The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Homily: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

As some of you know, Diane and I are pretty heavily involved with the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. And if there’s one thing that involvement has taught us it’s that God takes care of His people. It’s really remarkable, you know. Well, I suppose it’s really not all that remarkable because we should expect God to take care of His people. After all, He’s promised to do so again and again. And the history of salvation we encounter in Scripture is all about God fulfilling those promises.

Anyway, last year we served over 75,000 meals and this year we’ll serve even more, and do you know what? We always have enough. We never run out. Just like the crowd on the mountainside, everyone gets fed. Whenever we need something – whether it’s a few hundred pounds of frozen chicken, or money for a walk-in freezer, I don’t care what it is -- we don’t have to ask people for it. Someone just shows up on our doorstep with exactly what we need. Or a large check arrives in the mail. It just appears. And I’m not exaggerating. I don’t have to, because God takes care of his people.

And this is certainly one message that comes across loud and clear in today's readings. Not only does He feed them with food for the body, He also provides food for the soul, and everything else they need to live fully human lives in close union with God, the Source and Goal of all life.

So far this liturgical year we’ve been listening to Mark’s Gospel, but today, instead of hearing Mark tell us of the feeding of the 5,000, we hear John’s version, a Eucharistic version, an introduction to Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. Indeed, we’ll stay with the 6th chapter of John's Gospel for the next five Sundays.

John begins by telling us that Jesus and His disciples crossed over to the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee. And as we heard in Mark, the crowds had gone before them on foot. What made people walk nine miles to see Jesus? Well, John tells us…because "they saw the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick". Like people everywhere, like us, they had a deep hunger and longing for healing and wholeness in their lives. Of course, some were simply curious, and wanted to see this Jesus perform one of the miracles they’d heard about.

You and I won’t be any better than these if we see this story only as a miraculous multiplication of a bread and fish. All gospel stories are steeped in symbolism and this is especially true of John.

We’re told first that Jesus "went up the mountain" – a reference to Moses on the mountain bringing God's Law to the people. But there’s a significant difference: Jesus is no mere intermediary; He speaks with the same authority as His Father. Unlike Mark, who has Jesus teaching the people first, in John the teaching, as we’ll see in the coming weeks, flows out of the multiplication experience. And, while Moses went up the mountain alone, Jesus brought His disciples with Him. They would be partners in His work, continuing that work after His resurrection. And just as Moses gave the Jewish people God's teaching in the form of the Law and later fed them with manna, so Jesus, the new Moses, will feed the bodies and souls of those who come to Him.

John also mentions that "now the Passover festival was near". Passover, the great feast of the Jews, celebrates their liberation from slavery in Egypt when God led them into freedom as his chosen people. At the Last Supper, just before his death, Jesus gave His disciples -- and the Church -- the great ongoing sign of a new Passover, the Eucharist.

And in today’s miracle, Jesus anticipates that Last Supper scene where He "took the bread, gave thanks, and distributed it to them all…" For in this new Passover Jesus is the central figure, and His suffering, death and resurrection will liberate us from sin and death.

But let’s step back a moment and look first at what leads up to today’s miracle. There is the dialogue with Philip, who always comes as across as rather naive and simple; the guy who takes things literally; who says the things the rest of us think of but are too embarrassed to say. Jesus sets the stage by asking Philip, “Where will we get food for all these people?" Philip looks at the crowd and says, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”

A little like our first reading, isn’t it? Elisha asks God, "How can I serve this to a hundred men?" "Give it to the people to eat," is the simple answer. How does the Gospel promise it? "Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.” [Lk 6:38] Then Andrew breaks in to tell of a gift: "There is a small boy here with five loaves and two fish." And echoing the words of Elisha adds, "But what use is that among so many?" The next thing we know Jesus has taken those few loaves and fish, and, after blessing them, begins to distribute them.

Note that Jesus didn’t feed the people with nothing. He started with something that was already available. This miracle was made possible because a young boy was willing to share what he had with others, including thousands of strangers around him. You see, God gives life through what is already available to us. But someone has to be the little boy and start the ball rolling.

People are dying of hunger and malnutrition in our world, and it’s not because there isn’t enough food. In some instances they’re being intentionally starved because of hatred. They practice the wrong religion, or come from the wrong tribe or ethnic group. Others are starving because their governments are unbelievably corrupt…still others simply because of inefficiencies and selfishness on the part of others.

You and I can’t do much about some of these things, but we are called to do something, because just like the miracle on the mountainside, the Eucharist we celebrate today is also about giving and about loving. Jesus gave His life on the cross for our salvation, and in the face of such love, we are almost overcome. But He does even more. For the God of the universe makes Himself our food. He gives everything to us, even Himself.  And He does so day after day…and He does so miraculously.

For the bread and wine we offer here today will be consecrated, miraculously changed into Jesus’ Body and Blood, broken, divided, given out to many. But to benefit from this miracle, to receive the Eucharist worthily, we must reflect it in our lives. St. Paul has some harsh words for Christians who want to celebrate the Eucharist but refuse to help the needy members of their community.

There’s another detail worth noting here. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the disciples are told to distribute the bread and fish among the people. This of course is a sign of their future mission to bring Christ to the world. But here in John, it’s Jesus Himself who distributes. As we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus will proclaim Himself to be the Living Bread that gives life to the world. You see, John wants to emphasize that Jesus is the source of all spiritual and bodily nourishment. And even though He will use intermediaries, it is always Jesus who comes to us in Word and Eucharist.

In the end, what happened? After 5,000 people had their fill, the leftovers filled twelve baskets -- another sign of the liberality with which God cares for us. The people are so excited they want to make him King, declare Him the Messiah. And they’re right: He is King and Messiah, but they’re also wrong. They’re wrong because of what they missed. They saw the miracle, but missed the message. The only King they’ll see is one in nakedness and shame, a falsely convicted criminal among criminals, hanging on a cross. And where will these crowds be then?

No, the real teaching here is that Jesus is the true source of nourishment for our lives. And if we want that nourishment we must obey the Father who declared, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him". As St. Paul instructs us in the 2nd reading, we must “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received…striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”

Brothers and sisters, be prepared to enter totally with Jesus into the paschal mystery of His love-centered life, to mirror His self-giving as a way to life. For when we as a people listen to Him and trust in Him…well, as we’ve already seen, God takes care of His people.

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