19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1 Kings 19:4-8 | Ephesians 4:30—5:2 | John 6:41-51
Almighty and everliving God, whom taught by the Holy Spirit we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters that we may merit to enter into the inheritance, which you have promised. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
IT’S unusual in the sequence of readings that we have on Sundays that we would have four Sundays on the very same short passage in the gospel of John, all focused on one image — the bread of life. I remember, when this comes up, I’m always perplexed about how to go back to this very beautiful teaching and try to draw something else out of it that I didn’t draw before, and so that’s what I want to do this morning for you, for me.
We start with the story of a prophet, Elijah, and it’s interesting. To pay attention to the context of this reading, you have to know a little bit about what happened before and what happened after, but Elijah was such a powerful prophet. One of the things that he obviously came up against is trying to convince people that Yahweh, his God, was the only God. As you know, there were many gods, but one that was very popular at the time of Elijah was a god named Baal. So they came up with this idea of a kind of competition where they would set up two altars of sacrifice. One would be dedicated to Baal. One would be dedicated to Yahweh. The prophets, 450 of them, would come together for Baal and were going to ask Baal to send down fire and to ignite this sacrifice. Then there was Elijah, one prophet, on the other side, and he said, “Yahweh is the only God and I’m going to ask Yahweh to do the same.” Just to sweeten it up a little bit, they poured water all over the wood on the altar that was dedicated to Yahweh, and the competition began. The prophets called on Baal, and nothing happened. Then Elijah called on Yahweh and the fire appeared. The 450 prophets were then murdered and the winner was Elijah — a really bizarre story when you think about it. But there he is, almost at the pinnacle of his work with these people and he no sooner has all of this affirmation to feel strong and powerful. Then without any warning in that particular chapter, all of a sudden, we find Elijah completely flipped. He is suicidal and depressed. All he wants to do is die.
I find that so fascinating, because there is something about achieving something that is a goal that you’ve always had, and when you get it, there is something like a kind of letdown. There’s even, I think, statistics that say people that win major competitions often have tremendous depression afterwards, even suicidal thoughts. So it’s interesting. We see Elijah at a very vulnerable, human place in a relationship with a God who is so clearly present, powerful, effective, and yet he’s depressed. All that says to me is the complexity of a relationship with the Divine. It is just like any other relationship. It’s filled with things that we can’t fully understand, but what it is that I find most fascinating about our relationship with God the Father is that it’s so intimate. It’s so real, and it seems that the times that we are most vulnerable and empty is when he is most ready to feed us. It’s probably when we receive the most. You would think that Elijah would have been so on fire with the power of Yahweh that he wouldn’t have needed encouragement, but he did. When he was at this very low point, an angel comes and presents Elijah with food and said, “Please eat it.” He does, and he goes back to sleep. “No, eat it again, because this food is going to take you somewhere, somewhere that’s going to satisfy something that is missing in you.” Then he is told to go to the Mount of Horeb where he will meet God.
The story about meeting God at Horeb is so fascinating. It’s where Elijah is standing there looking for God, seemingly has lost his sense of who he is and who God is. At first there is an earthquake, and God is not there. Then there is a great fire, just like the one that he had experienced with Yahweh. God said, “I’m not in that fire. I’m not in the flood or any of those major, powerful events. No. You know where I am?” And the quote exactly is, “I’m in the sound of silence.” “I’m in the sound of silence.” What that all says to me is that there’s a way in which I and you and probably most of us have thought, “If God would just manifest his power through me, I would believe. If I asked for something like a miracle and it came, I would be so filled with confidence in God.” But somehow that’s not the way he works. It’s almost like he’s saying to us, like he’s said to so many, “Don’t come to me and look for signs, and don’t come to me because I’m feeding you or giving you what you want. No, I want a relationship with you that’s very different than that. It’s intimate. It’s not dependent upon performance. Just know that I’m in you, and you’re in me.” Know that God has called you into a relationship with him and the most powerful invitation comes through the person of Christ.
When Christ is being judged by those around him in the gospel, we see clearly that what is being revealed to us is that Jesus was definitely human. That is one thing the story says. He is human. They know who he is. They know his mother, his father. So they know that Jesus is human, but his divinity is so hard for them to grasp. Jesus is trying to give them is a mystery that everyone has been given, by God, an invitation to enter into God. This invitation came in the person of Jesus. He is the example of the relationship we should have with God, and so we have in this image of a God/man, an image of what is potentially capable to happen to us where we somehow fuse with this divinity. Not as if we are filled with such power and wisdom that we are like God exactly. That’s, I think, the fantasy. At least it was with me. No, it’s something so much more subtle and so much more powerful. It’s like, when we enter into his heart, when we enter into God and God enters into us, there is a union that creates something within us. It creates a kind of resonance, a kind of force, a powerful force that is palpable. You can feel it and touch it. We have become the virtues. We have become the things that God wants us to be, loving, compassionate, empathetic, forgiving, nonjudgmental.
Before this union was possible, it was clear that those things were required of us. The motive we often had to do those things, to be compassionate, to be understanding, was that if we don’t do them then we’d be punished. Or we had a law that said, “We have to follow this law,” and that is the Old Testament. It is so interesting to me that the Old Testament, in a sense, is a story of what doesn’t work. Human beings are made for more than being told what to do. The major theme of all of salvation history is freedom — freedom from slavery. As you pay attention to the story and see it as a broad-stroked, wonderful adventure, you’ll see that the freedom we’re talking about is the freedom from being told what to do as a burden. It is the freedom to become what you are to do.
So this image of the intimate, mysterious, silent connection that we have with God is not so much that it empowers us to do the right thing. We become the right thing. A virtue is different than an action. A virtue is when the action, say love, forgiveness, compassion, is so integrated into who we are that it is embodied. We embody that action. It’s not something we do. It’s something that we are. That’s the mystery of the union we have with Divinity. We no longer have to try to figure out what to do. We no longer have to muster up the ability to be compassionate. It’s just there. Now that doesn’t mean that we do anything perfectly. I think it’s fascinating to listen to the way, throughout salvation history, both God and the prophets seem at times that God is close, then angry and distant. It’s so real. The relationship with God is as real as any relationship we’ve had with anyone, and we know how that fluctuates, how at times it’s intimate and wonderful. At times there is separation, disappointment, and resentment. You see it in God and his relationship with people in the Old Testament. We see it in the New Testament in the relationship that people have with their Savior Jesus. It’s all so human and real.
So this notion that we are given, through this mysterious presence in the world of Jesus — we are given his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. It is clear that we connect so deeply with Jesus. But the idea that Jesus keeps saying is, “The Father is the one inviting you, through me, into a relationship with him. A goal of Christianity, the goal of all religion is to put us in touch with God. Now, Jesus is God, so I know it’s confusing, but God the Father is the one that we want to feel. We want to feel his presence, his force, his creative love, his wisdom. We are sons of God, not brothers of God. We would be brothers of God when Jesus is the God that we pray to. But no, we are brothers of Jesus which means we’re one with all humanity that is both participating in divinity and humanity. It is this image of a loving, powerful, forceful, generous, transforming presence of a God that is in us. When we understand that the goal is union with God which creates virtue that transforms us and we become embodied in the work that we’re supposed to do, then we get an understanding why Eucharist eating and drinking is so crucial to this work. It’s interesting to me that, as Roman Catholics, and as many people who celebrate Eucharist on a daily basis, we figure we need it once a week. We need this food. We need this amazing mystery to eat and drink. I don't know if you could use anything more appropriate, and yet mysterious, of it becoming you. When you eat food, it creates something. It creates health, energy, and life, and it’s the same. It’s the same with grace. It’s the same with truth, life. We celebrate the fact that it’s a gift from a God Father, a God Brother, a God Spirit. Amen.
God, you are our Father. You call us into a union beyond our imagining, a union where you enter into us. We enter into you. Help us to embrace this great mystery. Help us to feel its strength and its wisdom, its direction and its guidance, and we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.