Friday, April 23, 2010

My Flesh Is True Food, And My Blood Is True Drink. Whoever Eats My Flesh And Drinks My Blood Will Live Forever.

Friday of the Third Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 9:1-20
Saul, still breathing murderous threats
against the disciples of the Lord,
went to the high priest and asked him
for letters to the synagogues in Damascus,
that,if he should find any men or women
who belonged to the Way,
he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground
and heard a voice saying to him,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
He said, “Who are you, sir?”
The reply came,
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Now get up and go into the city
and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand
and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see,
and he neither ate nor drank.

There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,
and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
The Lord said to him,
“Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas
for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”
But Ananias replied,
“Lord, I have heard from many sources
about this man,
what evil things he has done
to your holy ones in Jerusalem.
And here he has authority from the chief priests
to imprison all who call upon your name.”
But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine
to carry my name before Gentiles,
kings, and children of Israel,
and I will show him
what he will have to suffer for my name.”
So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother,
the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you
on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight
and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten,
 he recovered his strength.
He stayed some days
with the disciples in Damascus,
and he began at once
to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.
Today’s reading touches on one of the major turning points in the development of the early Christian community and indeed for the future of the whole Church in centuries to come.

Luke gives three accounts (Acts 9:1-20; 22:5-16; 26:10-18) of this momentous event. The second and third accounts are given in Paul’s own words as parts of discourses he gave. Paul also speaks about the experience in the Letter to the Galatians (1:12-17). The incident took place probably in 36 AD, about 12 years before the council of Jerusalem, which cleared the way for Gentiles to be fully incorporated in the Christian community. The council was held in AD 49.

Saul, we are told, was still breathing “murderous threats” against the “disciples of the Lord”. We know that he was directly implicated in the killing of Stephen but there are hints, by Paul himself, that others died or came very close to it because of his actions (cf. Acts 22:4; 26:10).

His next target were the Christians in Damascus. For this he got letters of authorisation from the high priest, probably Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin had authority over Jews not only in Judea but elsewhere in the diaspora as well. The Romans recognised the high priest’s jurisdiction over the members of the Jewish communities even outside Palestine and, according to 1 Maccabees 15:21, this even included right of extradition.

Damascus was located in the Roman province of Syria and the nearest important city outside of Palestine. It was about 250 km (150 miles) north of Jerusalem and it would have taken four to six days to get there. It had a large Jewish population.

Saul’s mission was to find men and women who “belonged to the Way” and bring them back in shackles to Jerusalem, where they could be tried and perhaps even sentenced to death. “Followers of the Way” is a name for the early Christians and refers to the pattern of life peculiar to the Christians. The term occurs a number of times in the Acts and only there. Jesus, of course, we remember had said: “I am the Way: I am truth and life” (John 14:6).

On his way, Saul was suddenly surrounded by a bright light and fell to the ground. (We are told in Acts 26:13 that it was about noon.)

At the same time, he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” To which Paul replied with another question, “Who are you, Lord?” In the rabbinic tradition, such a disembodied voice would have been understood as the voice of God himself. The solemn repetition of Saul’s name (“Saul, Saul…”) and the bright light suggested to him that he was in the presence of a deity and hence his use of the address, “Lord” (Kyrie).

The reply he gets is: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Here we have Jesus identifying himself fully with his followers. “As often as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). And in the New Testament letters, it is specifically Paul who will later remind us that the Christian community is the Body of the Risen Christ. To attack the Body is to attack Christ himself. Saul is also told to go into Damascus, where he will be given further instructions.

Saul’s companions could hear what was being said but could not see anything. Saul, meanwhile, rose to his feet unable to see, although his eyes were open. His companions lead the sightless and helpless Saul to the city. The recently all-powerful official is reduced to near impotence. For three whole days he was unable to see and he observed a total fast. The symbolism seems very clear: Saul, who was so confident that he was in possession of the truth, is shown to be very deficient in his vision of the truth.

In the meantime, a Christian called Ananias is told to go to a house in Damascus where Saul will be found praying. He was told to go to Straight Street, which is probably the same long, straight street that still runs through the city from east to west and is in strong contrast to the other numerous winding streets of the city.

Not surprisingly, Ananias is rather reluctant to visit the man who has been arresting Christians right and left. “I have heard about this man… what evil things he has been doing to your saints in Jerusalem.” The term “saints” was originally applied to the people of Israel but later became the usual term for Christians. It occurs many times in Paul’s letters. Since God is the Holy One, those are consecrated to his service can be called ‘holy’ also.

But the Lord insists: “You must go! This man is the instrument I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I myself shall indicate to him how much he will have to suffer for my name.”

What an extraordinary turn of events! How strange are God’s ways! How often they go contrary to all our presumptions and expectations! The man, the committed Pharisee, who was so set on wiping out the Christian way is to become Jesus’ chosen instrument to spread his name among the non-Jews, hitherto seen as utter infidels. He will become one of the main pillars, together with Peter, as a founder of Christianity. Through his writings, his influence will be enormous in the centuries following, right down to our own. And, in the process, he will pay a high price in personal sacrifice and suffering.

Ananias then goes to the house. He addresses Saul, whom he had been so reluctant to see, as his “brother”. He says he has been sent by the Lord, the same one who appeared to Saul on the road. The Risen Jesus had actually appeared to Saul; it was not a mere vision. It is on this seeing that Saul would base his qualification to be an apostle.

Ananias then lays his hands on Saul giving him the gift of the Spirit of Jesus. Immediately the scales of blindness fall from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. But what he is seeing is now very different from before.

Saul rises up – hints of resurrection and new life – and is baptised. He begins eating again and regains his strength. And, almost immediately, the persecutor of Christians who had been breathing murderous threats, was going to the Jewish synagogues proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.

Again, we see, the strange ways of God. Ananias, the man who “received” Paul into the Christian community, is someone who only appears here and never again. He was, in every other way, a very inconsequential member of the community. He is like most of us in that regard but, like him, God may send a Saul/Paul into our lives too and ask us – insignificant though we feel ourselves to be – to act as the agent to bring this person to God. In the life of every great Church leader or prophet are hundreds of unidentified people who played a crucial role in their becoming what they became.

Paul could now see, but not just physically. He could see the truth about Jesus and the inadequacy of his own previous ideas, however sincerely they may have been held. He was now ready for baptism and, for the first time since his experience on the road to Damascus, he broke his fast.

A completely new chapter in the development of the early Church was about to begin. There is obviously here a great deal for us to reflect on in our own lives, about our way of treating others, about our blindness and our constant need for conversion, and about our responsibility to share our faith with others.
+++     +++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 117
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
Praise the LORD, all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
John 6:52-59
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his Flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his Blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
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.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
These things he said
while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
The discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life continues.

Understandably enough the Jews are deeply shocked at Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It sounds like a primitive recipe for cannibalism. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes and hear those words for the very first time I think that we too would find them very strange, to say the least.

For the Jews it was even more shocking because they had the greatest reverence for, even a fear of, blood. It was the source of life and should never be touched. To come in contact with blood was immediately to become ritually unclean. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), one of the reasons why the priest and the Levite did not come to the help of the injured man lying on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was almost certainly because he was bleeding and they were on their way to the Temple to pray or offer sacrifice. The woman with the chronic bleeding problem (Mark 5:25-34) did not dare to reveal herself to the crowd or even to Jesus because she should not have been in such close proximity with people. She could have been lynched if they knew.

To this day Jews only eat meat from which the blood has been previously drained (kosher). And here is Jesus inviting, even telling, people to drink his own blood! We have heard these words so often that they have lost their impact.

Yet Jesus makes no apologies for what he has said. On the contrary, he tells his hearers that if they do not eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will not have life. Those who do eat and drink are guaranteed life. Because Jesus’ flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. “Whoever eats me will draw life from me.”

What are we to make of all this? What do the words mean? Obviously they are not to be taken literally. Rather, to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is to assimilate totally into our very being the whole way of thinking and acting of Jesus, the very Person of Jesus. To be able to say with Paul, “I live, no, it is not I, but Christ who lives in me.” “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him.”

Nor are the Body and Blood of Christ only to be understood in the context of ‘receiving communion’ in the Eucharist. Certainly there are Eucharistic references in what Jesus is saying but we need to understand the Eucharist as a sacrament or sign of a much wider relationship with Jesus. The Eucharist is primarily a community celebration of what we are – brothers and sisters who are the Body of Christ for each other and for the whole world. Jesus’ flesh and blood come to us through the Word that we hear during the Eucharistic Liturgy as well as during the sharing of the Bread and the Cup. But Jesus also comes to us through every loving experience that we have in community. The Eucharist is not the whole of our eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. It is the sacramental celebration pointing to our total experience of meeting Jesus in our lives. It is something which should be happening all through our day wherever we are, whatever we are doing.


Sarah in the tent said...

The fact that Saul is the last person anyone would have expected to become a follower of the Way makes his evangelization all the more remarkable and convincing. In the same way, of all the cults in the Roman Empire, Judaism was the one least likely to produce:

- a man who claims to be God
- a Holy Trinity
- human sacrifice
- cannibalism

... and all at the same time!

Even when we compare human civilizations, the Roman Empire stands out for its attempts to eliminate human sacrifice and cannibalism, so it is surprising that Christianity should have taken root precisely within that Empire.

It seems as though God uses these 'signs of contradiction' to make people sit up and take notice.

In today's reading from John, Jesus is clearly referring to his own future death, because his flesh and blood are described as having been separated into food and drink. It is a teaching people will only understand after the Paschal mystery has been experienced.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

That is a wonderful insight, Sarah. Of all the cults (in the proper sense of the word: religions that included both a rite of worship and a code of law) Judaism is the most specific in its faith in one God, a spiritual being whose nature is beyond human understanding, and who has given to the people of this world a code of laws that clearly delineate the duty of His people to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and might; and to love your neighbor as yourself."

Historically, the one who answered the question: "Which is the greatest commandment in the Law" is (a) a person who shares both divine and human nature; (b) one of three Persons who constitute the fullness of divinity; (c) who offers his own human life as a sacrifice to God [His Father] in atonement for the sins of the entire human race [his brothers and sisters]; teaches his disciples to bless bread and wine, and transform them into his Body and Blood and consume them.

Sarah, I haven't changed one bit of the truth of what you wrote, but merely translated it into the language of sacramental theology. The message is clear, and you have expressed it admirably well: The truth of faith is, always has been, and ever will be, a "sign of contradiction" to those who have not accepted the gift of faith. For the gift of faith is offered to all of God's people.

As one of my favorite theologians said: Does it make sense that the Creator of the Universe would create billions and billions of human beings over the course of time, but call only a paltry few to salvation?