The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse V: So What?

Today’s readings

“So what?”  That’s perhaps the most important question of the spiritual life.  Maybe it’s even the most important question of life, period.  Because after we have all taken time to absorb the information around us, after we have learned all that we have been taught, we have to decide what, if anything, that information and teaching mean for us as human beings.  What is the impact of this information on our lives? What difference does it make to have come to know this?  How will this experience change my life?  So what?

I mention that because I think today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a “So what?” moment today.  As you know, these past several weeks, we have been reflecting on the “Bread of Life Discourse” as presented in chapter six of the Gospel of John. It all began five weeks ago with Saint John’s telling of the feeding of the multitudes: how thousands of people were fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  It was a great miracle of abundance: indeed, the leftovers were even more food than they started with: twelve baskets intended to feed those who couldn’t make it to the banquet, those who hungered throughout the whole world.

Ever since that, in these last three weeks, Jesus has been unpacking the meaning of that miracle for the crowd.  They wanted more food, but he wanted to feed them in much more important ways, in ways that touched the deepest hungers of their lives, in ways that could lead them to the eternal banquet of the Lord where no one would ever hunger or thirst again.  He made a bold claim: “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.” (John 6:58) And now, the crowds grapple with that information.

Some of them are offended by the notion that he, the carpenter’s son, the one they have known and whose family they have seen, could ever be anything eternal. How on earth could this common man, this one who is one of them, be the Son of God, the Bread of Life, the answer to all their eternal questions?  Others are disgusted that the answer to these eternal questions involved eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  How horrible that he would even suggest such a cannibalistic approach to eternal life! And in today’s passage, we see the impact of all that: some of them leave and return to their former way of life. Those who walked away weren’t just hangers-on or spectators – they were among his disciples.  And then Jesus asks the Twelve – the Apostles – the question of all questions: “Do you also want to leave?”  He might as well have said to them: “So what?”

And, as usual, it’s Saint Peter who expresses the faith of these twelve men: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  For them, at least, the “So what?” moment had led them to recognize something deeper in this miracle of feeding and in the words of this uncommon common man, and that something was the possibility of an eternity, which would never be possible without Jesus.  Of course, they couldn’t have known the full meaning of that statement of faith, or the cost of it, but they would certainly see it all unfold in the death and resurrection of Christ, which would solidify their faith: well, for all but one of them.

For me, the prayer of Saint Peter: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” has played a particularly important role.  It’s come up more than once in my journey of faith. I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith.  Even though I was always going to Mass, for a time I had also been attending Willow Creek – the big megachurch up in Barrington – with my friends.  The music was nice and the sermons sounded good.  But along the way my pastor, Father Mike O’Keefe of blessed memory, called me in and had a “come to Jesus” with me.  It was irritating at the time, but now I couldn’t be more grateful.  I remember he told me, “Patrick, I know you would never be able to go to the chapel and stand in front of the Tabernacle and say that Jesus wasn’t there.”  I took a while to think about that, and one night when I went to Willow Creek they were having their monthly communion.  They passed around bread and grape juice and I realized that Father Mike was right: Jesus was in the Tabernacle, not there at Willow Creek, and that I would never be able to live without the Sacraments of the Church.  In retrospect, that moment was pivotal in my vocational call. Father Mike’s fatherly pastoring of me and gentle rebuke helped me to see that I couldn’t leave the Catholic Church: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

A few years later, when I was in seminary, that prayer became important again.  I started seminary in fall of 2001, and in the spring of that year, the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke open.  Half of my class left seminary that year, and by the end of my time at Mundelein the 23 of us who started together dwindled to just eight of us who graduated.  Plenty of times in those five years, I wondered if I should leave too.  Why would I want to get involved in the priesthood at this moment in our Church’s history – this painful moment?  As I prayed about it over and over, I kept getting the same answer, over and over: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In my last parish, I followed a beloved pastor who was very ill and had passed away a few months before I was asked to go there.  The people there, because of his illness, had coalesced in a way that they carried the burden of the parish duties and really were able to exist without an active pastor. So when I went there, it was more than difficult.  They hadn’t come to know me or my love for them yet – indeed, I hadn’t come to know my love for them yet.  And so I asked the Lord if I could leave my vocation.  His answer, obviously, wasn’t “yes.”  And the prayer that kept coming back to me was: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In these last days, with the resurgence of the scandals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, I’ve found myself praying those words again.  It’s hard to be a priest right now; it’s hard to be Catholic.  If you’ve found yourself wanting to throw in the towel and leave it all behind, I dare say you’re not alone.  If you’re angry and hurt and disappointed and frustrated, then you and I have some common feelings.  But I have to believe in the power and presence of Christ our God in the Eucharist. That in these five weeks, the blessing of the Real Presence: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is what keeps me coming back, helps me get out of bed each morning.  In fact, that gift makes me want to be a better priest, a better Catholic, every single day.  Because only Jesus’ Eucharistic presence in the Church has the key to my eternal life. Where else on earth would I ever want to go?

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse III: Bread for the Journey

Today’s readings

You may have heard of Viaticum, which we generally think of as one’s last Communion. Indeed, the Church encourages us by precept of the Church to receive Holy Communion in our last moments, if at all possible.  The word viaticum is Latin for “bread for the journey.”  So in our last moments, when we set out on our journey to the life that is to come, we are fed with that Food that sustains us.  It’s a commendable practice and I highly encourage it.

Today we see the Scriptural basis for viaticum, that bread for the journey.  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 that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, 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, finds 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 get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.

Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another.  We all have very difficult journeys to face in our lives.  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 sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives.  Soon we end up sitting under a scraggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.  If we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person 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.  We have to let him do that.  But 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.  It is only this bread that will give us strength for the arduous journeys of our lives.

Because this Food 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 our 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 or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  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 – the goal of all our lives and our most important journey, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that 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 return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive this great gift around the Table of the Lord.  As we continue our prayer today, let us remember the advice God gives to Elijah: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II – What’s Your Hunger?

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.”  That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to Hungry, of course!  I always think about that when these readings come around because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.  I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.

Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.  And that slavery was not some kind of minor inconvenience: the people were told to take care of the most strenuous of all labor, building the cities and even making the bricks for them themselves.  If they slacked off at all, or didn’t meet their captors’ unreasonable quotas, they were severely beaten.  They were subject to racism at its nastiest form, and their baby boys were put to death to keep them from rising up.  And yet, the people say they’d rather be in Egypt so they could have a little food in their stomachs.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him?  Well, they want more food, of course.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.  So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers to distribute to the whole world, proving that he was enough, and more than enough, to feed their hungers, and they stillwant to see a sign?  Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really.  He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way.  So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  [Very much so for Antoinette, our new catechumen, God has stirred up the hunger in her heart to know him and come to him and to join with us in the Church as we worship him together.]  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse I – Jesus is Enough and More than Enough

Today’s readings

Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, used to say that every celebration of the Eucharist was a greater creative act than the creation of the universe.  Now I think greater theological minds than mine would likely debate that, but what Bishop Kaffer gets at is worth considering.  The Eucharist is an incredible miracle, and we are privileged to be part of it every time we gather to celebrate Mass.  Beginning this Sunday, for five weeks, we will take a bit of a detour from reading Mark’s Gospel as we do during this Church year.  We will instead read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.”

We begin that study with consideration of the feeding of the multitudes, a story that has the unique distinction of being in all four of the Gospels.  But, because this is John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, he covers it a bit differently.  For John it is clearly Jesus who is in charge here.  First of all, it is Jesus who notices that the crowds are hungry; they have expressed no such need, and it wasn’t the apostles bringing it to his attention so they could dismiss the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them.

Second, like a good salesman, he doesn’t ask any questions to which he doesn’t already know the answer.  When he asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he already knows the answer.  But certainly it stumps Philip, who, not recognizing it as a rhetorical question, notes that not even 200 days wages would provide food for each of these people to have a little.  The key here, though, is that Jesus asked the question knowing full well what he was going to do.

And third, when the loaves and fishes had been gathered and blessed, it is Jesus, not the Twelve, who distribute the food to the people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s version of this story, Jesus gives the food to the Apostles to give to the people.  But in John’s account, Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, and gives it to the people himself.  The word “thanks” here, in Greek, is eucharisteo, which makes obvious the fact that this is Jesus, fully in charge, giving the Eucharist to the people and to us.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the important teaching that Jesus is enough.  Here the boy brought two fish and five loaves of bread, and they were barley loaves, the bread of the poor.  It was probably his lunch for the day, and certainly was not meant to feed so many people.  And there were a lot of people.  The story says there were five thousand men there.  We can assume there were also women and children; after all it was a little boy who sacrificed his lunch for the crowd.  So the actual number of people fed was probably much larger than five thousand.  But look again at how many pieces of food there were: five loaves, two fish, together that equals seven, which is a very Biblical number, usually symbolizing completeness.  Jesus takes the little lunch, and in his hands it is complete: it is enough, and more than enough, to feed the hungry crowd.

And please note that not everyone who needed to be fed was at the picnic.  The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers, which is another Biblical number that calls to mind the Twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel, which means the whole world.  All these leftovers are meant to feed others, —the whole world — including you and me.  And that can happen because Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill our hungry stomachs, and hearts, and souls.  This little picnic is the Eucharistic banquet par excellence, the first giving of the sacrament that is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

Now I want to make a note about an explanation of this miracle that you may sometimes hear.  The explanation goes that when Jesus started passing around the loaves and fish, other people noticed what he did and they too decided to share their lunches with the crowd.  So someone took out a sandwich and shared it, another shared some of their fish, or some bread, or whatever it was they had.  And so on and so on until lo and behold, everyone has had enough and there are leftovers.  This is often known as the “miracle of sharing” and it’s very heartwarming to be sure.

But that explanation is wrong, dead wrong.  Don’t let anyone insist to you that it’s right.  Because here’s the rule of thumb: whenever an explanation makes the Gospel story more about us than it is about Jesus, it’s always wrong.  Always.  Without exception.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus came to bring, and the story is always about him.  The miracle here is not that so many people were touched to their heart and decided to share.  The miracle is that a boy sacrificed his five loaves and two fish, and in Jesus’ hands they become enough, and more than enough, to fill the stomachs of every person on that grassy hillside, and twelve baskets besides.  Period.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day.  Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people.  Perhaps you have seen a need in the community, maybe a family who is in need, or an issue that needs to be addressed.  You noticed that because the Jesus is working in you.  It’s very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn’t happen in disciples.  Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day.  Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it.  What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need?  How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need?  Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish.  Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that.  If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have, and it will be enough, and more than enough, to satisfy the need.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time.  Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ our Savior.  At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today’s Gospel.  We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish; we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life.  Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can.  We must make it our constant care to attend Mass all the time, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist.  Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of bread far more nourishing than barley loaves.  We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers out of this holy place to feed those who hunger around us this week.  We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack.  We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”

The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Bread of Life Discourse V)

Today’s readings

Life calls us to make some very difficult decisions sometimes.  Who will we vote for?  What school will we choose for our children?  Is this the person I should marry?  Is this job the right one for me right now?  In today’s readings, though, the players are making a very basic choice: whom will they serve?  It seems like the answer should be easy – God, of course – but for the people of that time, and if we’re honest, for all of us, there are certainly distractions to true worship.

The Israelites were certainly tempted to worship the so-called gods of the lands they moved into.  That would have made it easier for them to get along, but more importantly, would have provided economic benefits as they allied themselves with the native peoples.  For those who had been following Jesus, they couldn’t get past the hard teaching that he was the Bread of Life, come down from heaven, so many of them turned away.  And for people in our own time, don’t we all find excuses to turn away?  Living our faith is sometimes inconvenient because we can’t get the kids to their sports and still come to Mass, or it’s uncomfortable because we are embarrassed to live our faith and stand up for truth when business or social relationships call us to do what we know we should not.

Everyone at some point has to answer the questions we hear in our first reading and our Gospel today:  Decide today whom you will serve.  Do you also want to leave?

Today’s Gospel reading is the conclusion to the five-week study the Church has given us of the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, which we commonly call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We began back at the end of July, when Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish.  The crowds pursued him because they wanted more, and Jesus gave them food of another kind: spiritual teaching about what really feeds us.  In these last couple of weeks he has told them that he himself is the Bread of Life, that if one desires to avoid hunger in eternity, they need to partake of his own Body and Blood, because he is the true bread that came down from heaven.

The people have had two problems with this: first, they objected to him saying he had come down from heaven.  Many of them knew his family, and some probably knew him since childhood.  How then could he claim to have come from heaven?  Secondly, the prospect of eating his Body and Blood was repulsive to them.  They were so scandalized that, of the thousands he had fed, most of them returned home now, and even many of his disciples said goodbye.  So he poses the question to his Apostles – the chosen Twelve: – Do you also want to leave?  Speaking for the rest, Peter professes faith that Jesus is the only One to whom they can turn, that he is in fact the Holy One of God.

The situation is not that different from the one Joshua addresses in our first reading today.  Joshua took over leadership of the people after Moses died, and he is now showing his leadership style.  He will not be a leader that forces the people to do one thing or another.  Instead, he points out the many wonderful things God has done for the people.  This is the God who led them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert journey.  This is the God who led them into the Promised Land, the land he promised their ancestors he would give them.  And now that they have received the many benefits of God’s mighty promises, it’s time for them to make a choice.  Will they serve the so-called gods of the pagan inhabitants of the land, or will they serve the Lord their God, who gave them so much.  For Joshua, the choice is easy: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Peter and Joshua have it right.  They know the real source of grace, they know the One true God, they know the source of everlasting food and drink, and they choose accordingly.  And now the question is ours.  We have all of us been on a five-week-long Eucharistic retreat.  If you’ve missed any part of it, I encourage you to go back and read all of the sixth chapter of John.  It will take you ten or fifteen minutes if you read it nice and slow.  And as we stand here at the end of it all, we too have to make the decisions we hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word: decide today whom you will serve; what about you, will you also leave?

It’s a critical question for us.  Because there are lots of entities in our world that are vying for our servitude.  Will we serve the so-called gods of the people in whose country we live?  We who are disciples are aliens here; this is not our true home.  So what’s it going to be?  Are we going to serve the gods of relativism, of greed, and the culture of death?  Will we turn away and no longer follow our Lord?  Or will we recognize with the disciples that there is no one else to whom we can turn and say with Joshua, “we will serve the Lord?”

At one point or another in every disciple’s life, he or she has to answer this question.  For me, it came in my early thirties, when I had been going to Willow Creek Church with some friends.  I was attracted, as many are, to the music and the preaching and I had many good experiences there.  There came a point in which I felt like I had to make a decision between the Catholic Church and Willow Creek, and I spoke to my pastor about it.  We went back and forth for a while and finally Father Mike put it very bluntly: “I don’t think you would ever stand in that chapel and say Jesus wasn’t present there.”

Shortly after that, I went to Willow Creek while they had their monthly “Lord’s Supper” service.  And that was part of the problem: it was monthly, not every week, certainly not every day.  And it wasn’t Jesus: it was just bread and wine that was a mere symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood.  They had to project the Lord’s Prayer on the screen, because people didn’t just know it.  And the speaker in his sermon, apparently an ex-Catholic, made light of the Sacrament of Penance.  And in that moment, I knew Father Mike was right.  Christ is present in the Tabernacle, he is present on the altar, present in the sacraments, and there is no way in the world I could ever live without that.  I couldn’t turn away, and I would serve the Lord in the Catholic Church.  Who would ever guessed it would have led me here today!

And so I leave you with the same question Joshua posed to the Israelites and Jesus posed to his Twelve.  You have been fed at this table on the Bread that came down from heaven; the holy Bread of eternal life, the Body and Blood of our Savior God.  Yes, there are distractions out there, but we all know deep in our hearts where the true food is.  So will you also leave?  Decide today whom you will serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B] – Bread of Life Discourse III

Today’s readings

There’s an awful lot of murmuring going on in today’s readings.  First, the prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, takes refuge under a broom tree in the desert, pleading that God would take his life rather than let his enemies catch up with him.  Then the Ephesians have apparently been displaying enough bitterness, anger, shouting, reviling, anger and malice that Saint Paul has to tell them to cut it out.  Finally the Galileans, having enjoyed the feeding of the multitudes and then asking Jesus for more, become indignant when he tells them he is the bread come down from heaven.  Murmur, murmur, murmur.

The word, “murmur” and the Greek word that is translated as such – “gogguzo” – are examples of onomatopoeia, that is, the words sound like what they are.  Gogguzo means to murmur or complain or grumble.  It’s a kind of discontent that comes from a lack of something deep down inside; as we see it used here, it comes from a spiritual hunger.  We see it in all three of our readings today.

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 that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, 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, finds 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 get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  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 as one would expect, were more like a bunch of grade school children at recess, or the British House of Commons during a debate.   Saint Paul calls them 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 those Galileans that were murmuring against Jesus.  Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

 

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 sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, 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 we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person 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.  We have to let him do that.  But 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 our 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 or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  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 – the goal of all our lives, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that 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 return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive 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!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [Cycle B]: Bread of Life Discourse II

Today’s readings

My niece, Molly, wants to open a restaurant when she grows up.  She said that she is going to call it, simply, “Hungry.”  Seems like a good enough name for a restaurant to me.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to “Hungry,” of course!  Based on what Molly likes to eat, I think “Hungry’s” menu will feature relatively simple fare: macaroni and cheese, and cake for dessert.  What more do you need?

But Molly may be on to something even deeper here, I think.  “Hungry” is a great name for her restaurant, because we humans are always hungry for something.  We certainly can see that clearly in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.

I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.  Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God.

And it’s a shocking rejection, to be quite frank.  The slavery they were subject to was not some kind of minor inconvenience.  It’s not just that they were a little underpaid for their labor.  No, they were beaten if they didn’t meet outrageous quotas; any kind of discontent would have cost them their lives.  They lived in fear all the time, not knowing what new cruel joke their oppressors would subject them to.  And so they cried out to God, who heard them, and delivered them.

And the deliverance wasn’t some tiny little act of mercy.  It’s not like God opened a tiny door and they escaped on their own.  No: God basically made a laughing stock of the pharaoh, who had made a laughing stock of the people Israel.  He gave pharaoh a dose of what he had given the people.  God made the plight of the Egyptians so bad that they were glad to be rid of the Israelites and basically helped them pack for the journey, giving them all of their gold and silver valuables to take with them.  When the Israelites could not figure out the way they should go, God provided a column of cloud by day and fire by night so that they could see the right path.  When the Egyptians pursued them and gained on them, God opened up the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through, and then closed it back up over the Egyptians, swallowing up their armies, their horses, their chariots and their charioteers.

But now they’re a little hungry, so they’d like to return the gift, thank you very much.  And when you think about it, this is really illogical.  Is God, who was powerful enough to overthrow the Egyptians, and to deliver his people through the Red Sea, not powerful enough to feed them besides?  Of course he is, and God will certainly feed his people when it’s time, and will not let them die of hunger and thirst in the desert.  How could they think otherwise?  But still, they were hungry.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Their motives are not shocking: they enjoyed the food that Jesus provided in last week’s Gospel, and they are looking for more of the same.  When they catch up with him, Jesus engages them in dialogue.  Jesus, of course, recognizes that they have pursued him not for any religious or spiritual reason, but because he fed them and they are looking for more of the same.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.

They ask him how they can accomplish the works of God, which is a fair enough question.  That’s really the purpose of our lives too.  But they probably mean that they want to know how they can live the law, which is not nearly as deep as Jesus wishes to go.  He tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, and they want to see a sign?  I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to think they wouldn’t recognize a sign from God if it came up and bit them in the nose!

Jesus, instead, would redefine hunger.  Like I said, he wanted to go much deeper.  Barley loaves and manna are nice, but they are nothing compared to what Jesus really longs to give them – and us, by the way.  He makes a very bold claim at the end of today’s Gospel that tells us just exactly what he has in mind: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  They may have to toil very hard for physical bread, bread that will perish, bread that doesn’t last more than a day or so.  But Jesus would have them work for bread that lasts for eternity, the bread of life.  And all they have to do to work for it is to believe.  The question is not whether Jesus will feed them, the question is whether they can accept it.

With the eyes of our faith, formed by two thousand years of Church teaching, I think we can accept with our minds that Jesus wants to feed us in the deepest of ways.  But we still need to give him the opportunity to do that.  Because when the rubber meets the road, and our faith is tested, and we find ourselves hungry, we’re not so different from those Israelites who clamored for the fleshpots of Egypt or the Galileans who clamored after barley loaves and fish.  We want what we want when we want it, and that has never changed; I doubt it ever will.  But only when we give ourselves to God and trust him to feed us in the deepest of ways will we ever stop being hungry.  We need to get past macaroni and cheese, cake, barley loaves, and manna, and open ourselves to the Bread of Life.

I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  That is the work of God that we are called upon to do.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ.  Amen!

Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B

Today’s readings

Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, used to say that every celebration of the Eucharist was a greater creative act than the creation of the universe.  Now I think greater theological minds than mine would likely debate that, but what Bishop Kaffer gets at is worth considering.  The Eucharist is an incredible miracle, and we are privileged to be part of it every time we gather to celebrate Mass.  Beginning this Sunday, for five weeks, we will take a bit of a detour from reading Mark’s Gospel as we do during this Church year.  We will instead read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.”

The Bread of Life Discourse is one of the most important themes of John’s Gospel.  For John, this is the account of the institution of the Eucharist.  For Matthew, Mark and Luke, the institution takes place at the Last Supper with the famous words, “take and eat” and “take a drink.”  But John’s Last Supper doesn’t have that story.  John’s Last Supper focuses on the washing of the feet, teaching his disciples to care for one another as he has cared for them.

The feeding of the multitudes is a story that has the unique distinction of being in all four of the Gospels.  But, because this is John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, he covers it a bit differently.  Still, that the story is found in all of the Gospel accounts that we have indicates how important the incident was for the early Church.  For John, though, it is clearly Jesus who is in charge here.  First of all, it is Jesus who notices that the crowds are hungry; they have expressed no such need, and it wasn’t the apostles bringing it to his attention so they could dismiss the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them; he can figure that out for himself.

Second, like a good salesman, he doesn’t ask any questions to which he doesn’t already know the answer.  When he asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he already knows the answer.  But certainly it stumps Philip, who, not recognizing it as a rhetorical question, notes that not even 200 days wages would provide food for each of these people to have a little.  The key here, though, is that Jesus asked the question knowing full well what he was going to do.

And third, when the loaves and fishes had been gathered and blessed, it is Jesus, not the Twelve, who distribute the food to the people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus gives the food to the Apostles to give to the people.  But in John’s account, Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, and gives it to the people himself.  The word “thanks” here, in Greek, is eucharisteo, which makes obvious the fact that this is Jesus, fully in charge, giving the Eucharist to the people and to us.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the important teaching that Jesus is enough.  Here the boy brought two fish and five loaves of bread, and they were barley loaves, the bread of the poor.  It was probably his lunch for the day, and certainly was not meant to feed so many people.  And there were a lot of people.  The gender-biased story says there were five thousand men there.  We can assume there were also women and children, after all it was a little boy who sacrificed his lunch for the crowd.  So the actual number of people fed was huge.  But look again at how many pieces of food there were: five loaves, two fish, together that equals seven, which is a very Biblical number, usually symbolizing completeness.  Jesus takes the little lunch, and in his hands it is complete: enough, and more than enough, to feed the crowd.

And everyone who needed to be fed was not at the picnic.  The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers, reminiscent of the Twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel.  All these leftovers are meant to feed others, including you and me.  And that can happen because Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill our hungry stomachs, and hearts, and souls.  This little picnic is the Eucharistic banquet par excellence, the first giving of the sacrament that is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

Now I want to make a note about an explanation of this miracle that you may sometimes hear.  The explanation goes that when Jesus started passing around the loaves and fish, other people noticed what he did and they too decided to share their lunches with the crowd.  So someone took out a sandwich and shared it, another shared some of their fish, or some bread, or whatever it was they had.  And so on and so on until lo and behold, everyone has had enough and there are leftovers.  This is often known as the “miracle of sharing” and it’s very heartwarming to be sure.  It’s the kind of thing Oprah and Dr. Phil would be all over.  How great it is that we can help each other out and do great things.

But that explanation is wrong, dead wrong.  Absolutely wrong, without a doubt.  Don’t let anyone insist to you that it’s right.  And here’s the rule of thumb: whenever an explanation makes the Gospel story more about us than it is about Jesus, it’s always wrong.  Always.  Without exception.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus came to bring, and the story is always about him.  The miracle here is not that so many people were touched to their heart and decided to share.  The miracle is that a boy sacrificed his five loaves and two fish, and in Jesus’ hands they become enough, and more than enough, to fill the stomachs of every person on that grassy hillside, and twelve baskets besides.  Period.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day. Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people. Perhaps you have seen a need in the community, maybe a family who is in need, or an issue that needs to be addressed. You noticed that because the Spirit of Jesus is working in you. It’s very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn’t happen in disciples. Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day. Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it. What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need? How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need? Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish. Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that. If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have, and it will be enough, and more than enough, to feed our hungry world.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time. Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ our Savior. At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today’s Gospel. We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish, we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life. Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can. We must make it our constant care to attend Mass all the time, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist. Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of bread far more nourishing than barley loaves. We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers out of this holy place to feed those who hunger around us this week. We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack. We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”

Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today our Liturgy of the Word gives us the last of the readings from St. John’s Gospel that we call the Bread of Life Discourse.  We’ve been reading from that one chapter of John – chapter six – for five weeks now.  It all began with the feeding of the multitudes.  Jesus took just five small barley loaves and two fish and fed five thousand men, along with women and children, and not only that, provided twelve baskets full of leftovers besides.  The crowds then caught up with him the next day, looking for more.  So Jesus took that opportunity to unpack the real meaning of what he was trying to do, and challenged them to believe in him if they really wanted to do the works of God.  He said that the bread that came down from heaven during Moses’ days was nothing compared with the bread that God wanted them to have – a bread that gives life to the world, a bread that meant they would never hunger again.

So Jesus was making it clear here that he wasn’t just giving them physical bread, but instead a food that was a taste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.  And Jesus himself was that bread; those who believe in him and partake of that bread will live forever, having eternal life as God intended.  “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  And in last week’s Gospel he made it clear to us.  He wasn’t just talking in metaphors, but instead he really did mean that he was the bread of life and people actually had to eat the bread that was him.  This began to trouble people.

And that leads us to where we are today.  Jesus gave them a wonderful meal in the feeding of the multitudes, but now he wants them to have even better bread.  So now they have to make a decision and take action.  Will they accept the hard teaching that they need to eat his own Body and Blood to have eternal life, or will they turn away?  Some of them indeed do turn away, and Jesus lets them go.  But for the Twelve, Jesus’ words might be hard but they recognize them as the only hope they have.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You alone have words of eternal life.”  Peter speaks for them, but they all elect to stay with him.

The choice of the disciples in the Gospel story is reminiscent of the choice that Joshua put to the people.  Joshua took over leadership of the people after Moses died, and he is now showing his leadership style.  He will not be a leader that forces the people to do one thing or another.  Instead, in the first reading, he points out the many wonderful things God has done for the people.  This is the God who led them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert journey.  This is the God who led them into the Promised Land, the land he promised their ancestors he would give them.  And now that they have received the many benefits of God’s mighty promises, it’s time for them to make a choice.  Will they serve the so-called gods of the pagan inhabitants of the land, or will they serve the Lord their God, who gave them so much.  For Joshua, the choice is easy: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

And now the question is ours.  We have all of us been on a five-week-long Eucharistic retreat.  If you’ve missed any part of it, I encourage you to go back and read all of the sixth chapter of John.  It will take you five, maybe ten minutes if you read it nice and slow.  And as we stand here at the end of it all, we too have to make the decisions we hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word: decide today whom you will serve; what about you, will you also leave?

It’s a critical question for us.  Because there are lots of entities in our world that are vying for our servitude.  Will we serve the so-called gods of the people in whose country we live?  We who are disciples are aliens here; this is not our true home.  So what’s it going to be?  Are we going to serve the gods of relativism, of greed, and the culture of death?  Will we turn away and no longer follow our Lord?  Or will we recognize with the disciples that there is no one else to whom we can turn and say with Joshua, “we will serve the Lord?”

At one point or another in every disciple’s life, he or she has to answer this question.  For me, it came in my early thirties, when I had been going to Willow Creek Church with some friends.  I was attracted, as many are, to the music and the preaching and I had many good experiences there.  There came a point in which I felt like I had to make a decision between the Catholic Church and Willow Creek, and I spoke to Father Mike, of blessed memory, about it.  We went back and forth for a while and finally Father Mike put it very bluntly: “I don’t think you would ever stand in that chapel and say Jesus wasn’t present there.”

Shortly after that, I went to Willow Creek while they had their monthly Lord’s Supper service.  And that was part of the problem: it was monthly, not every week, certainly not every day.  And it wasn’t Jesus: it was just bread and wine that was a mere symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood.  They had to project the Lord’s Prayer on the screen, because people didn’t just know it.  And the speaker in his sermon, apparently an ex-Catholic, made light of the Sacrament of Penance.  And in that moment, I knew Father Mike was right.  Christ is present in the Tabernacle, he is present on the altar, present in the sacraments, and there is no way in the world I could ever live without that.  I couldn’t turn away, and I would serve the Lord in the Catholic Church.  Who would ever guessed it would have led me here today!

So here at the end of our study of the Bread of Life Discourse, the question for all of us is this: what does the Eucharist mean to us?  It’s a poignant question because in April of this next year, on Holy Thursday, our diocese will begin a year of the Eucharist, in which we will celebrate and re-dedicate ourselves to the great gift God gives us in the Eucharist.  This question means for us: is the Bread of Life good enough for us, or are we feeding ourselves on something less satisfying?  Does the Blood of Christ quench our thirst or do we seek inebriation from the offerings of this world?  Will we too turn away, horrified at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord?   Will we, and our households, serve the Lord?

The Psalmist has been inviting us these past few weeks to “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”  And that’s quite all we need, isn’t it?  We disciples will come to the Eucharist today, and go forth with our households to serve the Lord, our Lord who alone has words of eternal life.