Today’s gospel is about death and peace. Fear is the opposite of peace and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid of anything unless it can kill our soul. We know that if we believe in Christ and walk with him, we have life already and it will continue on even after death. With that life we should have peace and have confidence in God. Yet, I ask you as we live in this world, when everything is well and we are at peace, does it not seem that there is some kind of uneasiness or doubt that something could go wrong. In many ways this is true because we are still in a world and time that sin and evil are still around and we can be effected by it. However, God knows and watches and our faith ultimately prevails as long as we keep faith and weather any storm or hardship on the way. Jesus pointed out that the common sparrow or pigeon simply lighting on the earth is known by God. How much more is he not aware of his human creatures? So that Jesus is saying is that death is not to be feared for it is not an end in itself if we are truly men of faith and at peace, the true peace that knows God embraces us and awaits us as we finish our earthly journey. No matter what we face, it is a step or a moment to a final peace and union with God. All of us have seen loved ones go before us, and it is difficult to know why and understand. But let us all remember we are God’s creatures and we live in his time and in his kingdom. Certainly, we have questions and concerns at times, but his peace, his way is fully ours if we surrender ourselves and realize all our doubts and questions will be satisfied when we are fully embraced into his love at the end of our time.
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.
Dry Bones or Live Bones??
Our readings today are very complex. It’s easy to be left wondering exactly what the writers are trying to tell us. Let’s start with Ezekiel. As I hope you remember, one of the pivotal events in the ancient nation of Israel’s history was being overrun by the military giant, Babylon. Babylon exiled the leaders of defeated nations to another country and then brought in other exiles to populate that nation; the goal was to break down the social structure and the culture. So the upper-class Israelites were taken to Babylon and people from neighboring countries occupied Israel. The peasants were left, abandoned.
Ezekiel was the first prophet of Israel who became a prophet while outside the Holy Land. He received his call in Babylon, and one of his first duties was to tell the exiles that their Temple had been completely destroyed, for many of them had believed it could never happen. Then his job was to encourage the exiles by giving them a Utopian vision of the Israel of the future. He gave the exiles a vision of restoration to prepare them to return home and begin the job of rebuilding. But the vision is more than just restoration. It is a vision of resurrection of the dead – the totally and finally dead; a vision which begins with piles of dried out bones. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Ezekiel says, “Dry bones: hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, ‘I will bring spirit into you, that you will come to life.’” And the bones came together with sinews and flesh and skin, and God gave them breathe, and spirit came into them and they came alive.
Then God explained to Ezekiel, “These bones are Israel. The people say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” The imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people that will come about they return from exile. The imagery of resurrection describes God’s revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him. What had died is now alive. This vision proclaimed that the fullness of their life, as a people, was this: knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.
From the Christian prospective, the nation of Israel was indeed rebuilt, but the war dead did not come to life again. The people who returned were given the strength and desire to restore their nation, and there was an extended time of peace in the land. But resurrection did not come until the Messiah, Jesus, appeared.
It is exactly that resurrection that is the confusion in our reading from the Gospel of John. At the start of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is aware of Lazarus’ illness. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ concern is that Lazarus will not die, but the illness was for the glory of God, and that the Son of God may be glorified through it. There is confusion for the disciples between spiritual death and physical death. Yet Jesus deliberately waits, even though he was only two miles away.
John’s community also felt that somehow, Jesus was deliberately waiting, delaying his return to earth. They were tired of hoping he was might arrive at any time. At first it was believed that the 2nd coming of Christ would occur shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. Christians expected to live to see him return. But people in the early church, specifically John’s community, were dying. There was a growing scandal and disappointment of the people, leading to doubts and loss of faith/ spiritual death.
Then the disciples are confused again; they misunderstand the word “sleep”. Finally Jesus tells them clearly: Lazarus has died. For the 3rd time, the disciples are confused. They think they all will die if they return to Judea, where there had been threats of stoning Jesus.
John’s community was feeling threatened by persecution.
When Jesus arrives, Martha, like John’s community, clearly wants to ask, “Why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you come sooner?” But she only gently says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha understands and makes her confession of faith, as we do even to this day at Christian funerals.
Mary greets Jesus boldly: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Then she burst into tears, along with the others around her. Jesus himself began to weep, but likely in frustration more than sorrow, because there were those there who were openly critical. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
John might have taken this angry and frustrated quote from members of his community as they gathered for the burial of a beloved believer.
Martha protests at the opening of the tomb, and Jesus must remind her: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” As He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, John writes, “Now many who had seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
No doubt John was also praying that hearing the story of Lazarus will increase and solidify the belief and faith of his community some 60 years or so later.
This event is in the Gospel of John as the last of the miracles that Jesus did. It was the crowning glory of the many “signs” recorded by John. It is the miracle that must be remembered and reread every time death seems to still be in charge. Mature faith enables a believer to face physical death knowing that eternal life is not just a promise of resurrection, but is also a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus.
When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, the last Passover was near, as was the crucifixion. What better time to be reminded of the power and glory of God than when we face a major trial, a time of crisis and suffering? Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and I hope you will be able to participate in the Holy Week services. These days are a time to acknowledge the suffering that is a part of life and the cruelty that is part of people. But acknowledging those things also make us better able to believe the truth of God’s love and majesty and power, and the joy of the resurrection enables us to hold strong in the faith.
Today’s first and third readings bring up the idea of Resurrection or rising from the dead. In Ezekiel, we see the “Dry Bones” passage maybe best known from the song “dem bones goin’ to rise again”. Ezekiel is not addressing resurrection directly, but is addressing a people captured and enslaved and dragged off to Babylon. The prophet was reminding the people that God had not abandoned them and would restore them and bring them home. From lost hope, God will give them a new life.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus is in no hurry to run to Lazarus’ side when he hears he is sick. Instead he waits three or four days until he travels to Bethany. At this time, he knows Lazarus is dead, yet he knows what he is about to do. In the middle east, Israel included, it is the custom to bury someone immediately after they die, usually before sundown. Obviously, the climate and the lack of embalming and other means of preparation of the body makes this a bit of a necessity. It was a culture, where family and friends prepared the grave and carried the person out and buried them. The reality of death to them was stark and harsh. Even for us today, death is a hard and stark reality even if we in some ways deal with it in a much different manner. With death there is a finality that all people must confront. As Christians we see it in light of Jesus. In John’s gospel, we have seen Jesus raise a little girl, a widow’s son, and today Lazarus. The little girl had just succumbed, the widow’s son was being carried to his grave, and Lazarus was four days in his grave. Here are three instances of the dead coming back to life. Such a happening had reverberations in Jesus time, but surely raises the question of what is death, what happens after death even today in our time. We know Jesus said we will live forever, but what could this mean. It is not something easily answered or even understood, and only truly know by faith.
Faith tells us God is love, and that love embraces and lifts us all up. As we are joined to him in life through his spirit and his love, that union and joining is one that continues through life, passing us through that passage of death into the love-filled life of eternity. The raising of Lazarus was an important act before Jesus’ own death and resurrection to point out his power over life and death. Our lesson is to see that God’s love is always with us and even in sorrow and loss, he is there. Life as well as love itself continues in some way we will only know when we experience it ourselves.