“A genuinely good heart is a heart that is open and alight with understanding. It listens to the sorrows of the world. Our society is wrong to think that happiness depends on fulfilling one's own wants and desires. That is why our society is so miserable...” (Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Into the Heart of Life, Snow Lion: 2011, Chapter 9 ‘Practicing the good heart’)
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Never Hungry, Never Thirsty
In last week’s Gospel passage from John, Jesus conversed with people who were hungry and led them step-by-step from their following him around in hopes that he’d keep their bellies full, to a deeper spiritual search for a way to satisfy their inner hunger, to a reflection on their religious heritage wherein God constantly fed their forebears, and finally to the realization that he, Jesus, is the true “bread of life” who alone can sustain them.
We who are the Church are part of that same step-by-step learning process, beginning with the reality of bread, the common life-sustaining element in our lives. From that reality we’re led further to search spiritually for a source to satisfy our own deep inner longings and needs. In reflecting on our own Christian and Episcopal heritage, we find rich testimony to Christ in the Eucharist. We’re led to an ongoing understanding of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist, which we share, which is Jesus himself, the Bread of Life.
Jesus had confirmed, both for his followers and for us, that the “work of God” is “to believe in [i.e., set our heart on] him” whom the Father had sent. “But”, Jesus says further, “I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” His hearers don’t buy this “bread of life” talk (6:35-50), even though they‘ve actually seen him at work, in action. Nevertheless, they haven’t accepted Jesus through his many signs and deeds for them, any more than their ancestors truly accepted God’s feeding them in the desert. Central to understanding why this is so and, indeed, central to understanding this 6th chapter of John’s Gospel, as well as the Eucharist, are these verses from the psalm appointed for last week, i.e., Psalm 78 (vv. 24-25): “...He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven...he “provided for them food enough.”
Exodus 16:2 says: “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained/murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness...”, both before and after they were fed! The Hebrew for murmur = to dig in; be obstinate; complain all night. John, in today’s passage, says that “the Jews began to complain about him”, using the Greek word for to grumble. In both Exodus and in John’s Gospel, people are obstinately complain and grumble because they lack the openness, the willingness, the risk of faith necessary to allow them to see what God and Jesus were really doing, viz., providing them with life-giving food far beyond their desire for satisfaction of mere physical hunger. The feeding with manna and quail in the desert was but an outward sign of the deeper reality of God’s constant care and provision for God’s chosen ones.
The manna, as noted in Exodus, quickly melts. The people who ate it, the forbears of Jesus‘ audience, still died. But God’s feeding of the people, God’s enduring care and mercy and love continue on endlessly. That’s the real sustenance, the real “bread from heaven”. Jesus, too, is trying to help his hearers to see a reality beyond the carpenter’s son from Nazareth: a reality beyond fleshly food which can sustain only briefly. The two key phrases, in the Exodus story about the manna, in Psalm 78, and in John 6:31, are “from heaven” and “to eat”.
Article 25 of the largely-ignored Articles of Religion (Book of Common Prayer, p. 872) says that “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.”
The Eucharist, therefore, isn’t only a badge, token or sign, though it is that. It’s also a sure witness, an “effectual” sign: a sign corresponding with the reality of God present in us, at work in us expanding our faith, our capacity to set our hearts on God. What Jesus focusses on in the Gospel, and what we need to appreciate about the Eucharist, is that Jesus, in his Person, expresses and reveals who God is. That was what his followers truly hungered for. And that’s what we hunger for today: the reality of Godself.
The Eucharistic bread wherein Christ becomes present to us and which we see before us is a sort of “window in the wall”, to borrow a phrase from the late British Roman Catholic Monsignor Ronald Knox. Through the Eucharistic bread Jesus reveals to us the reality of his Father, like a window which gives us access to spiritual realities incredibly beyond our human experience, yet contained within our deepest being.
Jesus is, indeed, “from heaven”. He speaks of himself as the One sent from God. He himself is the Father’s gift of sustenance for time and for eternity. All people, without exception, are invited to come to the Father through Christ in faith. Belief, setting one’s heart on God, involves a mystery known only to God; but no one who comes to God through Jesus is ever rejected. The ability to “come”, to “believe”, is God’s gift, not a human accomplishment. Through it a person shares eternal life even now, and ultimately attains it forever in being raised up.
It’s no easier to accept this through seeing the Eucharistic bread over which we pray Jesus’ words of institution than it was for these free-loaders to accept it through seeing a man whose origin and roots were in a God-forsaken village of theirs called Nazareth. “How can this be? This is someone we’re familiar with: we know. How dare he say it’s ‘from heaven’?” Jesus’ response, to them and to us, is, “Don’t murmur; don’t dig in and be obstinate. Question, yes, but don’t grumble in disbelief.’” Ultimately, we either choose to take Jesus at his word, or we refuse. He simply repeats: the one who comes to me, drawn by my Father, “I will raise that one up at the last day...the one who believes has eternal life.”
The second part of today’s Gospel (50-51) sheds light on the phrase “to eat”. Originally, “bread, to eat” referred to the manna spoken of in Exodus. Jesus now contrasts that physical, perishable and passing food with a different kind of food: “the bread of life”, “the bread which comes down from heaven”: bread which, when you eat it, you don’t die. Jesus identifies himself with this “living bread”.
By implication in all that goes before this passage (44-48), a person who comes to Jesus in faith begins to know who God is. As one has this continuing experience she/he realizes that her/his life is being sustained and completed. If one continues to grow, this isn’t just a passing condition or a fad, but is permanent. One begins to “live forever”, to experience “eternal life”.
Finally, Jesus assures us that this becomes possible, not only for the individual, but also for “the world”. “...the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” That is the Eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving.
The Lima Statement, a significant ecumenical document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry drafted at Lima, Peru, in 1982 by over 100 theologians from all the major Churches, speaks of the Eucharist as “Thanksgiving to the Father”. In the Eucharist, it says, “God himself acts, giving life to the body of Christ and renewing each member. In accordance with Christ’s promise, each baptized member of the body of Christ receives in the eucharist...the pledge of eternal life.”
That life comes to us through a sign: the sign of bread which sustains human life. While we let the sign itself, the Sacrament, speak to us in all its richness of meaning, we can never allow ourselves to be so caught up with the sign itself that we become casual with the immense reality behind the sign, viz., the reality of Jesus the Christ, God’s Son. Oscar Hammerstein wrote a beautiful lyric which says: “A song is no song till you sing it; a bell is no bell till you ring it; and love in our heart wasn’t put there to stay: love isn’t love till you give it away.” In humble signs of bread and wine God gives away to you and me God’s enduring love and life in the Body and Blood of Christ. Jesus gives us his assurance that “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”