Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday on Ordinary Time
August 10, 2003
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)
"Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you." "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you."
When you left home this morning to come to this liturgy, what were you looking for? What was I?
Did you come hungry? Did I? If so, what were we hungering for?
As the backdrop for today's Gospel account of the 'bread of life' discourse from St. John, the church invites us into the story of Elijah on the way to the mountain of God. What was that all about?
Well, Elijah wasn't just out for a walk, to your neighborhood Taco Bell or ice-cream parlor. He is fleeing, running in fear for his life. You see, just before this passage Elijah had confronted the official prophets of queen Jezebel. They had abandoned the Covenant and were worshiping Baal. Elijah had issued a challenge, to show the power of Yahweh. Each side set up a sacrifice and begged their god to set it on fire. After the failure of Baal, the Lord blessed the offering of Elijah. (And by the way, after he defeated them, he had their throats slit, all 900 of them... Apparently you can be a true prophet of the Lord and not exactly act like the Dalai Lama or Gandhi.)
But as a result Elijah is now fleeing the wrath of Jezebel. And it's hard. He's weary of carrying the burden, of challenging people who don't want to listen. He asks the Lord "Just let me lie down and die." We're not getting anywhere, I and this generation are no better than our fathers. We can each resonate with that experience.
The Lord has to wake him twice to get him to eat. There is a long journey ahead.
I wonder, are we aware of the journey we are on? Do we understand the food it will take?
And then in today's Gospel we are back in the middle of an account which began in last week's liturgy and will continue for the next two weeks. It is that dramatic exchange between Jesus and the crowd concerning the bread of life. It's exciting: back and forth. Jesus promises and the crowd responds.
It began when he had fed them ordinary loaves and they wanted more. He had to tell them they were on the wrong track, that he wanted to give them something far more attractive, bread that would last. Forever. They want to see some sign, and he just tells them he is that bread, come down from heaven. And they say, hey, we know this fellow; we know his family; how can he be bread from heaven? And finally he tells them he will feed them with his own flesh for the life of the world. And we know that two weeks from now we will hear that for some who had followed him already for some time that will be the last straw. They will walk with him no more.
Why do we come here? Are we really hungry?
Let me tell you of an experience that came back to me as I was preparing this homily.
Some years ago I was giving a retreat at a retreat center that was rustic; cabins in the woods, that kind of thing. The center was run by a group of wonderful laymen and women who were committed to a very poor life. They lived simply, they ate simply. One day there was knock at the door and there stood a couple who were begging for something to eat. Your heart went out to them. So naturally the staff prepared some food and drink. It was very plain sandwiches -- the kind the staff would make for themselves, two slices of Wonderbread and some slices of lunchmeat. The couple left, and a couple of hours later we went outside and discovered that they had just thrown the food on the ground.
They weren't hungry. Whatever else may have been going on, they weren't hungry. Maybe the food was just too plain for their tastes. As Jesus was too ordinary for the crowd.
You know, there's an interesting paradox about John's Gospel. He's the only one who includes this whole account of the bread of life. But when it comes to the narrative of the Last Supper the other three tell us about Jesus instituting the Eucharist: "This is my body, this is my blood" -- but John doesn't even include it! Instead he tells a story that none of the others tell. He tells how Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples.
You see, he's telling us what Eucharist is all about: the Lord come to serve us. One writer says that in that one action Jesus "overturned through all natural hierarchies, cutting the history of the world in two." Before that moment the hierarchy had always been quite clear: God was the master, we were the servants. In that one moment Jesus reveals this incredible thing: that God comes to serve us, that Jesus the Lord is emptied out, into death, for the life of the world..
Why do we come here? Are we really hungry?
The act of Eucharist is the continuation of Jesus' mission. And what is that about? It's about transformation, about changing us from isolated individuals trying to save ourselves -- into a single people, dependent on one another, into his own body.
Oh, Eucharist feeds you, Eucharist feeds me. But Eucharist is not for you, it's not for me. It's for the life of the world. We commune with Jesus in his self-emptying. And we take our place among that people which is called to empty itself for the world.
I think for a lot of people 'the real presence' means that at Mass Jesus suddenly comes into a world where he didn't exist before the words of consecration. But we miss the whole point if we think the Lord comes only 'in church,' that God is not already at work in the world, in creation. Eucharist is simply a further emptying: that he comes now to serve us as our food, to transform us into food to be consumed in service to our neighbors.
Am I ready for that kind of transformation? Do I -- do you -- hunger for it as Jesus did? He said he had a baptism with which he was to be baptized, and he was on fire until was accomplished.
Like Elijah, you and I are not yet at Horeb, the mountain of God. It makes me think of that experience we all have with kids on a trip: are we there yet, are we there yet? No, we're not there yet. You're not, I'm not -- and our church is not. There is a journey ahead of us. A journey outward, into a world which needs the Good News, and a journey inward, to that place in our souls where the Spirit is at work re-creating and re-shaping us, teaching us how to allow ourselves to be poured out -- which is the only way we will find ultimate happiness.
If we think we are already full, we need to ask the Lord to deepen our hunger.