Astonishment

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm  146; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7: 24-31

When kids go back to school, they tell their friends and classmates about their summer vacation. When adults return to work after a summer vacation, they tell their co-workers about where they went and what they did.  It may sound a little odd at first, but our Gospel reading today tells about Jesus’ “summer vacation”.

Jesus started his ministry by teaching the people at the local synagogue, and he healed a sick man there. The people were amazed!  Soon everyone was talking about Jesus, and all the people in the city gathered around the house where he was staying.  So many people came to see him and hear him that he had to go out in the countryside to have enough room.

All this was good. But some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem became jealous because Jesus had become famous.  They wanted to be in charge, they wanted to be in power.  So they started charging Jesus and his followers with sins – they didn’t want Jesus to heal the sick on the Sabbath, they even said that Jesus was evil, a terrible lie.  But Jesus kept on teaching and healing and even raised a little girl who had died back to life.  He was so busy that he and the apostles had no time even to eat!  People followed him, and when he walked from one village to another, a new crowd was waiting for him. People recognized him, where ever he went   He was working non-Stop!

Then Pharisees came to criticize him again for not washing his hands according to tradition. Jesus told them that what we eat or some dirt on our hands isn’t evil, but the evil we do comes from within us.  It comes from what we think about and our failure to love God with all our hearts. The Pharisees were really angry with him, wanting to end his teaching & healing permanently.

Now, we’re all glad to go on vacation because we work hard, we’re busy, we need time for rest, to get away and do new things. If you think your life is hard, and that no one understands, you need to talk with Jesus.  Sit down and tell Jesus that you work too hard, the demands are too great, and people around you are cruel.  He’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

So Jesus told his apostles, “Come away to a lonely place, and rest a while.”  Jesus and the apostles got away from the crowds and the threats of the Pharisees.  They got out of town, out of the country of Israel, away from Galilee, to the region of Tyre and Sidon (sy’don).  It was very different there – the culture was different.  And would you believe it?  Immediately, a woman with a sick child had heard of Jesus, and came and fell down on the dirt in front of Jesus and begged him to heal her child, and she kept asking him, over and over.

So, here’s what you need to know to understand what he said to her: She was Greek, meaning she is not Jewish, as Jesus was.  The Jews referred to themselves as “The Children of God”.  Jesus is not calling her or her child a dog.  He is saying that any Father (God) would feed his children before he would give that food to dogs, even cute little puppies.  Remember the interaction he’d just had with the Pharisees.  They were religious; they spent their days studying the Scriptures.  Yet they had not only tried to block his teaching, they had refused to listen, and they were even plotting against him, calling him “evil”.  But she answers with deep humility; all she wants is a little crumb of healing for her girl.  She does not want riches or power or social status or fame, but only enough for her daughter to be well.  What a contrast between this mother, who has thrown herself at Jesus’ feet, desperately begging for a crumb, and the Pharisees who threaten Jesus in their jealousy of his God-given power by which he helps people.  Jesus praises her, and assures her the child had been cured.

The rest of Jesus’ summer vacation must have been the quiet and restful time he and the apostles had been wanting, for we hear no more of Jesus until he has returned to Galilee.  It’s a walk that could have taken months.  And now, like you, he is back to work. He is surrounded by crowds again. A man is brought to him who was deaf and whose speech couldn’t be understood.   We have that word, “Ephphatha” (ef-fa-tha’), an Aramaic command to open, which gives the scene real authenticity.  And immediately, says the Gospel, he could hear and speak plainly.  Jesus says to tell no one; the crowd is already so large.  Perhaps Jesus even thinks back to those quiet times he had on vacation. But the word spreads quickly.  “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done all things well; he makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” they say, coincidentally matching the description of the Messiah in Isaiah 35.

When was the last time you were astonished beyond measure? When was the last time you heard something that left you breathless and so delighted that you were at a loss for words?  Do you even remember?  But there are those days when a heartfelt prayer is answered, when you laugh and cry at the same time; and those moments always seem to come from The One who does all things well.

Perhaps this day of Homecoming should not only be a day of returning to Church, and all the opportunities for worship and service, but also a day to return to astonishment, the type of astonishment that comes from a deep and certain confirmation that Goodness is alive and well and available to us in this world.

Perhaps it is time to get away from the anger and hatred of the Pharisees, and go to love and desire to help others, like the Mother. It is time to seek healing from God, like the deaf man.  Change always takes courage, but the littlest crumbs from God’s table are enough to cure the soul. It is always the season for a change of heart.  The time to open our ears to hear God and speak out clearly about God’s love is always right now.

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Inside/ Outside

22nd Sunday Ordinary time 9-2-18

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8;  Psalm 15:2-5; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

After reading from John’s Gospel for more than a month, we need a re-orientation to the Gospel of Mark. John wrote to help established Christians deepen their understanding of their faith, while Mark wrote to a non-Jewish, or “Gentile” audience new to the faith.  One reason we know this is that Mark has to explain hand washing, and other Jewish traditions.

We’re not yet half-way in Mark’s Gospel, but the Pharisees are already plotting how they can destroy Jesus. They have already tried to shame and discredit Jesus by pointing out that the Apostles did not fast (which was required), and that they had picked some grain to eat when they were hungry on the Sabbath (which was forbidden).  Meanwhile, Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead, he had walked on water, and wherever he went, the sick were brought to him, and he healed them.  He had taught great crowds and did the miracle of multiplying the fish and loaves; it must have been an exhilarating and amazing time for the apostles.  If ministry was always like that, everyone would want to be a priest!

But now the Pharisees return to verbally attack Jesus again. When the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t keep the tradition of hand-washing, their question isn’t a request for information. It’s a challenge to his whole ministry. From the point of view of the Pharisees, a person couldn’t be from God and not wash his hands before dinner in accordance with the tradition. (Remember “germs” hadn’t been discovered yet.) Now, there is nothing wrong with cherishing Traditions that have been handed down to us, tried and true. But if we cherish tradition, we must also be careful that we are clear about what it is that we’re cherishing. Otherwise, the focus on things like clean hands and cups could threaten the whole point of God’s Law—and that is to have right relationships among people and between people and God.

The Pharisees challenge Jesus’ disciples’ failure to observe what Mark calls the “tradition of the elders” (7:5). It’s described by modern anthropologists as “The Great Tradition,” a set of practices defined, maintained, and practiced by urban-living elite Jews of Jesus’ day.   Peasants, travelers like Jesus, fisherman, and those who raised sheep and goats simply weren’t able to maintain these traditions because of the realities of their living conditions and their jobs, as well as the scarcity of water.  The Pharisee’s criticism was, from the start, very unfair and unreasonable.

So where did the tradition of hand washing start? Like many Jewish rituals, it began during the Exodus (30:19-20) from Egypt.  God told the priests they must wash their feet and hands before they entered the tabernacle (temple) tent.  The spiritual reason for this was to enter the presence of God with a pure heart.  So God gave them a meaningful symbol (hand washing) of an important spiritual truth (purity of heart).  To pray, to worship, to enter sacred space, we must prepare ourselves, as we do when we say our confession and be absolved of sin at the beginning of our service each Sunday.  We try to begin with a pure heart, with open ears and mind.

But we humans often have a way of making required spiritual exercises out of meaningful symbols. The Jews turned God’s request to begin worship with a pure heart into an elaborate and highly detailed bureaucratic, burdensome procedure of ritual cleansing with strict regulation of the amount of water, the way the hands were held, etc., etc. for which the priests received payment.  Sadly, it reminds me of my grandson’s baptism, which was so openly void of spirituality that my son and his wife never went to church again.

Anyway, before long, the Jewish ritualized cleansing replaced the spiritual exercise that it had represented in the beginning. The outward symbol of washing was no longer a sign of an inward grace of purity, but the ritual had become an end in itself.  Why was it done?  Because it was required; it was “what we do”. Religion had lost its spirituality; instead ritual controlled -rather than enriched- life.  The cleansing ritual caused people to lose sight of the goal: purity of heart.  Thus Jesus says, “Their heart is far from me, and in vain they worship me.”  He calls the Pharisees “Hypocrites” they have replaced heart-felt religion with lip service, and turned God’s symbol of washing into a type of theater.  In fact, The Greek word hypokrites means “actor.” An appropriate way to read Jesus’ insult in English would be: “You actors! Scripture may be the lines you quote, but is it not the script by which you live.”

Jesus tells the crowd that a little dirt – or anything else- on the outside of a person has nothing to do with how pure their heart is. Instead, he charges, our hurtful words and evil behavior come from inside of us. It is those muddy thoughts we do not control, those dirty images we keep in our heads, those horrible greedy and evil things humans do which destroy our purity of heart and separate us from God.

In our 2nd reading, James, always the practical preacher, gives us this definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Pure religion is not necessarily done in a typical sacred space. Pure religion is caring for the innocent and helpless, helping the destitute, the starving, the sick, and those who have lost hope. There is an incredibly urgent need for pure religion in this world.

James warns us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” We must keep our focus on the goal of love, and not become lost or stained by the divisive, angry, bickering, backstabbing world. So every time you wash your hands, think of having a pure heart, with your heart, soul, and mind always ready to be in the presence of God.

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.

Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!

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).”