Readings: 1 Kgs 19:4-8; Ps 34; Eph 4:30-5:2; Jn 6:41-51
Some years ago, a high school student asked me why, if God really exists, He doesn’t manifest Himself in some obvious way. “I mean,” he said, “like, if Jesus really is God, why doesn’t he just appear, you know, in the sky or somewhere? Or maybe He could perform some really big miracle, something that everyone could see.”
“And what would that accomplish?” I asked.
He stared at me as if I were, as they say, totally clueless. “Well, you know, everyone would have to believe in Him. I mean, how could anyone ignore it?”
“And you think that this would change people?”
“Well, yeah. Wouldn’t it change you?”
I admitted that a miracle of the sort he envisioned would no doubt have its effect on me. It would certainly reaffirm my faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
“But what of those who don’t already believe?” I asked. “Or those whose faith is weak, and whose lives reflect this weakness? Would they suddenly transform their lives, become holy and obey God’s commandments?”
“Sure.” he said, “I mean, it would be pretty dumb not to.”
For a moment, I considered my own faith...and my sinfulness, and my inability to justify the disparity between them. Yes, I found myself thinking, it is pretty dumb to believe and yet to continue resisting God’s Will through sin and disobedience.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul chastises the Christians at Ephesus on this very point. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit, he tells them, with your bitterness, your anger, your malice, your slander toward one another. In other words, it’s not enough to say we’re Christians; we must be Christians -- as Paul says -- “imitators of God,” imitators of Christ.
But like the Ephesians we instead let ourselves be consumed by anger, by hatreds, by lust, by greed. In varying degrees, we all do it, don’t we?
We see it in families, in homes where love is absent and communication is limited to criticism, angry outbursts, and worse.
We see it in the workplace, where too often the just wage is sacrificed on the altar of investor’s profits. Or where commercial decisions are made with no thought given to their moral implications. As the chief executive of a large corporation once said to me, “I don’t see where personal morality has any place in business decisions.” And he claims to be a Christian.
We see it in our professions, where, for example, some doctors supposedly committed to healing devote themselves to bringing only death...to the unborn, to the sick, to the elderly.
We see it in our popular culture, in movies and on TV, on the Internet, in our music... where immorality reigns supreme, where God’s Word and His Church are mocked, where the Ten Commandments are consigned to the dust heap of irrelevance. "Hey, it's a new millennium," they tell us.
Sometimes we even see it in the parking lot after Mass, but that’s a subject for another homily.
Like some of the Ephesians who so exasperated St. Paul, too many of us try to compartmentalize our lives into Christian times -- pretty much restricted to Sunday mornings -- and other times, when just about anything goes.
Strange behavior, isn’t it? Here we are, believing Christians, who are told by Jesus -- No, commanded by the Son of God -- to repent, to change the direction of our lives so they reflect the Gospel. And instead of obeying, we carry on as if...well, as if He didn’t exist. And yet it’s He, the Creative Word of God, who sustains our very existence. In the words of my teenage friend, “pretty dumb” of us, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why Jesus was so fond of comparing us to sheep, perhaps the least intelligent of His warm-blooded creatures.
Back now to that conversation with the young man…
To convince him that God knows what He’s about, that spectacular miracles in themselves don’t create faithful Christians, I turned to chapter 6 of John, the source of today’s Gospel reading.
The scene depicted took place in the synagogue at Capernaum the day after Jesus had fed thousands by multiplying a few loaves and fish. His listeners, many of the very same people who had filled their bellies with bread at that miraculous picnic on a Galilean hillside, were all attentive until He began to reveal His true identity. “I am the bread which came down from heaven,” he told them.
Ignoring the miracles they had witnessed, instead of listening to Him, they challenged Him: “Now, wait just a minute. You’re not from heaven. You’re from Nazareth. We know you. You’re the son of Joseph and Mary.”
Interesting, isn’t it? They’re simply unable to reconcile their earthly knowledge of Jesus as the local boy who helped out in Joseph’s carpenter shop with what they’ve seen Him do or with the claim He’s just made.
Like Elijah in today’s first reading, Jesus is rejected; and the parallel doesn’t stop there. Elijah had just performed a spectacular miracle in God’s Name in which he had defeated the priests of the pagan god, Baal. And the result? Elijah was forced to flee into the desert for his life.
But Jesus doesn’t flee. He persists and says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. I will raise him up on the last day.”
Faith, then, isn’t something we can achieve through our own efforts, like a promotion at work. It’s a gift from the Father, a free, totally gratuitous gift. We must, however, be disposed to receive it. And we must cherish it, nourish it, and help it grow through prayer and acts of love.
“Follow the way of love,” St. Paul instructs us, “even as Christ loved you.”
But Jesus goes on, and adds these remarkable words, “I am the bread of life...If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Here Jesus reveals the very essence of the Good News: He has come for one reason: to offer His Life so that we may share in eternal life with the Father. As we will see in next Sunday’s Gospel, with these words Jesus also introduces God’s most extraordinary gift: the Eucharist, the bread of life, the true miracle performed daily on this altar and thousands of others throughout the world.
You see, Jesus knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows how we struggle on this brief journey to Eternity. He knows how we suffer through the illnesses, the sacrifices, the addictions, the rejections, the fears of this life. He hears our cries when those we love are hurting, for He, too, has suffered.
To strengthen us, to nourish our souls, to keep us close to Him, the Father gives us His gift of Love. He gives us His Son, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. He permits us to share, again and again, in the sacrifice of Christ.
The people in the synagogue at Capernaum rejected this message, the Good News of salvation. They rejected the gift. And they rejected Jesus Himself. Why? Because it all got in the way of what they thought they knew.
From our perspective. 2,000 years later, we see that human nature has remained essentially the same. Spectacular miracles won’t guarantee faith. Faith demands a receptive heart open to God’s Word, and a willingness to transform our lives.
So, as we receive the Bread of Life at Communion today, let’s approach with faith-filled hearts, committed to living the Christian life that God wants for each of us. Then, in the words of today’s psalm, we too can “Taste and see how good the Lord is.”