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.