18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15 | Ephesians 4:17, 20-24 | John 6:24-35
Draw near to your servants, oh Lord, and answer their prayers with unceasing kindness that for those who glory in you as their Creator and God, you may restore what you’ve created and keep safe what you have restored. 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.
I‘M always intrigued and always like to talk about the fact that we have two testaments, an old one and a new one. Why do we have the Old Testament? Because it seems to make clear that there is an evolution on the part of human beings, that we are no longer the same as we were back then, and the first phase of the revelation that God made to his people was on a level that was more childlike because the human race was not that evolved yet. What we see so much in the Old Testament is a God who comes along to test his children, to make sure they believe and trust in him, and he wants them to take a journey with him so that they can find a place that’s better, a place of freedom, a place of — well, the beautiful image — a place flowing with milk and honey. The way he works with them is to say, “You must trust me. Trust what I tell you.” Then he says things like, “Do this, and you’ll find something good. I’ll tell you what to do, and I’ll tell you how to do it.” In a way, it’s a constant test. “Do you trust me? Do you believe in me? Do you know that I’m helping you?” But it’s so clear, especially in this reading, that you just listened to that, and there were so many times when the Israelites didn’t believe in him and they didn’t trust in him because they couldn’t see clearly what he was doing. In a sense, they were kind of in the dark.
I love the comment that they make in this particular passage when they’re saying, “Look, if you’re going to kill us, why didn’t you kill us back then when we were comfortable, at least in terms of food. We had plenty of food. We weren’t free, but it was a comfortable place because it was familiar. And now you’ve taken us out here to this weird place where we’re not sure what we’re doing or where we’re going, and we don’t seem to have enough food. So why are you bringing us out here to kill us? Why didn’t you kill us back then?” Now, that is not the statement of a person who trusts in the person they’re speaking to. “You’re going to kill us, so thanks a lot.” And God’s response to them is so clear in saying, “Look, you have to trust in me. Now, I have to show you signs, over and over again, that I’m going to be there for you.” And it’s interesting that God could have had the quail and the hoarfrost there from the very beginning, but he always puts people through something that makes them question whether or not God is really on their side. And that constant test is what we see all through the Old Testament. “Do you trust in me? Do you believe in me? Will you do what I say? Because the only way you can do it, since you don’t understand what you’re doing or exactly why you’re doing it — you have to do it because you just trust that I know more than you do. I know more than you do.” So it’s all about information, God giving people information. “Believe in my information. Believe in what I’m telling you.”
Then we have the New Testament. We see it so clearly depicted in the second reading from Paul when he’s saying, “Look, this whole notion of what we’re engaged in isn't any longer the way it used to be.” The old self, in a way, the self that wasn’t very mature or very understanding or even capable of receiving the wisdom that God wants to plant inside you so that you know things. You don’t need to be told them anymore, but you’ll know them. That new self is something promised by an event called redemption, an event that transforms. Another way to say "transforms" is to "elevate consciousness," to become a person who is much more capable of understanding something other than the obvious that we’re invited to understand. When it comes to the potential within us because we’re transformed, redeemed beings is that we’re invited to understand the truth. So this new self that Paul talks about is so important for anyone to understand when it comes to looking at the role of, let’s say, religion or the church or any kind of guidance. We’re no longer simply being told what to do because we’ve been told and we don’t really understand what we’re dealing with. So we’re being told to do things we don’t understand, and we don’t really like doing them, but if we really are afraid enough of punishment, we’ll do them. And that’s that old system, but the new system is so radically different.
We now, you and I, all have this potential to understand, to grasp something, and the beauty, the absolute beauty of what God has done for us, in the New Testament, is that he’s given us something that we can … it’s hard to describe it, but it’s an understanding. It’s a wisdom. It’s a knowing, and instead of calling it information, like, “If I tell you all this, you’ll know,” no, he doesn’t explain it, but what he’s basically doing is simply saying, “Something is going to dwell inside of you. You are going to have something inside of you that continually guides you, instructs you, forms you.” So as this mysterious — presence of God is what it’s called — presence of God, me living in you, me being your food, me being something that you eat, take in, drink, take in. It takes care of your hunger, takes care of your thirst.
This mysterious thing is God’s wisdom inside of you so that it’s clear that this is a gift given, but it’s impossible to understand how to distinguish what is me and what is this wisdom. It really is. You might say, “Yeah, I have an insight.” So did that come from God? Well, yes, it did, but more likely, what happened is that God has been working with you for a long time. He’s been showing you piece after piece after piece of the puzzle, usually coming out of your unconscious. You’re growing in an insight and an understanding of something that you’ve never really fully seen, and all of a sudden, boom, it’s all there, and you’re saying, “Oh, my gosh. I understand something. I see something. I’m living so much more in the truth on a particular issue than I ever have before. How did I do that? Was that just given to me, or did I figure that out?” Both. It’s that absolutely amazing mystery of incarnation. Jesus walks the earth. He’s fully human, and he’s fully divine. We walk the earth. We’re fully human, and we’re filled with the divine, not the same as Jesus in terms of intensity or fullness, but we are absolutely like him in so far as what he’s doing, we can do. He says that over and over and over again.
So we look at this beautiful gospel, and it’s clear that the people whom Jesus is attracting to him are attracted for a lot of reasons. Remember, they haven’t yet been redeemed. They’re just on the cusp. Christ hasn’t died yet. Redemption hasn’t happened. A transforming event hasn’t really happened in their life, the transforming event, and so what we see in them is, “All right, I see you doing some things that are really good because first of all, you’re giving us food. It’s wonderful. I go, and there’s this beautiful miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.” And they were receiving something, and they were very drawn to it, but what Jesus is aware of is, because their consciousness is still pretty low, they’re really following Jesus and going after him because he’s taking care of some immediate, human needs — food — maybe just making them feel good. You go to some people, and they say things, and they make you feel good. Well, that’s good, but a real teacher, a real spiritual leader is not simply going to make you feel good. They’re going to take you on a journey and invite you to trust in the power of a God who is entering into you. The Spirit of God that is in you is called something, and the word Jesus used for it is something that comes down from heaven. It’s like food, but the best description of it is it’s the truth. “I would like to give you an insight into what is real, what is true, what is really going on.”
I love the opening prayer of this liturgy when it says God has entered into our lives so that he might restore us. Interesting, restore us. You would think maybe — some people might say — “Well, God comes into our world because we’re corrupt and terrible beings, and then he frees us from that bondage of Satan, and then we become a new creation.” Well, restoring isn’t that. Restoring sounds to me much more like something that is good in the beginning, and then somehow it’s damaged by experience after experience. We don’t have to go very far in our own paths to realize there are many experiences in our lives that have not taught us the truth, but taught us something that is other than the truth. We’ve had trauma in our lives that we can’t quite grasp the fullness of, and it gets repressed and it works on us from our unconscious. All that we know, and all those things that have happened to us are not — they’re not the truth. They’re something else. They’re some kind of lie. It’s so exciting to me to think that we have this potential relationship with our God when he’s going to come into us, and he’s going to work with us like a coach; like a doctor; like a therapist; like a close, personal friend; like a lover and be there with us in every situation. And when there is error, when there is a false thing that we are still living under and we think it’s the truth; and we’re using it, thinking it’s going to produce something that it can’t produce; when we’re caught in that kind of thing, then somehow this mysterious, wonderful presence of the truth penetrates into that lie and heals it like a bad infection, is healed by some kind of vaccine or something like that. It’s a wonderful image for me to think that this is the work that God is doing for us.
So what is our work? What are we supposed to do? What’s the key to understanding what all religion is basically trying to say to us? Well, the basic thing is to believe in the one whom God sends. Believe in the one whom God sends. It’s like saying, “Believe in what God is doing in your life.” He sends it to you in so many different ways and in so many different situations and through so many different people. So the task is to believe that you have a relationship with a God who longs intensely for you to see the truth, and he is constantly nudging you; pushing you, sometimes gently, sometimes violently; into a situation where you have to face it head-on. And you have a choice. “I can trust in what I’m beginning to see, even though it might be frightening and maybe even terrifying, because I want more than anything else to be in the truth,” which then underscores for me that the one thing that God is really asking you and me to have is an intention, a deep, personal intention that I want to see. I want to live in the truth. That’s what I want. Anything else is secondary. I don’t want to necessarily just be comfortable. I don’t just want to be in the things that are familiar to me. I don’t want to just simply stay the same. No, I want to move out of anything that I’m caught up in that isn’t fully what it should be, what it’s called to be, what its essence is. I want to see it for what it is, and the promise is amazing, because when you see the truth as it is — we have a part of our human nature that’s called self-survival, and it’s sometimes looked at as a problem with selfishness, but in a sense, it’s one of the greatest gifts we have, because when you know something is harmful for you, when you know it will destroy or harm or rob you of something you really want, when you’re living in that kind of truth, you don’t need anybody to tell you not to do it. You don’t need someone outside of you saying, “Do this, and do it this way,” because you’ll know, and that’s the promise that God makes to you and to me. “Believe in me. Trust that I’m there. Trust that I’m trying to speak to you every single day in some way if you’ll just say, ‘I want. I want it. I need it. Please, give me the truth.’”
Father, your gifts that you pour into us every day are so often misunderstood, perhaps even seen as something that is not for us. Bless us with wisdom to open our hearts to all that you long to show us, no matter how painful, no matter how difficult so that we can continue to grow, to be restored to the fullness that you’ve created in each of us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.