Here is the homily preached at St. John Parish in Clonmel on the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Year B], on August 9, 2015. The Scriptures of the Mass are I Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51: click HERE for the readings at the USCCB website.
Jump below for the homily’s text…
The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
I Kings 19:4-8 + Ephesians 4:30-5:2 + John 6:41-51
August 9, 2015
“‘…whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.’”
Today’s Gospel passage is the middle of five that we’re hearing this summer from John 6. Inasmuch as it’s the middle of the five, it makes for a turning point.
I hope you won’t mind, though, if I offer you what the young people call a “spoiler alert”, and then tell you the end of Chapter 6. It doesn’t end well, sad to say. A large number of those who had been listening to Jesus abandoned Him. They didn’t just head home for the evening, to come back to follow Jesus another day. They out and out stopped being Jesus’ disciples because of what Jesus claims in this chapter.
So what is it that rattles so many of Jesus’ disciples so much, that they stop following Him altogether? The short answer is that the whole of John 6 is about Jesus’ identity: who Jesus truly is. Those disciples leave Jesus because of who He claims to be.
Keep that in the back of your mind. But back up first, and recall what we’ve heard over the past two Sundays from John 6.
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Those passages mentioned “signs”. Jesus performed signs when He miraculously healed the sick, and when He multiplied the loaves. But there was a problem with these miraculous signs, in that no one saw them for what they were meant to signify.
For example, in the case of the loaves, people misunderstood why Jesus had multiplied the loaves: they thought that Jesus’ chief concern was to fill people’s bellies. Based on this misunderstanding, “the people… were going to come and carry Him off to make Him king.” The people wanted a king who would see to it that they were well fed.
But while your average person would not mind being made a king, Jesus understood that these people wanted to do the right thing (making Him their king) for the wrong reason (because he fed them), and so “He withdrew again to the mountain alone.” Jesus wanted them to accept Him as their King, but only for the right reason. What that right reason is comes to the forefront as John 6 continues.
In the meantime, these people were stubborn. After Jesus fled to the mountain to be alone, the people went “looking for Jesus”, and “when they found Him”, “Jesus answered [them by saying:] ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled.’” The crowds did not see that Jesus worked His miraculous signs in order to show them who He truly is. In other words, the signs weren’t about them. They were about Him.
At this point, pause and put yourself in the shoes of the people in John 6. Do you ever pray to God for material blessings? You may not pray for bread to fill your family’s stomachs, but how much of your relationship with Jesus is based on the things of this world that you ask God for? It’s not that it’s wrong to ask for material things that are needed: it’s whether those petitions are the center of our relationship with God.
So as Jesus preaches further about the Bread of Life, we need to ask ourselves: do we pray only because of what we can get out of prayer, or do we pray because of who God is? The answer to that question is tied up with the focus of John 6: who is this person who calls Himself “the Bread of Life”?
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However, this is where cracks start to appear in the foundation of John 6. That is to say, this is where the story turns south. This is where the crowds begin to murmur against Jesus, and raise objections to what He claims.
At the very beginning of today’s Gospel passage, “The Jews murmured against Jesus because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down from Heaven’”. They give their reasons for murmuring. It’s not so much that Jesus is claiming to be some sort of “bread”. They seem to accept that claim of Jesus as an innocent sort of metaphor: someone who is bread offers nourishment; sort of like when in our day we call a parent a “breadwinner.” It’s just a metaphor, so there’s not much there for the Jews to be bothered by.
What really bothers them is that Jesus is claiming to come down from Heaven. How can this be, they murmur, when they know his father and mother? He’s one of them, not someone sent down from Heaven. But Jesus does not bother long responding to this concern.
Instead, Jesus moves forward. He doubles down on making great claims. More important than the fact that He’s come down from Heaven is the question of who He is. Who is this Jesus? Towards the end of today’s Gospel passage, in the span of just four verses, Jesus gives us three answers to the question of who He is: each is a variation on the other. In each, Jesus describes Himself in terms of bread and life.
Jesus first declares, “‘I am the Bread of Life.’” Then He describes Himself as “‘the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat it and not die.’” Third, Jesus calls Himself “‘the living bread’”. In all three of these answers Jesus explains that He is not just nourishment. Jesus is a bread that offers a life stronger than death.
“Life” is what Jesus is as God, in His divine nature. “Bread” is what Jesus is for us, in His human nature. It’s through Jesus’ human nature that He reveals His love for us, and allows us to share in His love.
This Bread, in other words, is for you, but not about you. Through the Bread of Life you grow in the likeness of the divine person of Jesus Christ. Through the Bread of Life you participate in divine life.
Then Jesus moves even further in revealing this awesome Mystery. In the very last phrase of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus stakes the claim that makes or breaks His disciples: not just that He is bread, and not just that as bread He gives life that’s stronger than breath. So what is the claim that makes or breaks His followers? What is the claim that you yourself need to consider, and either reject for the sake of leading your own life as you wish, or accept as the means of following Jesus?
Jesus declares: “the bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.” Jesus is not just “bread”. He is not just “food for the hungry”. Jesus is not just bread that offers life. Jesus is not just bread that strengthens you to survive death. Jesus is the divine Word made Flesh, and His Flesh is the bread that He “will give for the life of the world.”
His Flesh is bread. Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Life makes clear just how radical the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is not just a symbol. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is not just a sign. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is not just bread. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the divine Word made Flesh.
Here’s another “spoiler alert”: those who murmured when Jesus said that He had come down from Heaven are going to murmur even worse against Jesus’ claim that the bread that He will give is His Flesh. Of course, you can read “the rest of the story”—as Paul Harvey used to call it—in the missal in the pew, where it gives the Gospel passages for the following two Sundays. You can reflect on the rest of the story at home by taking up your own Bible and reading the whole of John 6 together. But what you must not do is entertain the idea that Jesus is only speaking metaphorically, or figuratively, or symbolically, when He declares to you: the “bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.”
Jesus gives us His flesh, to give us in this fallen world life: the life that is divine, that is self-sacrificial, that Jesus offers us in the Holy Eucharist, and that He asks us to imitate in our daily lives through the strength that comes from this very Bread of Life.