August 12, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

When I was a kid, one of the phrases I got in trouble for using was this one, “Mom, I’m starving to death! When are we going to eat?” To which my mom would say, “Stan, you are not starving to death, you are merely hungry, and there’s a big difference!” My hunger was real, but my mother was right, I was not starving to death. And even in those times when I have fasted for a day or two and felt real hunger pains, I have not been in any danger of starving to death – never in my life!

Hunger reminds us that we are human, that we need regular sustenance to survive. And when our hunger pains hit it motivates us to do something to alleviate that hunger, to find food and consume it.

For the last several weeks we have been hearing what is commonly called the “Bread of Life Discourse” from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. This is the passage in John where Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life, the bread that if we consume will enable us to live forever or as another translation puts it, to live fully or completely. Jesus also says that if we consume this bread that he gives, unlike what God gave to the Israelites under Moses, we will never hunger again.

But some of the Jews began to complain about what Jesus was saying about himself. These are the Jewish authorities who are threatened by Jesus’ popularity. They say, “we know this guy, he hasn’t come down from heaven, he is Mary and Joseph’s boy – he’s just like the rest of us, nothing special about him!”

One of the most important things John tells us in his Gospel is that Jesus is the living Word of God, the divine logos, through which all things were made and came to be. Creation itself was accomplished through this divine Word that God spoke, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word or Logos is God’s way of creating the universe and now John wants us to understand that this same Word has taken on flesh and has become part of God’s creation, the infinite God has become human.

The eternal has married the temporal, the essential has become existential, the forever has inhabited the now, the out there has come down here, the unseen is now seen, and God is now fully revealed in the person of Jesus.

So these Jewish leaders are calling into question Jesus’ identity as having his source in God; Jesus couldn’t be the special person he is claiming to be because he is just like us, with two parents, from a no nothing town in Galilee. And anyway, what in the world does it mean for him to say he is the bread of life?

According to Father Ray Brown, to take in someone's "body and blood" could, in Hebrew understanding, mean something as simple, and uncontroversial, as accepting the whole person. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” – or life to the fullest. And that word believe is best understood as a radical trust, an orientation of one's entire self, not merely a head-trip of "believing" the right things. Like a compass that will always point to the magnetic north pole, so the one who believes orients their entire life to follow in the way of Jesus, the way of sacrificial love.

Jesus connects our deepest hunger, not the physical hunger we feel when we haven’t eaten for a while, but the hunger to be connected to God and others and ourselves, with his life. That’s why Jesus gives us the great commandment, to love God with everything you are and your neighbor as yourself.

A brilliant image of this is found in the novel, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. After being granted parole the convict Jean Valjean struggles to find work. He is filthy and ragged, rejected and forsaken by society but above all, hungry. But to his surprise he is graciously welcomed by an elderly bishop. The bishop gently invites him to dinner, and treats him as an honored guest. Jean Valjean is overcome by the grace of the bishop:

“Monsieur…you are goodness itself. You don’t despise me. You take me into your home. You light candles for me. Even though I didn’t hide from you where I’ve been or the fact that I’m a poor cursed man.”

The bishop was sitting next to him and he gently touched his hand. “You didn’t have to tell me who you were. This is not my house; it’s the house of Jesus Christ. That door does not ask who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has any pain. You are suffering, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me, don’t tell me I’m taking you into my home. No one is at home here except the man who is in need of a refuge. I’m telling you, who are passing through, you are more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is at your disposal. What do I need to know your name for? Besides, before you told me your name, you had one I knew.”

(Jean Valjean) opened his eyes in amazement.

“True? You knew what I was called?”

“Yes,” replied the bishop. “You are called my brother”

The overwhelming grace the bishop gave Jean Valjean mirrors the overwhelming grace Jesus, the Bread of Life, gives to hungry people like you and me.

Richard Rohr writes about this overwhelming grace of God in his book Immortal Diamond:

The goodness of God fills all the gaps of the universe, without discrimination or preference. God is the gratuity of absolutely everything…When we say that Christ “paid the debt once and for all,” it simply means that God’s job is to make up for all deficiencies in the universe. What else would God do? Basically, grace is God’s first name, and probably last too. Grace is what God does to keep all things he has made in love and alive—forever. Grace is God’s official job description. Grace is not something God gives. Grace is who God is.

Indeed, “Grace is who God is,” and we can trust in that overwhelming grace that Jesus is the Bread of Life. The table is set, come and be filled!