The Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In every homily there is, or should be, a “so what” moment. That’s the moment, very often toward the end of the preaching, where the Word that was preached is related to the people who heard it. I try to make every homily answer the question, “So what?” in some way. Maybe it’s a question that the hearers need to answer, or a challenge to the way we live, or a consolation in a difficult time. We believe that the Word of the Lord is living and active, and so it will always answer the question, “So what?” in some way.

Over the past five weeks now, we have been hearing an extended homily of sorts in the Gospel readings. Our Gospels have all been from John chapter six, which is commonly called the “Bread of Life Discourse.” As I’ve mentioned before, John’s Gospel doesn’t have a Last Supper scene where Jesus gives the Eucharist to the Apostles. Instead, John’s Gospel has this discourse, in which Jesus gives the Eucharist to all the people.

It all began, five weeks ago, with Jesus taking five loaves and a couple of fish, and with them feeding thousands of people, and leaving twelve baskets of leftovers. That was quite a miracle! Since then, the people naturally stuck with Jesus, wanting to see more, wanting more bread. But Jesus has been taking the opportunity to preach to them about the Bread of Life. Over the past weeks, he has made it clear that his gift of the Bread of Life was better than the manna Moses gave their ancestors. He made it clear that in both cases it was actually God the Father who gave the people what they needed. He made it clear that he – Jesus – is the way to the Father, that those who eat his Flesh and drink his Blood will have eternal life.

And now it all comes down to the “so what?” piece. Many of the people find the whole image of eating someone’s flesh and blood disgusting, and so they walk away. Others take offense at Jesus telling them that this is the only way they can have eternal life; they take offense that he is telling them that he is God, and so they walk away. So then he turns to the disciples and says, “Will you also leave?” Peter speaks for them and makes a beautiful profession of faith: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Jesus will ask every single person who wants to follow him the same question at some time: “Will you also leave?” I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith. I had 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 called me in and had a come to Jesus with me. I remember he told me, “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 it.

We all are offered the gift of the Bread of Life. Jesus offers us his true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist so that we might eat of it and come at last one day to Eternal Life. There is absolutely no other way to get there. And yet, we could all think of someone, or several someones, that should be here today. They may have been away for a long time. We know that they are missing out on the Gift beyond all gifts, that they are not getting the Food that strengthens us for what this life throws at us, and gives us the ability to come to eternal life one day.

Maybe they don’t care, or can’t be bothered, or love their sins, or have soccer practice or dance class or sleep in time, or whatever. Maybe they don’t really believe in the Eucharist. Like those marginal disciples in the Gospel reading today, they may have decided it was all just too hard, too much to take, and have returned to their former way of life. But for us who remain, Jesus looks at us, deep into our eyes and our souls, and says to us: “So what? What about you? Will you also leave?”

We’ll have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II

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 thought about that this week 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.

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, and they want 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. 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!

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

At our core, we all want peace and security in our lives.  We don’t want rough waters, or pain, or discord in our families, and that’s all understandable.  I think it’s that sentiment that is behind our Scripture readings today.

The Jewish people, the elders and the scribes, the religious establishment of the time, had their laws and customs, and for them, following those laws and customs represented a peaceful and secure life.  So they were not at all open to any kind of teaching that challenged their way of life.  Saint Stephen points out that whenever a prophet called them to a deeper reality – a deeper sense of God’s call – rather than accept that teaching and reform their lives, their ancestors instead murdered the prophets.  And so their response was to prove his point.  They could not accept Stephen’s own prophecy that Christ in his glory was the key to human salvation.  So they stone him to death, with the tacit approval of a man named Saul, a man for whom God had future plans.

The crowd in the Gospel reading wants peace and security too.  They had recently been fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  But they had missed the point.  They wanted just the bread they could eat for today; they didn’t get and didn’t want to get the bread Jesus really wanted them to have – the bread of eternal life.  And so they ask today for another feeding sign.  Just like Moses was able to provide bread from heaven, they wanted Jesus to feed their physical hunger too.  But Jesus is more interested in their spiritual hunger, and longs to provide that in himself, he who is the Bread of Life.

But if all we hunger for is peace and security, bread for today, then we will certainly miss receiving the Bread of Life.  Our hearts have to be open and our desires have to be for the deepest longings.  Then we can receive our Savior who wants to give us everything we truly need.  “I am the Bread of Life;” he says to us.  “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

At our core, we all want peace and security in our lives.  We don’t want rough waters, or pain, or discord in our families, and that’s all understandable.  I think it’s that very same sentiment that is behind our Scripture readings today.

The Jewish people, the elders and the scribes, the religious establishment of the time, had their laws and customs, and for them, following those laws and customs represented a peaceful and secure life.  So they were not at all open to any kind of teaching that challenged their way of life.  Stephen points out that whenever a prophet called them to a deeper reality, a deeper sense of God’s call, rather than accept that teaching and reform their lives, their ancestors instead murdered the prophets.  And so their response was to prove his point.  They could not accept Stephen’s own prophecy that Christ in his glory was the key to human salvation.  So they stone him to death, with the tacit approval of a man named Saul, a man for whom God had future plans.

The crowd in the Gospel reading wants peace and security too.  They had recently been fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  But they had missed the point.  They wanted just the bread they could eat for today; they didn’t get and didn’t want to get the bread Jesus really wanted them to have – the bread of eternal life.  And so they ask today for another feeding sign.  Just like Moses was able to provide bread from heaven, they wanted Jesus to feed their physical hunger too.  But Jesus is more interested in their spiritual hunger, and longs to provide that in himself, he who is the bread of life.

But if all we hunger for is peace and security, bread for today, then we will certainly miss receiving the Bread of Life.  Our hearts have to be open and our desires have to be for the deepest longings.  Then we can receive our Savior who wants to give us everything we truly need.  “I am the bread of life;” he says to us.  “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [ Cycle B]

Today’s readings

When I was growing up, sometimes we would ask Mom what was for dinner, and she would often reply, “I don’t know; it’s not three o’clock yet!”  We were blessed, though.  We could count on the fact that there would always be something for dinner and that it would be good.  We just had to be a little bit patient and wait to find out what it was.

It seems like the Israelites might have benefitted from that lesson.  They are out wandering in the desert and of course, they are hungry.  I think we can understand that.  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.  This 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.  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 and their chariots.

But now they’re a little hungry, so they’d like to return the gift, thank you.  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.

Today’s Gospel provides a similar situation.  The people have enjoyed the food that Jesus provided in last week’s Gospel, and they are looking for more of the same.  He has retreated with his disciples, fearing they will try to make him a king, and they pursue him.  When they catch up with him, Jesus engages them in dialogue.  This dialogue is important for us to hear, because it unpacks the meaning of last week’s miracle.  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.  And in the next few weeks, we will explore that more closely.  But what I think we see in today’s Liturgy of the Word 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

The Bread of Life Discourse: an outline

Bishop Kaffer 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 an excursus 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.  There John 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.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them; he has the ability to 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 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 the 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 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 Christ, 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 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 a 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 to feed those who hunger in and 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.”

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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One of the things I sometimes struggle with, and maybe some of you do too, is that I am often tempted to eat the wrong things.  Somehow, if I’m watching TV or something, I get an urge to eat some kind of snack that is not only not very nutritious but also not all that satisfying.  In the vast scheme of culinary delights, Doritos or potato chips of course don’t rank very high, yet somehow I find myself tempted by them all the time!

 

I think there’s a parallel to that in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Jesus knew the disciples could easily be tempted by the “leaven” of the Pharisees and of Herod.  He meant the paltry doctrine they taught and the less-than-satisfying way of life they offered.  They wanted people to take on a legalistic view of Scripture, living the Torah very literally but not very deeply.  Instead, Jesus offered a much more satisfying bread: a life lived deeply rooted in the Gospel, a life that went beyond legalism in favor of diving head first into compassion, concern for the poor and vulnerable, and love for every person that crosses their paths.

 

The leaven Jesus was talking about had nothing to do with the bread for the journey that they forgot to bring.  Instead, he offered a bread for the journey that was his very body and blood, his own self, giving his life for our salvation.  That kind of bread is the only thing that is ultimately satisfying.  It trumps the bread they forgot to bring, it trumps the so-called leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, it even trumps my Doritos and potato chips.  Don’t settle for junk food that won’t give any nourishment when you can have the Bread of Life.

 

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today's readings [display_podcast]

At our core, we all want peace and security in our lives.  We don’t want rough waters, or pain, or discord in our families, and that’s all understandable.  I think it’s that very same sentiment that is behind our Scripture readings today.

The Jewish people, the elders and the scribes, the religious establishment of the time, had their laws and customs, and for them, following those laws and customs represented a peaceful and secure life.  So they were not at all open to any kind of teaching that challenged their way of life.  Stephen points out that whenever a prophet called them to a deeper reality, a deeper sense of God’s call, rather than accept that teaching and reform their lives, their ancestors instead murdered the prophets.  And so their response was to prove his point.  They could not accept Stephen’s own prophecy that Christ in his glory was the key to human salvation.  So they stone him to death, with the tacit approval of a man named Saul, a man for whom God had future plans.

The crowd in the Gospel reading wants peace and security too.  They had recently been fed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  But they had missed the point.  They wanted just the bread they could eat for today; they didn’t get and didn’t want to get the bread Jesus really wanted them to have – the bread of eternal life.  And so they ask today for another feeding sign.  Just like Moses was able to provide bread from heaven, they wanted Jesus to feed their physical hunger too.  But Jesus is more interested in their spiritual hunger, and longs to provide that in himself, he who is the bread of life.

But if all we hunger for is peace and security, bread for today, then we will certainly miss receiving the Bread of Life.  Our hearts have to be open and our desires have to be for the deepest longings.  Then we can receive our Savior who wants to give us everything we truly need.  “I am the bread of life;” he says to us.  “Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”