First Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; Gospel of John 6:41-51
Today’s Gospel passage continues the discourse on the Bread of Life from last Sunday. Who is the Bread of Life? Jesus himself, of course. The fact that Jesus claimed to be the heavenly bread indicated the extraordinary truth regarding his origin as the one “who came down from heaven.” This would have called to mind the manna in the desert at the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, but in Jesus a new and superabundant form of bread from heaven occurred.
In biblical times a prophet could be called “bread from heaven,” almost as a nickname, in a spiritual and metaphorical sense, in as far as by his or her teaching and deeds he or she brought comfort and healing to God’s people. Jesus could call himself “bread from heaven” also, but now as the perfect fulfillment in being God’s Only-begotten Son and Savior of the nations. Some of his hearers took offense at this as they did not yet perceive who Jesus really was.
People asked, “Is not this Jesus, whose father and mother we know?” The question is one of disbelief about Jesus’ greatness. They also asked: “How dare he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” The word “now” is important here, since the people think they know that he has only come from not so far away Nazareth, so how dare he say his origin is in heaven?
To their objections Jesus does not answer directly. Instead he warns the people that their murmuring, grumbling and disbelief will not solve their difficulty. To understand the situation about Jesus and his origin they need divine enlightenment. They must be taught this by God and in turn humbly listen to God.
Jesus is emphatic about the situation: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws that one.” Put another way: no one can go to Jesus, as the source of eternal life, unless he or she is invited by God’s grace. Unbelief in an easy out and simply won’t do, Jesus seems to be saying. To believe in Jesus as coming from God is in fact a gift of God. God’s grace is offered to all, but it is up to each person to answer God’s call or not.
The prophet Jeremiah, who lived centuries before the birth of Christ, said something that Jesus would have known and may have had in mind. Jeremiah speaks God’s word in these terms: “With an eternal love I have loved you and have drawn you mercifully” (Jeremiah 38:3).
The idea of “being drawn” can imply some resistance on the part of the one being drawn and it can even mean to be dragged! That may not be the best image when thinking of God’s activity, but haven’t we all met people who seem to be going to God “kicking and screaming,” yet nonetheless going to God?
In another place, referring to his death upon the cross, Jesus says that he will draw all to himself (see John 12:32). This image seems to imply less kicking and screaming and an almost magnetic going to Jesus as he is being lifted high on the cross. All of this, of course, is language that falls short in the face of the reality of God’s action and grace in the lives of human beings. Human language we must use nonetheless in an approximation of expressing the wonderful mystery of God’s love for the human family, created in God’s image and likeness.
Jesus was clear in his teaching that the true bread from heaven comes from heaven and in addition gives life. Jesus is the bread and the life that we can all partake of and from whom we benefit. The manna in the wilderness could not prevent death: “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died,” Jesus says.
The Bread of Life, Jesus, given in the new dispensation, prevents death. “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, for a man to eat and never die,” Jesus goes on to say. “If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever.”
Obviously we are not talking about the mere prolongation of physical life, but of sharing in life after death, in heaven, where the Holy Trinity lives and reigns, along with all the angels and saints. In that life we hope to share for all eternity!
As Jesus affirms his being the bread of life to be eaten, we are to understand this as more than attaching oneself to Christ by a life of faith and love, as important as these are. We are also to be active participants in the sacramental life of the Church; that is, partaking of what we believe is the Body and Blood of Christ offered at every Mass. This sacramental eating is to be understood as a vital part of Christ giving life to the world.
The second lesson this Sunday, from Saint Paul to the Ephesians, ends with an important appeal: “Be, then, imitators of God…and walk in love.” What a beautiful call! All of us need to be (a more exact translation of the Greek word is actually “become”) imitators of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can even say that the Christian life is a life-long effort to imitate the Lord. With that in mind, we should never be discouraged by our failures to imitate the Lord well or give up trying. Believing we are God’s beloved children, then we trust God will provide the grace we need to be imitators of God.
In his Incarnation, life and death, Jesus has wondrously expressed God’s love for us. Christ’s life was inspired by love that was willing to sacrifice for our benefit. “Christ gave himself for us as an offering to God, a gift of pleasing sacrifice,” as Saint Paul so beautifully expresses it (Ephesian 5:2).
All who follow Christ are being called every day to reproduce in their lives the pattern of the Divine Brother, Jesus, and always ready to forgive even to the point of sacrificing oneself for the sake of the brothers and sisters. May this be our work and our joy.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB