Categories
Sermon

Sermon, August 29, Pentecost 14

Tradition

This morning our attention shifts back to Mark’s Gospel and its push to get into Jesus’ actions and conversations that set him apart from the various Jewish establishments of his day.

Author and Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells a story about an ashram cat. An ashram is a spiritual retreat center or monastery in the Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) religious traditions.  He writes,

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So, he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

Anthony DeMello, S.J., Song of the Bird (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1984) P. 63

Most Christians, and certainly we Episcopalians, have our own ashram cats. These cats are not only distracting, but they can keep us from our deeper purpose – not only in worship but also in life.

This is what was at the heart between conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders that came to hear him.  They noticed that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands in the prescribed ritual manner before sitting down to eat.  By “eating with defiled hands” (Mk. 7:2), they were ignoring the oral “tradition of the elders” — not in the Torah but handed down from various teachers (vv. 3-4). Over time these rituals had largely become rigid and devoid of spiritual meaning.

Jesus was known as a religious teacher who was skilled in the use of rabbinic arguments. He was well aware of the faults in the religious system and called into question those rituals that interfered with carrying out God’s will. Thus, in response to the Pharisees’ question about why his disciples ate with defiled hands (v. 5), Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 to support his position: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me …” (v. 6b). They have abandoned God’s commandments in order to observe human tradition.

Jesus did not come to abolish the law, or the way of life defined in the teaching of Moses. Ritual purity was important in the Pharisaic tradition as a way to claim and preserve Jewish identity in the wider culture; but for many the practices had become an end in themselves. Thus, Jesus was not encouraging his followers to disregard food regulations. Instead, he was calling attention to the fact that it is the attitude of our hearts that is truly important.

Jesus then directs his attention from the Pharisees to the crowd and moves from a discussion of the observance of ritual to the issue of what constitutes defilement (vv. 14-15). He declares that it is not what enters a person from the outside, such as food, that has the power to defile; rather it is that which comes from within.

Next, Jesus leaves the crowd to talk privately with his disciples, who do not understand his words. In his frustration, Jesus exclaims, “Then do you also fail to understand?” (v. 18). In verses 18-20, not included for today, Jesus explains that whatever enters a person from the outside has no power to make that person unclean, because it is received through the stomach, not the heart, and goes out again. In the biblical tradition, the heart was the center of a person’s life and emotions — where the struggle between good and evil took place.

Jesus emphasizes that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …” (v. 21) and goes on to list the vices that defile. Such lists were common in Hellenistic moral literature and are found in Paul’s letters as well (Rom. 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21). Mark’s twelve vices here serve as examples of forces within the human heart that separate us from God and others.

Thus, Jesus calls his followers, and us, not to be so concerned with external practices that justice and righteousness are ignored. True conversion means internalization of the Gospel message so that one’s external actions are changed in response.  In other words, Jesus is telling us that our words and actions must match – not only each other, but the truth of the Gospel, as well.

This is at the heart of our Epistle reading for today and for the next several weeks as we hear, once again, are from the letter of James. The letter of James is addressed to a general audience rather than a particular community, the letter has much in common with traditional Jewish Wisdom literature, with its emphasis on right behavior and teachings on morality. The author’s focus is not so much on bringing readers, and us, to faith, but rather providing instructions on how we are to live out our faith.

Today’s reading begins with a reminder that every gift comes from God. We have been given a new birth by the word of truth, and thus are connected to Christ as “first fruits” of God’s creation (1:18). This is the basis for all behavior toward others. Thus, we are to be slow to anger, for “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (v. 20), and to resist wicked and sordid behavior.

Blessings come from being “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (v. 22). James goes on to remind his readers that pure and undefiled religion calls us to care for those in need, such as widows and orphans and to “keep oneself unstained by the world” (v. 27). It is of no value to claim that we have heard God’s Word unless we follow through and act on it in our lives.

Are traditions important?  Yes, they are.  However, we must not allow a rigid practice of our traditions get in the way of the weightier matters of the Gospel – compassion, mercy, love, and forgiveness.  So, on this fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, let us take a look at the various cats running around our ashram and decide if we should let them go.

Amen.

Categories
Sermon

Sermon – August 22, 2021 Pentecost 14

Bread for the Journey, Wine for the Soul (Part 4 of 4)

This morning we conclude our consideration of John’s “Bread of Life” discourse, yet in reality we are only just beginning. Bishop Dan Edwards, writing in God of Our Silent Tears (Los Angles: Cathedral Center Press, 2013), tells this fable:

Once upon a time, a crow asked God to explain eternity.

God agreed to reveal eternity to the crow after it performed a task. The crow was to take a tiny piece of soil in its beak and fly away from the earth for a year, deposit its cargo, and then return to repeat the process — until he had moved the entire earth.

So, the crow set out to move a beakful of earth the distance of a crow’s flight in one year. The crow did this, one beakful at a time, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, until it had moved the entire earth.

The crow then flew to God’s throne and said, “I think I’m beginning to understand eternity.”

“You don’t have a clue,” God said. “Put it back.”

When it comes to contemplating the meaning of the Eucharist we don’t really have a clue.

Both today’s Gospel reading (Jn. 6:56-69) and the passage from Joshua present choices to be made. Joshua challenges the Israelites to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). When many of Jesus’ followers left him, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn. 6:67).

In today’s final reading from John’s Bread Discourse, Jesus continues to explain the deeper meaning of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude (Jn. 6:1-15). The actual discourse ends at 6:59, with verses 60-69 recording the response to these words of Jesus — by those who could not accept his teachings, as well as those who remained faithful.

As this morning’s Gospel’s passage begins, Jesus proclaims, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). He goes on to say that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and whoever eats this bread — unlike the ancestors who ate the manna in the desert — will live forever. When Jesus speaks of partaking of his flesh and blood, this is an invitation to participate fully in his life, death, and resurrection by believing in him — trusting and abiding in him, and thus taking him into ourselves.

But many who heard these teachings were offended and chose to interpret the words about drinking blood and eating flesh on a literal, material level. Perceived in this limited way, these concepts were impossibly scandalous. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (v. 60). But even those who grasped those images of flesh and blood represented sharing fully in the life of Jesus found this hard to embrace. Such misunderstanding of Jesus’ words is frequent in the Gospels as Jesus challenged his followers to look beyond the obvious to new ways of seeing.

Jesus is aware of his own disciples’ misgivings and presents another saying: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62; cf 1:51; 3:13). If the disciples were to see Jesus ascend in the same manner as did the great spiritual leaders of the past, would they be more likely to accept his hard sayings? But Jesus transcends all those who have gone before. To make God known, Jesus has no need to ascend from earth to heaven. Because he was with God in the beginning (Jn. 1:2), he comes from there; thus, his words have ultimate authority.

In verse 63, Jesus states that it is the spirit that gives life and that the “flesh is useless.” This is not meant to degrade the flesh, for Jesus is the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14); but life in the flesh will not endure. However, the words that Jesus brings are spirit and life — and the enlivening power of the Spirit is eternal. To benefit from Jesus’ words, one must realize that they are words from heaven with value beyond the present world. The Spirit is the one who gives life; but the path to discerning these words is through faith.

But Jesus knew that there were those who would not believe him, as well as one who would ultimately betray him. Thus, he says that “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (v. 65). God’s desire for us is even greater than our desire for God. It is through Divine inspiration that we turn to God; but the difference is that there are those who close their hearts to God’s invitation. Thus, many of the Lord’s followers abandoned him (v. 66).

Jesus then turns to the Twelve to ask if they too wish to leave. The reply from the disciples’ usual spokesman, Peter, resembles Peter’s confession in the other Gospels that Jesus is the Messiah (cf Mt. 16:13-23; Mk. 8:27-33; Lk. 9:18-22). Speaking for the Twelve, Peter affirms that there is nowhere else to go, for they “have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 69; Mk. 1:24; cf 1 Jn. 2:20) who gives eternal life.

Whatever may be true of the disciples who have left, those who remain have arrived at belief in Jesus and are living in the faith and knowledge that Jesus is the way to everlasting life. Even though they may no more truly understand the hard teachings than did those who left, they have come to accept that Jesus is the Holy One of God whose holiness comes from the fact that he is of God.

The reading from Joshua is taken from the covenant renewal ceremony that follows Joshua’s farewell address to Israel (Josh. 23). As the leaders of all the tribes of Israel are gathered at Shechem, Joshua recounts the history of Israel, beginning with the call of Abraham; the liberation from Egypt; the years in the wilderness; and finally the conquest of Canaan under the military leadership of Joshua himself (24:2-13). All of these events happened as they did because the Lord God blessed and protected Israel.

Now they had to choose between the gods their ancestors worshiped and the gods of the Amorites — in whose land they now lived — or the Lord God of Israel. This is not about monotheism versus polytheism, as the worship of many gods was a fact in the ancient world. This is about the choice between the other gods and the God of Israel.

For Joshua and his household there is no question — they will serve the Lord (v. 15). This is a matter not only of individual commitment, but also of the will of the community; serving the Lord is a communal decision. Faced with this challenge, the people declare that they too will serve “the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt … who did those great signs in our sight” (v. 17). In the verses following today’s passage, Joshua reminds the Israelites that God will accept no rival. God had chosen to be faithful to Israel, and this gift of God’s grace was not to be taken for granted. This covenant was a reciprocal agreement that involved God’s choice as well as that of the people. Once again, the people reasserted their intent to serve the Lord with undivided heart and loyalty (v. 21).

Thirteen and Fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1328) sums all of this up when he wrote:

The bodily food we take is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receive changes us into itself; therefore, divine love is not taken into us, for that would make two things. But divine love takes us into itself, and we are one with it.

This then is the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. Eating and drinking are metaphors for fully sharing in the life of Jesus; and the call to follow Christ includes difficult and seemingly impossible demands. Yet to accept Jesus as the true bread from heaven is to find in him the climactic revelation of God that leads to eternal life.

Although we come to the end of Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse, we are actually at the beginning of grasping the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist.

Amen.

Categories
Sermon

Sermon, August 15, 2021 Pentecost 12

The Gift of Eternal Life (Part 3 of 4)

In the passage from the Bread Discourse of the Gospel of John (6:25-69), Jesus continues to explain the deeper meaning of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Today’s verses focus on the promise of eternal life and Eucharistic themes, as Jesus declares: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). Previously the image of Jesus as the bread of life signified Jesus’ teaching and presence. Now believers may share deeply in the life of Jesus and his self-offering through the Eucharist.

Jesus goes on to proclaim that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6:53). To take this literally would be to see Jesus as actual food to be consumed. The idea that his followers were not only to eat his flesh but also to drink his blood made an already difficult concept totally unacceptable to his audience: “‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (v. 52).

Whatever is meant by eating the Lord’s flesh and thereby receiving life is incomprehensible. Even more horrifying than eating flesh is the notion of drinking the blood of the Son of Man.

In Jewish teaching, blood was always equated with life, and all life belongs to God. Dietary laws forbid consuming blood under any circumstances; and animals slaughtered for food had to be bled first. Violation of these laws meant being cut off from the community (Lev. 17:14-15; Dt. 12:23). Therefore, to speak of drinking human blood, even symbolically, was too terrible to contemplate.

Yet it is precisely such imagery that Jesus presents here as the sole means by which a person can attain eternal life. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (v. 54). Moreover, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood “abide in me, and I in them” (v. 56).

By the time of John’s writing, the Eucharist was established in the early Christian community. But John, unlike the Synoptic Gospel writers, wrote not to present and preserve Eucharistic practices, but to interpret those rituals. As is usual in the fourth Gospel, the words here operate on two levels. The flesh and blood Jesus offers through his death on the cross bring us eternal life. We encounter this flesh and blood through the spiritual sustenance of the Eucharist, in which Jesus comes to dwell in us and we in him. The effect of this startling imagery is a reminder of the radical nature of the self-giving of Jesus, lest the offering and taking of the bread and wine come to be thought commonplace or taken for granted.

Jesus was sent by “the living Father” (v. 57). Jesus has life in him because of the Father; and therefore, Jesus gives life to those who believe in the Father through the revelation of the Son. As Jesus lives through the Father, his followers will have life through him: the mutual indwelling between believers and Jesus derives from the union between Jesus and the Father.

Jesus goes on to make a distinction between “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 58) and the bread, or manna, of the ancestors in the Exodus. God had preserved the community by providing the manna; but those who ate that bread died. In contrast, Jesus as the bread from heaven brings eternal life for every individual who partakes of it. John represents those who hear this as totally misunderstanding Jesus, and therefore being repelled. But here we see that through the bread and wine the Divine life of the Son of God was conveyed to believers. Those who partake of the living bread will also participate in Jesus’ relationship with the Father, his Resurrection and eternal life, for “the one who eats this bread will live forever” (v. 58). Through the bread that we eat, we abide in a community whose life is determined by the living and dying of Jesus. Thus, we share in his future of eternal life as well as a new quality of life in the present.

Richard Rohr writes in Eucharist as Touchstone (Albuquerque, N. M.: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2000): “The mystery of Eucharist clarifies and delineates Christianity from the other religions of the world. We have many things in common, but Christianity is the only religion that says that God became a human body; God became flesh, as John’s Gospel puts it (1:14). Our fancy theological word for that is the Incarnation, the enfleshment. It seems that it is much easier for God to convince bread of what it is than for God to convince us. … ”

Rohr offers these points for our consideration:

  • He did not say, “Think about this,” “Fight about this,” “Stare at this,” but He said “Eat this!”
  • It is a dynamic, interactive event that makes one out of two.
  • If we did not have the Eucharist, we would have to create it; sometimes it seems that outsiders can appreciate it more than Christians.
  • It is marvelous that God would enter our lives not just in the form of sermons or Bibles, but in food.
  • God comes to feed us more than just teach us. Lovers understand that.
  • When we start making the Eucharistic meal something to define membership instead of to proclaim grace and gift, we always get in trouble; that’s been the temptation of every denomination that has the Eucharist.
  • Too often we use Eucharist to separate who’s in from who’s out, who’s worthy from who’s unworthy, instead of to declare that all of us are radically unworthy, and that worthiness is not even the issue. If worthiness is the issue, who can stand before God?
  • The issue is not worthiness; the issue is trust and surrender or, as Thérèse of Lisieux said, “It all comes down to confidence and gratitude.”
  • I think that explains the joyous character with which we so often celebrate the Eucharist. We are pulled into immense gratitude and joy for such constant and unearned grace.
  • It doesn’t get any better than this! All we can do at Eucharist is kneel in gratitude and then stand in confidence. (Actually, St. Augustine said that the proper Christian posture for prayer was standing, because we no longer had to grovel before such a God or fear any God that is like Jesus.)
  • Eucharist is presence encountering presence—mutuality, vulnerability. There is nothing to prove, to protect, or to sell. It feels so empty, naked, and harmless, that all you can do is be present.
  • The Eucharist is telling us that God is the food and all we have to do is provide the hunger.
  • Somehow, we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there’s room inside of us for another presence.
  • If you are filled with your own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency, you are a world unto yourself and there is no room for “another.”
  • Despite all our attempts to define who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive Communion, our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger. And most often sinners are much more hungry than the “saints.”

Today’s verses from Ephesians remind us that Christian life is to be lived as an alternative to the dominant culture. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise … because the days are evil” (5:15-16). The writer goes on to point out the temptations that surround them; thus, they are not to be foolish but to understand the will of God for them.

We are called to live a Spirit-filled life of moderation and sobriety. If we are to manifest God’s purposes in the world, there is no place for self-indulgent excesses that would detract from our witness. The presence of God in our lives will be manifested in communal praise, as they “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19), giving thanks to the Lord “at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20).

Amen.

Categories
Sermon

Sermon, August 8, 2021 Pentecost 11

A Gift for Us (Part 2 of 4)

Today’s Gospel reading continues from John’s Bread of Life Discourse (6:25-69), Jesus faces the hostility of the crowds when he declares that he is the bread from heaven who will bring eternal life to all who have faith in him. After all, they know his father Joseph and do not take seriously the idea that Jesus is God incarnate (cf Mk. 6:3). To be from heaven and to be able to give life to others was unimaginable to them and brought all other claims Jesus had made into question. Yet for John, to recognize that Jesus was from God was the source of faith itself.

In response, Jesus calls them to refrain from complaining among themselves. These people show similar unbelief to the “murmuring” Hebrews of the Exodus (Ex. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3). However, Jesus goes on to say that one does not come to him by personal effort. Instead, God initiates the response: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (v. 44). In verse 45, Jesus recalls Isaiah 54:13 to draw on the established belief that “all people will be taught by God.” This prophecy was now being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. This is the only time that the Gospel of John makes reference to the prophets.

To be taught by God is to hear and accept Jesus. The law, which has been exclusive to the Judaic tradition, is no longer the source of God’s instruction and revelation. Now God’s teaching will come through Jesus and will be available to all who believe. No one has seen the Father except Jesus; so he is the only one who can make the Father known. And whoever believes in him has eternal life (v. 47).

The miraculous bread in the wilderness ensured survival when the Hebrews faced starvation; but all those who ate the manna eventually died. In a similar manner, the feeding of the five thousand provided temporary physical nourishment. However, the living bread that Jesus himself offers leads to eternal life: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (v. 50). Furthermore, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51b). While Jesus’ words of self-giving suggest Eucharistic themes, the primary issue here is Jesus’ gift of himself, as his body will be sacrificed for the life of the world at his crucifixion. As the bread of life, Jesus restores all creation to wholeness.

In our first reading, The Prophet Elijah had incurred the wrath of Queen Jezebel by defeating the Baal prophets in a contest. He called down fire from heaven as a manifestation of God’s power and then had all the prophets put to the sword (1 Ki. 18:20- 40). In retaliation, Jezebel determined to have Elijah killed.

Desperate and in fear for his life, Elijah fled into the wilderness where he prayed to the Lord that he might die (cf Jonah 4:3). Although he had successfully bested the Baal prophets and was now out of reach of Jezebel, Elijah was in deep despair. Alone in the wilderness, away from his country and people, the prophet saw the future as hopeless.

Exhausted, Elijah fell asleep under a broom bush. An angel appeared and told him to arise and eat, for there was food and drink provided for him. Elijah did as he was told and once again fell asleep.

The angel appeared a second time, commanding him to “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (v. 7). This offer is more than food; it is also an invitation to hope and to trust God’s purposes. After Elijah ate and drank, he had enough strength to travel for forty days and forty nights to a cave at the mountain of God at Horeb — the same mountain where Moses had received the commandments.

The forty days and nights of Elijah’s journey recall Israel’s forty years in the wilderness as well as the forty days that Moses spent on Mt. Horeb, not eating or drinking while he received the words of God’s covenant. As it was with the provision of manna in the Exodus wilderness, the Lord watched over Elijah and provided sustenance for him. All was not lost; and after encountering God in the “sound of sheer silence” (v. 12), Elijah once again took up the tasks that the Lord commanded him.

Psalm 34 expresses Elijah’s sense of gratitude for deliverance from danger: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). Thus the Psalmist invites others to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8a)—to experience the Divine goodness that abounds and brings fullness of life to those who come to God.

Perhaps this is what happened to the crowd with Jesus: they knew too much for Jesus’ words to ring true. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn. 6:41). The Judeans object. They murmur among themselves. These are the insiders, the ones who know the history — they know how God does things and how things should be done. They also know Jesus’ origins. “Who does he think he is?” they mutter. “Claiming to have come down from heaven? We know his folks. We know he came from Nazareth, not from heaven!” (v. 42). These Judeans also know their scripture. “The bread from heaven was the manna fed to our ancestors back in the time of Moses,” they correctly point out. And these Judeans know the law. “The Lord God said, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.’” They know it all.

Maybe they know too much. Or perhaps they really don’t know enough. A pre-seminary student wrote an editorial to a seminary student newspaper espousing the use of doughnuts and coffee or pretzels and beer as the elements in the Eucharist. When this was protested by a student in the seminary, the professor quietly said to the students gathered around him, “Remember, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions.”

The student only knew a little. In retrospect, so don’t we all. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it can lead us to the wrong conclusions. When it comes to God, and even to the Church, we know only a little. Like all living things, the Church — and our understanding of God — continues to grow and to change. And so, to know only a little, and to think the little that we know is all that there is to know, can be fatal. These Judeans had some head knowledge about God; perhaps they did not know God by heart or by trust.

Jesus says to them, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (Jn. 6:45). The Judeans knew some things, but their knowing was limited, and they let it close their ears, shut their hearts, and limit their vision. They were unable to hear and know what God was trying to show them. They had made up their minds and did not want to be confronted with what Jesus tried to teach them.

Jesus is not calling us to abandon our knowledge and tradition as if they still cannot teach, help, and guide us. Jesus cautions us that our knowledge will not give us absolute answers or a foolproof plan to make things right. God’s answer is rarely to reassure us that our knowledge and understanding are correct. If anything, God uses our knowledge to give a purpose, a journey, and a direction — namely, to trust and follow Jesus.[i]

So, our task this morning on this Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, is to, once again, place our trust in Jesus knowing that he will provide for us everything we need for the journey ahead.  Knowing full well that we have much to learn.

There’s more to follow.  Amen.

________________________________

[i]  Craig A. Satterlee at Workingpreacher.org (8/7/2015).

Categories
Sermon

Sermon, August 1, 2021 (Pentecost 10)

God’s Bread

Today’s Gospel is the first of four readings from John’s “Bread Discourse” (6:25-69) in which Jesus explains the deeper significance of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15) we considered last week. Bread takes on a profound symbolic meaning as Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35).

The crowd that follows Jesus still seems to think of him as a potential nationalist leader like Moses, who will lead them in the struggle for liberation. Jesus is acutely aware that their motives are misdirected, and that they have misinterpreted the dramatic sign of the feeding miracle. Thus, Jesus skillfully guides their understanding of the provision of food to make his point: that material bread is a perishable commodity. Even the manna of Moses in the wilderness would not keep beyond a day.

Furthermore, Jesus declares that his hearers must not work for food of no enduring value, but for the eternal sustenance that the Son of Man can provide. Manna had come to represent the essence of life in the world to come. But here the Gospel says that it is through Jesus that the true and enduring manna of God is manifested. Jesus, the Messiah upon whom Abba the Father has set his seal, is that heavenly food (6:27).

The crowd then asks Jesus what they must do to “perform the works of God” (v. 28). Jesus responds with the revolutionary teaching that the works of God consist not in actions but in committing oneself to the revelation that God has sent in Christ Jesus (v. 29). Thus, the indispensable work of God is believing in Jesus Christ. It cannot be achieved but is to be received by faith — and only this leads to eternal life.

Once again, the crowd asks for a visible sign, as they recall the remarkable provision of manna to their ancestors in the wilderness (Ex. 16:4). Manna was seen as bread from heaven and was further identified with God’s law that provided nourishment to the Jewish people.

Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses but God the Father who gave them bread from heaven to eat. Moreover, the manna in the wilderness was no more than an expedient provision for a temporary need until they reached the Promised Land. Everyone who ate the manna, even Moses, had died. In contrast, the “true bread from heaven” (v. 32) gives eternal life to the world. “Sir, give us this bread always” (6:34). The crowd is ready to accept the fact that Jesus might offer it; but they are still thinking of a material substance, as Jesus proclaims: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35a).

And he promises: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b). As the bread of life, Jesus will satisfy the deep hunger of all people for all eternity. The miracle here is one of faith, as the pursuit of temporary, temporal concerns gives way to a radically new pattern of life embodied in Jesus.

After their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites began their journey across the Sinai wilderness. But within a month, their jubilation turned to discontent, and they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron about the lack of water (Ex. 15:23-25) and the scarcity of food. Forgetting the burdens and hopelessness of their former slavery, they accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to starve; at least in Egypt they had had enough to eat.

The Lord recognized the needs of the people and told Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. … In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not” (Ex. 16:4). At God’s command, Moses and Aaron gathered the people together. As the presence of the Lord appeared in the pillar of cloud that had led them out of Egypt, Moses proclaimed that the Lord would provide food for them.

Thus, in the evening quail appeared; and in the morning the ground was covered with manna, “a fine flaky substance” (v. 14). Quail would have been migrating across the Sinai at the springtime of year; and manna was likely derived from the secretion of scale insects that fed on tamarisk plants. The Israelites were initially puzzled by the appearance of the manna and asked what it could be. Moses replied, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (v. 15). Throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, this daily provision of manna would sustain them.

However, the Israelites direct their demands to Moses and Aaron, not realizing that it is the Lord who provides for them. The bread that appears with the dawn is bread from heaven that comes from God. This is the God of abundance who enters into a covenantal relationship with the people, hears their cries, and responds to their needs. By this they “shall know that I am the Lord your God” (v. 12).

In our epistle reading from the fourth chapter of Ephesians begins a section on what is expected of those who would follow Jesus. Today’s reading focuses on unity in the community of faith. All followers of Jesus have received a vocation from God, and thus are called to a life of true humility worthy of this call (4:1-2). We must always bear with one another in love, seeking the bond of peace that unites us.

Our individual vocations are to serve the community, since we are a single body animated and guided by the Sprit. We acknowledge “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (vv. 5-6)

As we gather to hear this word from John 6, especially as we’re gathering at the Table, then our readings offer us the opportunity to explore and meditate on the meaning of the Eucharist. We are invited to meditation and contemplation of not just the bread and wine, but how our life together reflects God’s abundant grace.  The passage offers us the opportunity to ask how these seemingly bare elements — just common food and drink — can communicate to us the life-giving presence of Jesus.

Amen.