JESUS IS THE BREAD FROM HEAVEN
1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; and John 6:41-51
Today, the 19th Sunday of the Year B, we take the third of five homilies on John, Chapter 6. So far we have seen:
- Jesus feeds the hungry Jews and they are very pleased with him. They even want to make him their king.
- Jesus reveals his identity. We get to know the real Jesus by paying attention to “I am” statements, such as “I am the Bread of Life.”
- This Sunday, we are focusing on what Jesus does for us. This obviously relates to Jesus’ identity. What he does flows from who he is: God from God, Light from Light – only he can satisfy our deep hunger and thirst. That’s why he can say, “Whoever comes to me will never hunger.”
- THE NECESSITY OF FOOD IN HUMAN LIFE
Food is a vital necessity in the lives of human beings. History tells us of some quite extraordinary people who were able to go without food for several weeks or months. But at the end of their heroic fasts, they still had to eat in order to stay alive. Most people, however, cannot go without food beyond a few days or, at the most, one week, after which delirium sets in. They go into a coma, and eventually succumb to death.
Food is the ultimate reason why most people go to school to get education, so that after graduation, they can be gainfully employ, and be able to earn their “daily bread”. Nonetheless, no matter how much food one eats, one shall always hunger for more. A few hours after eating, the food we eat digests and assimilates into our body system. The stomach becomes empty and clamours for more food. Some people are able to respond to the stomach’s demands up to three times a day. They are said to have “three square meals a day.” Others count themselves lucky if they can eat once or twice a day. But the fact remains that the food we eat can only sustain us for a period of time, and then we just must eat again.
Another fact about the food we eat is that it is only useful for our life on earth. After this life, we have no use for that kind of food. Never mind that some ancient people used to bury their dead with food that they were supposed to eat on their journey to the “great beyond”. Of course, the food never left the graves of the dead persons. Those dead people had no use anymore for that kind of food.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks of an altogether unusual kind of food that will sustain people even beyond the grave, a kind of food that will keep people alive beyond the grave. Jesus says: “…this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:50-51). Jesus then goes on to drop the ultimate bombshell by saying that the bread (food) in question is himself! “I am the living bread that came down from heaven… The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:52).
- THE MURMURING JEWS
“The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). There is a common saying that truth is bitter. In dealing with his Jewish contemporaries, the moment of truth has arrived. It is a bitter moment for them. It is the moment of revelation. Ironically, the people who wanted to take him and make him a king after eating the multiplied bread and fish now begin to be hostile witnesses because he is leaving the material to the spiritual and transcendence sphere of his teaching. Last Sunday, the Jews did not question his miraculous credentials of multiplying bread and fish in order to give them bodily nutrition. They were all happy because there is a material benefit. This is consistent with their historic past. In the desert, when there was no manna, they murmured. But once there was manna, they rejoiced. Similarly, in contrast to the gospel of last Sunday, today, the situation is now different. Those who were fed last Sunday are now beginning to be hostile witnesses to the gospel of life involving the “bread of God.” The murmuring Israelites in the desert have become the murmuring Jews in John’s Gospel.
The word for today is “onomatopoeia”. Onomatopoeia is the name of those words that imitate the sound they are referring to, like “fizz”, and “crackle” and “hiss”, and “murmur”. This word “Murmur” which we hear today in the Gospel is one which we heard many times in the Old Testament account of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Those people were really great murmurers. God delivered them from the slavery of Egypt through the miracles performed by Moses, and the people murmured that they would be caught by Pharaoh’s troops and die in the desert. After God saved them by parting the Red Sea, they murmured that there would not be enough food for them to eat in the desert. After God gave them manna, they murmured that the food was boring and wanted food from some hotel service.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the people that he is the Bread that has come down from heaven. And what do they do? They murmur. “Who does he think he is? Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?” They would rather complain instead of listen to what he has to say. We notice here that the Jews did not murmur about the fact that this miracle worker was the son of Joseph and Mary at the time when he multiplied bread and fish for them to eat. But once it is about heavenly things, they quickly began to remember that he was from the home and family of Joseph and Mary.
The bitter truth of the claim to a heavenly origin by Jesus proves too much for the Jews to take. It creates a tension that will continue to escalate in the gospel of John until it will culminate in the death penalty judgment against Jesus, as we will read in John 19.
- JESUS IS THE BREAD FROM HEAVEN
The Jewish people expected the Messiah to, literally, come down from heaven. They were waiting for spectacular events and supernatural manifestations in the sky when they would literally see the Anointed of God coming down in the clouds. So when Jesus comes forward and claims that “I am He”, (Jn 8:24,28) they cannot reconcile the reality before them with the expectations in their minds. Jesus, they know all too well, or at least so they think. They know when and where and how he came (from Mary and Joseph). “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?’” (Jn 6:41-42). As the controversy deepens, they become even more explicit: “Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from” (7:27).
It is therefore clear that the problem the Jews of Jesus’ time had with the idea of flesh becoming bread is basically an extension of the problem they had with the idea of the word becoming flesh. If we can relate to the mystery of God’s love for us, which prompted the almighty and eternal God to become an ordinary, mortal man like we are, then we are more likely to relate with the mystery of this man becoming bread, again as an act of love for us. But if we insist that God must meet our expectations and our reasoning before we can believe, then we miss out the truth completely. Faith in Christ is the only the doorway to eternal life with God.
- THE TEST OF FAITH IN THE LIFE OF PROPHET ELIJAH
Our first reading today presents the Prophet Elijah to us as tired, fatigued, sad, and even running away. Prophet Elijah was a great man of faith. But like all human beings, fragile and limited, the prophet suffers from a crisis of faith. He feels a crude persecution against his life, and he even believes that God has abandoned him in spite of being faithful to God and risking everything for God’s glory. In his desperation, he cries: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life.”
We, in the same way as Elijah, can feel tired and frustrated. We feel as if we had lost all meaning in life; and we look back and ask ourselves if all the good we have been doing is of any worth because we cannot see the fruits of our good behaviours. It looks as if between God and us there exists a great barrier. But at no moment at all did God abandon Elijah. God only wanted his faith to grow and mature even more. God helped him by sending an angel to give him bread and water. And after eating the prophet felt “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb (Sinai).”
These Sundays on which we hear Jesus’ magnificent discourse on the bread of life, are a God-given opportunity for each of us to renew our understanding of and belief in the Eucharist – the true body and blood of Jesus given to us by the lord himself at the last supper and announced early in his ministry as recorded by St. John. It is an opportunity to strengthen our faith, like the Prophet Elijah strengthened his faith in the desert.
Sometimes, one feels saddened by some statistics that we hear, namely, that more than one half of all Catholic people either do not understand or do not firmly believe that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine. We have perhaps read of the attempts of some “theologians” to make a more palatable understanding of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Some say that “the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus in a merely symbolic way”. But this is not what Jesus taught. As much as some of his followers wanted him to modify his teaching in order to make it more acceptable, Jesus would not do it. Rather he insisted on the reality of his bodily presence as food for our spiritual nourishment. This is an article of our faith as Catholic Christians. It is a take-or-leave-it affair! (This discussion continues next Sunday.)
- SOME BASIC QUESTIONS THAT ARISE
- If people can go to any lengths to obtain the food that sustains them only for this life, should they stop at anything to procure the bread that will sustain them onto everlasting life”?
- What sense does it make to allow anything to come between us and access to the bread that will fetch us everlasting life?
- Are we not committing “spiritual suicide” if we starve ourselves of that bread without justifiable cause?
- Come to think of it, the bread in question is absolutely free, because it is priceless, invaluable. No one can buy it for all the world and more! It is ours for the asking! Why are so many people reluctant or indifferent to this essential food?
Do we really appreciate what an inestimable gift we have in the Eucharist? Do we really believe that the living God is present in the tabernacles of our churches and on our altars at mass? This is the bread that came down from heaven, the foretaste of the eternal life of heaven. May the Eucharist truly be the center of our lives.