NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR B
August 09 2015
August 09 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
1 Kings 19:4-8 Psalm 34:2-9 Ephesians 4:30-5:2 John 6:41-51
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Sometimes we hear incredible statements that astound us, that are simply not believable based on what we know. We react by thinking the person who made the statements knows more than we do, or is something more than what we are, or we dismiss that person and/or the statement altogether, as simply crazy. In all those situations, we encounter concepts beyond our level of understanding. We don’t know how to react, because we, as human persons, have limitations, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, no matter how well-educated we are, and no matter how many other people think we have our act together. Those limitations are a part of the human condition we must accept.
Jesus in today’s Gospel proclaims that if we eat His Body, we will live forever. What an incredible statement! Many of us wish that were so. I would like to think that if we go to Holy Communion, where we physically receive the Body of Jesus, we will not die. And, in today’s Gospel, Jesus made another incredible statement: that He “came down from Heaven.” Does that mean He actually descended out of the sky? Human responses to both of these incredible statements disclose our limitations in ascertaining Jesus. The branch of theology that focuses on the nature of Jesus is properly called “Christology”, a field of knowledge that deals with, “what is the nature of, and what are the characteristics of Jesus?”
Last week, we heard about how Jesus was an ordinary person, formed of ordinary flesh and blood, like bread formed from ordinary earthly ingredients. This week, however, we see the other side of Jesus. He identifies Himself as the Son of God the Father. So which is He? Is Jesus human or divine? The answer is, both together, at the same time! The early Church struggled mightily with that question, and it is still grist for the discussion mills of modern theologians. The question was discussed at the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople, the First Council of Ephesus, and was finally settled, at least for a while, at the Council of Chalcedon, from which emerged a definitive statement. The Council of Chalcedon declared that Jesus Christ was simultaneously perfect man and perfect God, and that those human and divine natures were inseparably joined, embodying the substance of God and the substance of humanity at the same time, without confusion, change, division, or separation. Although the human and divine natures of Jesus are distinct, their distinctions are not taken away by being united. Those two natures concur in one person and one substance. That’s about the best I can do to put the concepts of prosopon, hypostasis, and homoousios in ordinary people language.
Christology continues to challenge us today as it did the crowd that heard Jesus address them in today’s Gospel, which describes their reaction as “murmuring.” What is “murmuring”? The dictionary definition is “a subdued or private expression of discontent or dissatisfaction,” but I don’t think that definition really captures what’s going on here. According to Strong’s Concordance, the underlying Greek word in this text is “gogguzon” which is more like grumbling. My sense of how the crowd was feeling, is along the lines of, “who in heck is this guy?” The crowd recognized that Jesus was making some incredible statements. Jesus said he came down from Heaven and that His Father was God. The people whom Jesus was addressing, however, thought He was the Son of Joseph, an ordinary mortal person just like you and me. The crowd was in a state of disbelief and frustration. They had seen a demonstration of His divinity in the miracle of feeding five thousand people from five barley loaves and two fishes. Some of them had seen him walk on water, as described in the portion of John six that was not read this year at this time. But that was not enough to definitively convince them that Jesus was divine as well as human, as they continued to grumble. They still considered him an ordinary person, born of a human father, and indeed, Jesus demonstrated his human side when empathized with human hunger, which motivated him to feed five thousand people. However, they did not truly understand who Jesus was. The concept of someone simultaneously God and human was still too complex and mysterious for them to grasp, as it continues to be so for us.
The person of Jesus presents many dimensions, then and now. Among theologians, an emphasis on the divine character of Jesus is known as “high Christology of the Alexandrian school,” while that most strongly convinced of the humanity of Jesus is called “low Christology of the Antiochene School”. This debate among scholars has, literally, gone on for centuries. To give you just a few examples, the Church has recognized the divinityof Jesus as someone we adore in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, whom we receive in the Eucharist, who saves us by His incarnation, death and resurrection, and the humanity of Jesus as one who teaches us, sets an example for how we should live, and who loves us as a friend. The contemporaries of Jesus were simply unable to get a grip of certainty on who He was. In trying to do so, the crowd mistakenly placed a great deal of emphasis on the possible human origins of Jesus. But this level of inquiry missed the mark. Jesus is a mystery. Jesus continues to be mysterion to us, far greater than the human mind to fathom. For me, the core identity of Jesus is, and always will, remain a mystery, not fully capable of human analysis.
You might ask why all that is important. It isimportant, because the unique identity of Jesus drives all of Christian theology. It goes to the heart of why we are Christians and not something else. Much of the secular world acknowledges the historical figure of Jesus. But what separates the secular world from the Church world, is the existence of the divine as well as human natures of Jesus. The divine person of Jesus is what makes possible eternal life. It is the Divine Jesus that conquers the death of the human Jesus. A Jesus who was only human could not rise from death.
Today’s Gospel invites us to consider the concept of eternal life as Jesus tells us that those who eat his Body, the living Bread of life from Heaven, will live forever. Jesus demonstrated the concept of eternal life with His Resurrection. Jesus rose from death and lives eternally. Jesus continues to live among us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Acceptance of the Resurrection makes us the people of God. Our trust in the reality of the Sacrament of the Eucharist means we accept the resurrected spiritual body of Jesus. The Real Presence of Jesus, broken and shared among us, is basic material that binds us together as the People of God. The Eucharistic Christ makes us become “Church.” In other words, the Eucharist makes us aware that we are united in the faith of the Church, and that we are all one family. We are all nourished by the same bread. The Resurrected Body of Jesus, physically present in the Eucharist, holds us together in a common hope and conviction that life is eternal.
So what is “eternal life”? Is it our physical bodies living forever? Or did Jesus have a broader concept in mind? The idea of humanity surviving physical death was the subject of debate among the Jews of Jesus’ day, who were divided into three main groups: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. The Sadducees, who believed in a written law, made up the temple priesthood. They did not believe in life after death. The Pharisees, who formulated law on a case-by case basis, did believe in resurrection. The Essenes believed in a purely spiritual afterlife. However, the eternal life about which Jesus spoke has a much larger dimension: the eternal life of humanity as a whole. Could it be that Jesus came to change certain behavior patterns of human persons that could eventually lead to a finite existence of humanity? Consider those of us who grew up in the cold war era, where the United States and Russia were at each other’s throat, with the threat of a nuclear war that could destroy all human life. Although that threat is history, other large scale human behavior threats still exist. The Middle East is a powder keg with several nations there having nuclear capabilities. Our own country is armed to the teeth. Civilian gun ownership is, shamefully, a right. The result has been that ordinary people are armed, with many feeling they can shoot other people for any reason or no reason – all one needs to do is watch the news on television to see that is true. The United States has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country in the world, but violence is still with us. Violent misbehavior has, unfortunately, become a characteristic of much of the human race, often in the name of religion.
Elijah received a visit from an angel with food because he was hungry. God requited the hunger of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. The bread of heaven that came to Elijah, and to the Israelites, prefigures of the bread which came down from heaven, as Jesus Himself. But Jesus, the Bread of Life, is something different altogether. Jesus is the bread of wisdom. Jesus is the Divine Bread that gives us life, makes us live, and teaches us the art of living. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, those who listen and learn in the presence of God the Father come to Jesus, who is bread with a message.
We all wish Jesus, in the words of the Nicene Creed, will “come again in glory.” We could sure use Him among us once again right now, given the state of the Church and the world. But focusing on a physical second coming of Jesus is not going to effectuate the change our world needs. Jesus as the bread of wisdom is more likely to do that. The human Jesus has been much more instrumental in effectuating, on a concrete, practical level, our ongoing salvation, than the Divine Jesus. His experience as a human person has enabled Jesus to craft a message that makes sense: a message to change human behavior which will lead to the long-term survival of humanity.
Saint Paul had an insight into the content of that message in today’s Epistle. Paul interprets the message of Jesus as asking us to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil-speaking and malice. Those are behaviors that bring death, which, if allowed to continue, will ultimately destroy humanity. Those character traits arise from one person fearinganother. The violent Middle East, gun violence, mass incarceration, all arise from fear. Muslims fear Christians and Jews, and vice versa. People carry and shoot guns out of fear. America’s mass incarceration is driven by fear of crime. But Jesus is the bread which transforms our behavior, if we only allow that transformation to happen. The Living Bread which is Jesus is not; about the ancestors of those to whom He spoke in today’s Gospel. Rather, Living Bread is about the relationship between Jesus and His Father. Jesus is an instrument God the Father sent to build up the Kingdom of God in a way ordinary food cannot. Ordinary food perishes. That which is alive transforms. Jesus, as Living Bread, nourishes our transformation.
Ask yourself: what if fear were transformed into love? What if we loved by becoming kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God has forgiven us? We would recognize that it is Jesus who turns our cold hearts into warm centers of tenderheartedness and forgiveness, hearts which eagerly seek a world where human life is eternal. We get there by walking in love, as Jesus loved us. In today’s world, that’s an incredible statement. AMEN.