It was politely and gently mentioned to me that my homily last weekend was on the longer side, especially for me. It was a comment made with no malice intended, so I gave it due consideration, and after reflection, my response is: tough.
There’s too much richness in John 6. I would be doing you a grave disservice if I left some of it out. Now, I’m not saying every single word matters…but that’s not far from the truth.
Consider the question the crowds first put to Jesus today. “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Certainly seems innocent enough, if not perhaps a little trivial. (If they only knew the actual answer, by the way. There was a small part of the gospel that we skipped; you can go back and read it on your own.). But here’s the thing: while it might seem like a trivial question, it reflects a rather flawed way of looking at the world; a way that we ourselves might also fall into.
If you remember, last week’s Gospel ended with the crowds wanting to carry Jesus off and make him a king; however well intentioned that might have been, it was not in accord with God’s plan. But now they just call him Rabbi – teacher. They’ve certainly seemed to move backwards in their understanding. After all, they have many teachers; are they saying that Jesus is “just” one of them? After all he did for them? It’s highly likely that most of this crowd is the same crowd that he just fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, and how many of their other rabbis have done that? Jesus isn’t angry, but he does call them out on it. (Anytime he starts a phrase with a double amen, that means you better be paying attention, because what follows is going to be important.). He says, you all came looking for me because you thought that meal was tasty; you’re not even impressed by the miracle itself! You’re worried about food, but you ought to be worried about the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
He’s letting them know he’s no ordinary rabbi. He’s done great things in their midst already, but the greatest is still coming; he will give them food that will endure to eternal life, because he, the Son of Man, is the one on whom God has set his seal.
They miss the point. Perhaps intentionally. They ask what they must do to be devoting themselves to the work of God. That’s a fair question coming from the Jewish belief system. The Law, given through Moses, allows direct access to God. Following the Law therefore means doing things that please God. So this is a good question to ask. But it’s also a question that says “I’m unwilling to change. I’ve always lived this certain way and I see no need to do something new. I just want to check the boxes and get on to the next thing.” Jesus’ reply challenges that. He refuses to let them skip over the fact that he is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the One on whom God has set his seal. So he tells them that the only way to do the work of God is to believe in Him, the one who God sent.
The crowd is starting to get it, at this point. They understand that Jesus is talking about himself; that they need to believe in him to have eternal life. That’s troubling for some of them. Again, Moses gave them the law, and the law gave them access to God; Jesus is now saying that belief in him is the highest expression of the Law. That’s a real paradigm buster, and so they, following Jewish tradition, ask for a confirmation miracle. They’re happy to follow the Law that Moses gave, because Moses gave their ancestors food in the desert. So what is Jesus going to do for them?
Once again, he answers with a double amen, so once again, this is important: Moses didn’t give the people bread from heaven. God did. Past tense. God gave you manna in the desert, but the giving of that gift stopped, and it stopped a long time ago. But now, presently, as we speak, God is giving them – and us – something different. The true bread from heaven, that is and does all that it claims to be and do. It has the same origin as the manna – God – but unlike the manna, which only gave life to Israel, this bread gives life to the entire world.
The crowd still doesn’t quite get it, but they’re close. They want that kind of bread, they want the bread that gives life to the entire world. Reasonably, then, they ask Jesus for it; so he must and does make it explicitly clear: HE is the bread of life, and those that come to Him, those that believe in Him, will find all of their needs, all of their desires – let alone hunger and thirst – satisfied.
So we’re left with the same question as last week: what do we do with all this information? Last week, your homework was simply to pray in thanksgiving for the gift Jesus gives us in the Eucharist. Keep doing that. But this week, also pray for an outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly wisdom, courage, and understanding, because this week we need to ask ourselves some tough questions:
- Who is Jesus to me? Is he just a rabbi, just an influential teacher, or am I willing to carry him off and make him king? Do I acknowledge Him as Lord? And is He lord of my entire life or just parts of it? Who do I put on equal footing as Jesus, and why?
- What do I hunger and thirst for? What is it I desire out of this life? What do I desire for the life to come? And to whom – or what – do I look for fulfillment in that regard? Am I working for food that perishes, or for food that endures to eternal life?
- And finally – have I let my faith life become stale? Have I become content with just checking boxes? Have I fallen into the trap of “we’ve always done it this way?” Or am I letting Jesus challenge me to be open to new challenges and opportunities that will grow my spiritual life and lead me closer to the Kingdom?
These are important questions, with even more important answers, because they get at the heart of who we are. And we’ll see, as we continue through John 6 in the coming weeks, that that’s not an empty phrase. So implore Him for the gifts of the Spirit this week as you wrestle with those questions, and as you wrestle with the task that is daily put before us: the task o building up his Kingdom here on earth, so that one day we can be happy with him in the Kingdom of heaven.