gift of God and the one who gave his life so that we might live.

We do not celebrate the Eucharist just to have something concrete to remember Jesus. We celebrate the Eucharist to give thanks to God for Jesus and to open our eyes to who Jesus was and what he did to open the door to eternal life for us.  The Eucharist is not ours alone, but we are to share this bread, to multiply those who come here to learn and believe.  We join with each other around this table so that we might have understanding beyond bread.  We come for the sharing of our faith, to be in solidarity with fellow Christians in our belief, and support each other in making our faith obvious to others.

To end this passage, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesuit Father Dennis Hamm said it best when he wrote, “Jesus is known to us, through faith, as the Word of God made flesh, and who was revealed most fully in his death and resurrection.  It is he who can satisfy our deepest hunger to know what life means and who we are in order to live it (fully).”

Faith that will save us

14th Sunday ordinary time, 7-8-18.

Ezekiel 2:2-5; Ps 123:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

We pick up today in the Gospel of Mark where we left off last week. Between last Sunday’s stories about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and the girl who was announced to be dead, and today’s story, Mark gives us only 1 sentence of transition, “Jesus departed from there and came to his native  place (Nazareth), accompanied by his disciples.”

This is typical of Mark’s Gospel. If you want an eloquently told tale, then read Luke.  If you want a story told with the speed of a tractor-trailer on the Interstate, read Mark.  In fact, the Gospel of Mark tends to be so fast moving and bare-bones straight to the point, it has been called “the Passion of Jesus with a long introduction.”

But this story we read today is unique in other ways. First, we get a very harsh, negative rant from people about why Jesus was not the big deal that everyone was making of him.  Oh sure, they had no phones or texting or internet, but they had heard all about the miracles and the healing and the preaching that was so astounding.  But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe Jesus was capable of such things.  And furthermore, they were offended by Jesus and thought he ought to be back in the carpenter shop where he had grown up and doing the trade Joseph had taught him, talking about the weather and what was for dinner tonight.

Now think for a minute. If you were Mark, and you wanted to prove Jesus was the “Son of God”, would you tell a story about people who didn’t believe him, and a place where “he was not able to perform any might deed”? There are people, now, who will tell you that the “miracle of the loaves and fishes” was not so much as miracle as it was that Jesus got the people to openly share what they had.

But here, openly and remarkably authentic, Mark writes about Jesus being a failure in his home town. That ought to be enough motivation for us to ask “Why?? What is going on here?”  And Mark, in his brief and pointed way gives us an answer, “(Jesus) was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Say that again? “Their lack of faith”?  That needs an explanation. So we need to back up a little, to last week’s readings, and hear again what Jesus has to say about healing miracles and “faith”.  The woman who had been sick for 12 years thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.”  Jesus’ response to her: “Daughter, you faith has saved you.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”  The people from the official’s house said, “Your daughter has died.”  Jesus responds: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”

So I turn to my old friend, Mr. Webster, to check out what this word “faith” means. “Faith” is used as a label for organized religious groups, such as, “what faith are you – Christian, Jewish,” etc.  Or we say, “I have faith in him, he’s a good guy, you can trust him,” Or “keep the faith” meaning continue to share a common goal. But then I find this in my dictionary: “Belief and trust in God.”  So we know that Jesus wasn’t doing a series of “Magic Acts” , he was not a clever trickster who just woke up sleeping girls or knew that people were hiding their picnic baskets full of fish and bread.  This has to do with belief, trust, and God.

The Catechism is also helpful in times like this. It says that “Faith” is a personal act where a person has the free choice to respond to God.  God is revealed to each of us, and some of us respond.  Faith is an interaction between a person and Jesus.  A relationship develops, and is nurtured in trust and love.  We see the same thing in human relationships.  If we have faith in our spouse, if we learn that we can trust them, we grow in love with them, and if it a mutual act, then we begin to have faith that that person will continue to be there for us, that we can depend on them, and they will be faithful to us.  Likewise, Jesus offers himself to us, and we can choose to willingly receive him and build an ever deepening relationship with him.

Does this help to explain why Jesus told the woman that her faith had saved her? Her “faith” was not just a moment, but a lifetime commitment of belief which would surely sustain her for all time.  Jesus told the girl’s father, to “just have faith”.  Both these people had made great effort to come to Jesus, to find him, to press thru the crowd, to risk shame & ridicule; they both came believing that Jesus was the solution to their unsolvable problems, that Jesus was the answer to their questions.

If “faith” is your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is mutual, having your life and your very being entwined in an unconditional and active intimacy with Jesus.   Those are words we can seldom use in our society, “unconditional and active intimacy”,  so different from the loneliness and isolation that is so common.

The opposite, of course, is when we shut down and refuse to respond, when we do not listen, when we turn away or deny the relationship. For it is not only the heat of criticism that stops faith from growing, but the cold of indifference and casual ignorance that is so common in churches. We shrug, we tell ourselves faith doesn’t really matter, or is irrelevant, and faith and love and caring wither away.

This was why Jesus was such a dud in the “old home town.” He opened himself to them, he came to teach and to help and to heal, and they would have nothing to do with him, other than to criticize and demean.  They wanted to have him be small and inconsequential in their lives, be there to make a table or chair when they wanted one, but not “interfere” in their lives or be part of their lives all the time.  They wanted him just to be the guy who lived on the corner, not someone they cared about or made sure they had a chance to talk to every day.  They didn’t want to really know him, but wanted him to be waiting when they needed a favor, just the status quo.  There was nothing to build a relationship on.

So, how do we treat Jesus? Is Jesus inconvenient for us?  Are we interested in really knowing him?  Or do we just stop by church when we have the time, expecting him to do a little carpentry work for us?  Do we want to have a relationship of trust and love?  Have we read our Bible enough to know what we’re missing?  Do we understand the faith we profess or seek out ways to learn more?  Do we have faith of the kind that will save us?