Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ / Corpus Christi, 6-18-17
The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna
We started our readings today in Deuteronomy, when God fed the people with the miracle of manna as they escaped from slavery in Egypt. God had told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven” for you. According to Exodus 16, manna was a daily reminder of the promise of God’s goodness. Manna had never been seen before, never appeared on the Sabbath, was present for 40 years, and then stopped forever when the Israelites were able to eat produce in the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12).
Ps 78:24 reads, “Man ate the bread of the angels; God sent them food in abundance.” Wisdom 16:20 reads, “You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven.” This manna was recognized as holy, and a jar of manna was kept in the Temple’s most holy place with Ark of the Covenant.
It won’t surprise you that there were many Jewish Traditions about manna. One was that manna was kept in the Heavenly Temple where God dwells. They believed that manna was an eternal reality, existing long before it “rained down” on the Israelites. Another Tradition said when the Messiah came, he would be a “new Moses” and manna would return to earth; the miracle of manna would again occur between the coming of the Messiah and the final resurrection of the dead/ the final judgment. That, in fact, is the period of time we live in, and Jesus gave us the new manna.
Why am I telling you Jewish Traditions that are found in rabbinic writings from the first and second century? Well, here’s an idea for you: the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a New Moses and the return of the manna from heaven.
Chapter 6 of John starts with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, provides all the bread (and more) the hungry crowd could eat. The people “get” the symbolism and prepare to “take (Jesus) by force and make him king”, which fits their political interpretation of the role of Messiah. They call out, “This is indeed the prophet (Moses) who is (prophesized) to come into the world!” They pursue Jesus and demand a sign, saying that “Moses gave (the people) bread from heaven…give us this bread always”.
So Jesus responds, “I AM the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they (later) died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I give… is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)
Many of his followers were horrified! Jews in Jesus’ time had good reason to doubt. Jews were directly forbidden to drink blood in the Law (Lev 17:11), because it contained the very essence of life, and to never eat the flesh of another human. What Jesus said truly offended them, and they left him and returned to their former way of life. They thought they understood, but they did not believe him. Peter emphatically says he & the apostles believe, but not so much that they understand. No one understood until Easter.
This is the point in the Gospel at which our lectionary stops, as do most homilies. However, it is also the point at which Jesus begins an explanation. Obviously, Jesus is talking about the Last Supper – the elements of the Mass, and we have to return to the discussion of “manna”. Once again, John uses “bookends.” Jesus starts this part of the discourse with “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (6:48) and ends it with “This is the bread that comes down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors, who ate and still died; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58) Manna is the teaching vehicle. This is how it works: OT/ NT, prefiguration/ fulfillment, foreshadowing/clarity. Just as Moses was a great father of the faith/ Jesus was the Son of God. If the old manna was “food of the angels”, then the new manna couldn’t be just bread…and wine, but the food of eternity for all people.
John’s Gospel provides us 2 keys to understanding. 1st key: Jesus says, “What if… you were to see (me) ascending to where (I) was before?” Would it change your mind? Remember that Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); that he was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12); and referred to himself as God by saying “I AM” (John 8) –when Moses asked God his name, God said, “I AM” (Exodus 3). He had come from heaven and was divine. God. The discussion has changed from human to divine.
2nd Key- equally important-Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh (a Greek expression meaning earthly things, not meat) is of no avail.” (John 6: 63) What you see & touch on earth can’t create life. Instead, he was talking about his risen body and blood; his resurrected body is Spirit, the Spirit of Life. His body then was no longer bound by earthly time, form, or space, as we know from the post-resurrection appearances. We are no longer talking about daily earthly events. We moved to the rhelm of eternity.
The Spirit came with the appearance of the familiar, yet fully divine. Jesus links his resurrection to our resurrection when he says, “(They) who eat my flesh and drink my blood (meaning the fullness and very essence of the eternal God who created life) have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). Jesus said, “God is Spirit” in John 4:24, and now says, “It is the Spirit that gives life”. Bread feeds our cells and allows us to live on earth; the manna of the Mass feeds us for eternal life.
I was thinking as I wrote this that if I showed my cell phone to the disciples, they wouldn’t have understood it. We have difficulty understanding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Thinking of eternity in the mystical sense is more than tough for us. Yet, I can’t describe what I feel when I kiss the altar nor can I count the number of people who have believed in the Eucharist thru the years. Even Melchizedek, in the time of Abraham, already seemed to have this “bread & wine” ritual. I know this: it must be from God. As you receive today, focus on that fullness of life, the resurrected Christ in these elements, and know that he is able to bring you, pure and made whole, into the presence of God. It is God’s gift to you, so come in faith and give thanks.
Today’s readings are about food, manna in the desert and Jesus’ flesh and blood as food for us. Our food we call the Eucharist or communion, that is we come together as a community to celebrate Christ’s life and passion and death and resurrection and are fed his body and blood. John tells us today that whoever eats Christ’s body and drinks his blood will have Christ in him and will be able to have eternal life. As manna was meant for the Israelites as a people escaping slavery and without food and a need to reconnect not only with God but also with each other as a community and nation bound together. This need of coming together and acting as a nation is a strong reason why they remained in the desert for forty years as they bonded their lives together and became once again God’s people. So it is for us, that Christ’s body and blood binds us to him not only individually as he comes to us, but also a community that is bound together to look out for each other and to bring Christ’s Word to the world. It is a principle act of the church which brings us together frequently so as to be prepared to live out and proclaim our faith and love to the world. As our body craves and needs food, so does our soul need Christ’s special food which keeps us ready for the journey that we walk together. And so in this special way, Christ is present and comes to us and remains with us as he has remained with the church throughout the ages. His love is ever-present and remains in us.
One thing we see out around us is John 3:16. We see it on signs, at sporting events and other places. People seem to use it to remind us of Christ’s presence and his life and death. God gave his only Son so that those who believe might have eternal life. What we must remember, is that in John’s thought eternal life was the age to come, an age begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Of course, no idea of the age to come is possible without the Holy Spirit and his coming as the new age dawned. In this way, we can see that the gospel is meant to reflect the idea of the Trinity. I think we are all acutely aware that we believe in One God, three persons, but explaining it is beyond what is possible for us. It is hard for us to conceive that God is not material and who and what He is will come to light at some future time of our existence. What we do have is an experience of three persons, Father(or a parental being), Son and Holy Spirit. We know the Son at an appointed time entered the world to give his life so that creation could be restored to union with the Trinity. At the end of his time, the Son left(sent) his Spirit to keep alive his Word and to aid and inspire his followers as they proceeded to walk in the new life given by the Son. This is why we always invoke the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Theologians for centuries have written and speculated about God and Theology including the Trinity. Yet Thomas Aquinas after a lifetime of writing and after a mystical experience concluded his work was straw.
Faith is what is needed. We come to know God by faith and experience by opening ourselves to him. Christ physically comes in the Eucharist, but the Spirit abides in us if we permit and helps us form an intimate and positive relationships as we walk the path and the way of the new life given to believers.
When Differences Bring Understanding
St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai. John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day. How do we know that? Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ. Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”
John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.” John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.
Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week. And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane. They have a lot to answer for. They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say? “Peace to you.” Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side. He literally opens himself up to them. It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer. Next, he repeats “Peace to you.” Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.
“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed. It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.” No. It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace. (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.) Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them. This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life. It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.
Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop. Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.
The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.
These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.
Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”. The Spirit brings closeness. Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language. We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before. The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on. We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self. We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.
What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say. What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?
This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.” Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?
In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing. But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven. What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone? What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?
What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”
Pentecost Sunday is a day as important as Easter and Christmas. What we celebrate is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers and his new church. Our readings today tell us this is so, but at the same time we see different traditions and renderings of it. John places it on Easter night itself with Jesus appearance that first evening. Luke places it 50 days later. What we do know is that the early followers saw Jesus after his Resurrection and that in those times Jesus brought or sent his Holy Spirit to his Church and to the people of it. Luke and John saw the Holy Spirit as a powerful force in the church and community and for its members. The enthusiasm of the disciples and the spread and growth of the community was something they clearly attributed to the Holy Spirit. Even today we see and experience the Holy Spirit in the church and in our parishes and communities. Christianity continues today not because men believe and work to keep it alive, but because the Holy Spirit keeps the Word alive. Humanity, unfortunately, has made a mess as we can see in the splits and divisions. Yet, in spite of that, Christ’s word continues to be present because his Spirit remains on the earth.
The real lesson today of the Holy Spirit is to be open, to listen, to follow the promptings given out of sincere prayer. Like Christ, the Spirit moves and prompts us to move on to the way forward to His Father. As the world moves on, the Spirit prompts us to move with it. Over centuries of difficult learning the church and humanity has gradually learned the need to be open and to grow with the times and the unfolding of the wonders of creation as we get to know them better. Christ said the Spirit would teach them everything they would need to know, but first we must be open and listen and discern what the Spirit is helping us to understand. It is the Spirit who brings us to Jesus’ path to the Father. Like any path, it needs to be fresh and clear and ready for travel. Jesus led the way, and the Spirit keeps it prepared for us.