Today we return to our consideration of the Bread of Life Discourse in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. In today’s Liturgy of the Word, we are presented with instances of people really hungering for something. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has had just about enough, thank you very much. Despite some successes in preaching the word of the Lord, he has felt a failure. Today’s reading comes after Elijah just defeated all the prophets of the false god Baal in a splendid display of pyrotechnics on Mount Carmel. It’s a wonderful story that you can find in chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, and your homework today is to go home and look it up! I promise, you’ll enjoy the story. Well after that outstanding success, one would expect Elijah to go about boasting of his victory. Instead, Jezebel, the king’s wife and the one who brought the prophets of Baal to Israel in the first place, pledges to take Elijah’s life. Today’s story, then, has him sitting under a scraggly broom tree, which offered little if any shade, and praying for death. For him it would be better for the Lord to take his life than to die by Jezebel’s henchmen. The Lord ignores his prayer and instead twice makes him eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey. Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.
In the second reading, it seems like the Ephesians, far from being a close-knit spiritual community, were more like a bunch of grade school children at recess, or the British House of Commons during a debate. He says that their assemblies were marked by bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling one another, and exhorts them to cut it out. Instead, they are to remember that they had been fed and strengthened by God’s forgiveness that was lavishly poured out on them through the suffering and death of Christ. And he tells them they should be strengthened by that glorious grace to imitate God and live in love.
So Elijah needed strength for the journey, and the Ephesians needed strength for love and compassion. But maybe the greatest spiritual hunger that we see in today’s readings is the hunger of the Jews that were murmuring against Jesus. They were angry with Jesus for simply saying that he came down from heaven. The verb used to describe their reaction is interesting: gogguzo. This is another example of onomatopoeia – it sounds like what it is. Gogguzo means to murmur or complain or grumble. It’s a kind of discontent that comes from a lack of something deep down inside; indeed it comes from a spiritual hunger. They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them in the person of Jesus. Jesus tells them,
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.
The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another. Whether we’re feeling dejected and defeated like Elijah, or feeling cranky and irritable like the Ephesians, or whether we’re just feeling superior and murmuring like the Jews in today’s Gospel, spiritual hunger is something we all must face at one time or another in our lives. From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with one thing or another. Maybe it’s alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives. Soon we end up sitting under a straggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.
If that’s ever happened to you, know that there is only one thing that can fill up that emptiness. And that is Jesus Christ. This Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and longs to be our bread of life, the only bread that can fill up that God-sized hole in our lives. But we have to let him do that. And it’s not so easy for us to let God take over and do what he needs to do in us. We have to turn off the distractions around us, we have to stop trying to fill the hole with other things that never have any hope of satisfying us, and we have to turn to our Lord in trust that only he can give us strength for the journey. Jesus alone is the bread that came down from heaven, and only those who eat this bread will live forever, forever satisfied, forever strengthened.
Because this bread is so important to us, because it is such a great sign of God’s presence in our lives, we should be all the more encouraged to receive the Eucharist frequently and faithfully. Certainly nothing other than sickness or death should deter us from gathering on Sunday to celebrate with the community and receive the Lord in Holy Communion. We should all think long and hard before we decide not to bring our families to Sunday Mass. Sometimes soccer, football, softball and other sports become more important than weekly worship. Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday. I realize that I may well be preaching to those who already know this, and I realize that it’s hard, especially for families, to get to Church at times, but this is way too important for any of us to miss. It is Jesus the Bread of Life who will lead us to heaven, and nothing and no one else.
We also need to talk a bit about how to receive Holy Communion. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to grow a bit lax, and I know there are young people out there right now who will be receiving First Holy Communion this year. So I wanted to take a few minutes to review the way to come to Communion. So if my volunteers would come forward please…
The need for us to do this right is clear. What we say and what we do means something, brothers and sisters in Christ, and we have to make sure that we say and do the right things. We truly believe that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine we are receiving; we believe that it is the very real presence of our Lord, his body and blood, soul and divinity, under the mere appearance of bread and wine. Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we should never allow anything to take its place. Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we must receive with the utmost reverence, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us. We will come forward in a few minutes to share this great gift around the Table of the Lord. As we continue our prayer today, let us remember to always do what the psalmist tells us: “taste and see how good the Lord is!”