St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
1 Kings 8.1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69
Jesus said, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them . . . whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven . . . the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6.55-58; NRSV). Last Sunday we noted various prohibitions against eating flesh and blood found throughout the Old Testament and we considered just how offensive the multitude would have found Jesus’ words. We noted how vultures and wild animals consume flesh and blood, how we tend to interpret these words through our understanding of the Eucharist, how the multitude would have had no such understanding, and how we need to consider both the Cross and the Eucharist when assessing this passage. We feed on Christ’s flesh and blood in a spiritual sense, but the multitudes would have understood Jesus’ words literally.
Hence, it is no wonder that many among the multitude said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6.60b; NRSV). Jesus asked, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” and then stated, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6.61-63; NRSV). In other words, “Listen up! I am not literally speaking of flesh and blood – I am speaking of my spirit – it is the spirit that gives true life. Does flesh and blood ascend into heaven?” Jesus further told the multitude no one could come to him “unless it is granted by the Father” (John 6.65; NRSV).
What lessons can we glean from this reading? First, let’s focus on the phrase “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Which of Jesus’ teachings do we find difficult? Our first inclination may be to think, “Oh, I accept Jesus teachings!” But do we really? I encourage you to carefully read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, and reflect on your response to what Jesus teaches. It is interesting to note that after setting forth the beatitudes, Jesus reminds the people that they are blessed when they are reviled and persecuted on his account, that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then Jesus reinterprets the commandments and addresses numerous things which keep us from being salt and light. Do we find it difficult to restrain our anger, to avoid lustful thoughts, to speak truthfully in a post-truth world where we are told “truth isn’t the truth”? Do we find it difficult to love our neighbor let alone love our enemies? Do we find it difficult to give alms in secret, to forgive others’ trespasses, to keep our worries in check? You get the picture. These teachings are difficult. In last Thursday’s article for the religion page of the Brookings Register, I advocated that if we would know how difficult these teachings truly are, we attempt to love as Jesus loved – that is, sacrificially—for a 24-hour period. Living a Christian life is not easy. We need to share our challenges with one another and to encourage one another.
Second, what about this phrase, “I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father”? Does this mean that God decides who is permitted to come and not to come unto Jesus? Does this mean, as some believe, that God has elected certain people for salvation and denied it to others? Personally, I find such views repugnant; I believe they are coupled with a view of God as vengeful and wrathful. If God is truly love, as 1 John 4.8 tells us, how could such a loving God elect some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation? I believe that God, acting out of love for us, attempts to draw all of us to Christ, would have each one of us experience and know Christ’s salvation and grace. All hunger after God, but not all of us choose to seek God, or to act upon our hunger. God is the very source of our hunger for spiritual food, for life in Christ, but God does not force us to accept spiritual food. The choice is ours. God would grant all, but not all choose to come.
Third, let’s consider Jesus’ question to the twelve. Jesus had watched the multitude leaving, so he asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” I love Simon Peter’s answer! “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe (that is, to trust) and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6.68-69; NRSV). I like to use the word “trust” here as “opposed to “believe;”
“We have come to trust . . .” In our culture, “belief” conveys the sense of lending intellectual or rational assent to something. In contrast, “trust” comes through an extended relationship – a relationship such as the twelve had with Jesus. Trust grows as the duties attendant upon both parties in a relationship are fulfilled. The disciples did more than believe – they trusted. As we experience, and continue to experience, God’s presence in our lives, our trust grows. We have knowledge of the heart along with knowledge of the head.
Having experienced God’s love, we come to the place where we say with the psalmist, “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God . . . Happy are they who dwell in your house! they will always be praising you” (Psalm 84.1, 3; NRSV).
Sometimes experiencing the goodness and the majesty of God comes through enjoying nature. As we celebrate Mass in the Grass today, I encourage you to take a few moments to meander and meditate either individually or with a friend. Reflect on the wonders of God’s creation and allow yourself to be one with creation.