Sunday, August 9, 2009

I Am The Living Bread That Came Down From Heaven

The prophet Elijah is in trouble up to his eyeballs. He has been confronting Ahab, the King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel about their ungodly behavior, and the last straw in that confrontation was when Elijah had the prophets of Baal put to the sword. At that point, Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, swearing by her pagan deities that she would end Elijah’s life just as he had done to her prophets. Elijah, afraid for his life, has been on the run. He is tired, and doesn’t have the strength to go on to his destination, Mount Horeb in the Kingdom of Judah. So he lies down under a broom tree, and falls asleep. Then an angel of the Lord visits him, wakes him up, feeds him, and sends him off refreshed for the journey ahead: it will take forty days and forty nights to reach Mount Horeb, which is where God gave the Tablets of the Law to Moses.
(I Kings 19:4-8)

Reading a bit farther in Chapter 19, we find that Elijah does reach the holy cave on Mount Horeb; but when he gets there, he hears a still small whisper, the voice of God inviting him to return to the Kingdom of Israel, and face Jezebel and her killer hounds. The life of a prophet is quite an exciting one, by reason of his relationship with God who calls, awakens, feeds and sends his messenger back to fulfill his mission.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John (6:41-51) opens with a flashback to last Sunday’s reading from Exodus, which portrays the people of Israel complaining of God’s lack of care, in the form of food. He provides manna for them, but instead of being thankful, they look back regretfully for their days in Egypt: they were slaves, but at least they were well fed!

Now, it is the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, who are complaining because Jesus has proclaimed that He is the new bread come down from heaven. This is quite a surprise to them, because they know Jesus’ parents, Joseph the Carpenter and his wife Mary, who has dozens of relatives in Nazareth, in Capernaum, and throughout northern Galilee. This carpenter’s son seems to be proclaiming himself as the Messiah, but everyone knows that the Messiah will not be from Galilee, but from the City of David, Bethlehem in Judaea.

Today’s gospel does not provide a scriptural account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. That will wait until the Seder Supper on the night before Jesus died. This textt is more of a “dramatic presentation” in which Jesus presents himself as “the true bread that came down from heaven”. Jesus reminds the Jews – that is, the Pharisees, the Scribes and the Doctors of the Law -- that their ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. Now, this carpenter’s son is offering them Bread from Heaven, and if you are nourished by this Bread, you will never die. Another confusing message for his listeners! But the message is not just for them, but for other listeners who will not be born for another two thousand years. You!

There is one line in today’s Gospel that some find rather disturbing, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him”; these are the ones Jesus will raise up on the last day. That seems to smack of predestination – some are chosen and called, and some are left behind. But we do not believe in predestination – so what is this message all about?

The mystery is resolved by remembering that the Father sent Jesus into the world so that through him all of His children might be saved. God is at work through Jesus to invite all. But each of us is free to observe the signs (the miracles) but turn our backs; to see the light, but cover our eyes. Those who cover their eyes and turn their backs will not partake of the bread of heaven, but that is by their own choice, not because they have not been invited to the banquet table.

One of my sources suggests, at the end of his commentary on this gospel, that we play a scriptural game, which he describes as “fun, or not so fun”. Read through one of the four Gospels, and point out any verses what you wish Jesus hadn’t said. If we are honest, at least in certain situations, any of us would reduce the Gospel to no more than a few verses – the ones that don’t challenge us. The not-so-fun part comes by lining up all of these “uncomfortable” verses, and beginning to ponder and to pray about why these teachings or images bother us inside. Many of those who heard Jesus teach and preach, like the leaders of the Jewish community in Nazareth, and later in Jerusalem, played this game in their own minds. Some of them came to believe; others were among those who condemned him to the cross. Even today, there are still unanswered questions. But still, we continue to play games. 

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