Saturday, August 12, 2006

I am the bread of Life

I can remember, in my younger days, seeing a female friend walking down the hallway of my High School. I ran up behind her, threw my arms around her waste, lifted her up in the air, (as was our custom) only to realize that this wasn’t my friend at all. This was a poor stranger that I was triumphantly holding up in the air…right next to her boyfriend. I apologized, put her down, and walked, red-faced, in the complete opposite direction. I imagine most of you have not had quite that huge of a mistake but we all get names and faces confused. After a year at St. Thomas, I still marvel at the number of people who I should be able to call by name that are still a mystery to me. I’d rather not call people by any name than call them by the wrong name and, being a man, I’ll definitely not ask them their name any more than I’ll ask for directions.

In the gospel today, we heard Jesus say, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” It’s hard to believe that a seemingly simple statement such as this caused as much turmoil as it did and I have to be careful here because, two years ago, my homily got me in trouble. People complained loudly about it for this Sunday and I think part of the reason had to do with leaving out the context. You see, to understand why this statement is so controversial, you have to know what comes before it. You might remember that two weeks ago we heard the story of the multiplication of the loaves. Jesus looked out over the crowds and had pity on them. Last week, we briefly interrupted our regular Sunday schedule to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration. We should have been hearing the first part of this reading in which, one day after the multiplication of loaves, a group who had been fed seek him out in order to be fed again. Most of us can probably sympathize with both Jesus and the crowd. When someone does something nice for you, you are more likely to turn to them in need, right? And, likewise, it seems like there are some people that constantly turn to you for help if you offer it once. In what was supposed to be last week’s reading, Jesus sought to help them understand that he wasn’t just giving them a hand-out, he was giving them salvation. They ask for a sign similar to the one that Moses had given their ancestors. So Jesus reveals to them that the bread that they were eating was his flesh that would, through his suffering on the cross and his glorious resurrection, redeem the world.

That brings us to our present reading which is, in some way, trying to clarify how Jesus’ flesh is this bread of life. There is an allusion to the Old Testament Exodus event in that, just as the Jews murmured through the desert on their way to the promised land, so this group of Jews are murmuring about Jesus’ identity. In some ways, this story reminds me of the story that we heard a few weeks ago when Jesus was in his home town but he could not perform a miracle for them because of their lack of faith. These Jews have the same objections. They ask, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” You can almost hear the sarcasm seething through each word. As scripture scholar Diane Bergant said, “In a clever turn-of-phrase, (Jesus) explains that only those drawn by God will be drawn by the one sent by God.”[1]

What would only become clear later was that, in this instruction, Jesus was calling them to a new identity. He was calling them to become Christian. Not just to break bread with him, but to believe in him and, through that belief to see in the bread the reality of his flesh, his very self. The action of the Eucharist was to manifest and enliven the faith that was given them by the Father. Now, please don’t get me wrong. If you know me you know that I have a profound love for the Jewish People. I get frustrated by the statements of some liberal Jews and I get frustrated by some of the actions of Israel. But, especially given what has happened surrounding Mel Gibson and the military activity in the Middle East, I think it’s once again important to understand that Jesus was inviting the Jews to a fuller, deeper understanding of their relationship to God, not nullifying their past understanding. Our Jewish brothers and sisters remain in a relationship with God, even if it is incomplete without an understanding of the messiah.

In our present circumstances, unfortunately, the Eucharist not only separates Jew from Christian but, as we are all painfully aware of, it also separates Christian from Christian. In our ecumenically charged world in which we tend to emphasize what unites us as Christians and even find ourselves frustrated by certain Christian denominations that don’t even consider us Christian, we may feel tempted to obliterate the differences and expect that anyone is allowed to take communion. As we look more deeply at this reading, we are confronted by a very divisive Christ that does not tolerate half-hearted unity. Either, we understand that, through the body of Christ that we receive and the faith that we cultivate, we are being led to the Father or we do not have eternal life. This isn’t simple bread that appears from heaven, this is the flesh of Jesus Christ that connects our lives to the cross. In our exuberance to be one, we cannot deny the differences that painfully separate the body of Christ even as we continue to pray and work for those differences to be eliminated. We, as Catholics, must continue to take seriously the gospel call, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

[1] Bergant, Diane Preaching the New Lectionary Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Mn c. 1999

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