Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Search To Fill A Deeper Hunger

The Book of Common Prayer refers to the Holy Eucharist as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts...” (Concerning the Service of the Church, p. 13) Because of the centrality of the Eucharist it’s well worth one’s time to prayerfully study and think about the 6th Chapter of John’s Gospel, in order to come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist.
John’s Gospel essentially encompasses two major sections: 1) The famous and utterly magnificent Prologue; and 2) The Book of Signs, divided into four parts: 1) the opening days of Jesus‘ revelation; 2) from Cana to Cana: the time between the changing of water into wine at the Cana wedding and the healing of the official’s son at Cana; 3) Jesus, in the context of the principal Jewish feasts; and 4) Jesus as he moves toward his hour of death and glorification. 
The 6th Chapter of John, including today’s Gospel passage, occurs within Part 3 of the Book of Signs, where Jesus deals, in sign and word, with the main Jewish feasts (Sabbath/ Passover/Tabernacles/Dedication), showing how he himself is their fulfillment. Specifically, the context of John 6:1-71 is Jesus at Passover. He multiplies bread and walks of the sea (1-21); the crowd whom he fed follows him from the Sea of Tiberias over to Capernaum, puzzled as to how he got there (22-24); Jesus speaks to them of the bread of life (25-34; 35-50; 51-59); there is reaction to what Jesus teaches: from the people, from the Jewish faction, from his own disciples. Here, our interest centers on vv. 25-34.   

Throughout John’s Gospel, and particularly in this passage, John shows how Jesus teaches people by way of conversation. In four steps, Jesus converses with folks who’ve missed the point of a question, action, or teaching. He leads them in a quadruple step-by-step from the human experience or situation to a deeper reality involving himself.
First, they want to know when Jesus arrived at Capernaum. They know (22-23) that Jesus isn’t still where he was, and that he didn’t go over to Capernaum on the one available boat. They hurry over there (25),  undoubtedly seeking this wonder-worker who can keep them fed, and they find Jesus there. He begins a conversation with them about the very thing they’re really seeking: another handout of bread, by telling them that they need to direct their energies to seeking out imperishable, enduring food, “which the Son of Man will give you.” The Father, he says, has “confirmed that One as his agent to give life.” (27 - Common English Bible translation) The New Revised Standard Version renders this: “For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” In Eastern practice it wasn’t a signature, but the seal which authenticated a political or commercial document. According to the rabbis, “The seal of God is truth.” The Talmud relates that one day a small scroll fell from the firmament into the midst of some Jewish law experts who were fasting and weeping in the synagogue. They opened the scroll which contained one word: emeth = truth, which is spelled with three Hebrew consonants: aleph (1st letter of the alphabet), min (middle letter) and tau (last letter). Therefore, it was said, God’s truth is the beginning, the middle, and the end of life.
The people want to know what “works” are necessary to accomplish God’s will. (28-29) Jesus says, “No works, but only one work: that you believe in [set your heart on] the One whom God sent.” According to Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) there’s an interplay of words here: “Work not the food” is parallel with “work the works of God”. Jesus sets these people on a spiritual journey to seek out the only One who can sustain their life. The point, especially spelled out in v. 27, is that what God offers us is God’s free gift in Christ. Any work we do establishes no claim on it.
Thirdly, the Hebrews were a people of sign, rooted in a long tradition of signs and wonders. They were also, so like us, typically human and missing the point, that they next ask: “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?...” (30) They go off on a long tangent proudly flaunting the fact that
Moses gave their forebears a “heavenly” sign in the manna which fell into the desert every day during the Exodus. Of course, they omit the fact there’d been significant “grumbling” by the people to get their demands fulfilled, as well as when they eventually tired of the same old menu every day! For the record, Jesus reminds them that “It wasn’t Moses who gave the sign: it was God.” “My Father”, he says, “gives the true bread from heaven, and it gives people life.” Their response: “Give us this bread always [lit., every when].
Finally, Jesus clearly identifies himself: “I am the bread of life.” Notice how his teaching follows a definite progression: from physical hunger, to the beginning of a deeper search to satisfy an inner hunger, to reflection on their religious heritage, to the person of Jesus, who is the life-giving bread sent from the Father.
Jesus‘ use of food-related terms to describe who he is is wholly in keeping with Hebrew tradition. Today’s first reading (Exodus 16:2-4; 9-15) shows how God supplied people’s need for food during the Exodus. The people whom Jesus taught traced their heritage back to Abraham and the other patriarchs. Their ancestors had been shaped into a people through the Exodus experience. They’d witnessed God’s mighty deeds, God’s signs, down through the generations, delivering the people from their oppressors. Though imperfect and few in number, yet God graciously chose them to be God’s own. Still, in typical human fashion, they periodically lost sight of the big picture, complained against their leaders, and quickly forgot the event which had made them God’s own people. 
We who are the Church, through Jesus, “God’s agent to give life”, “ share the rich root” (Romans 11:17) of the Chosen People, have adopted as our central ritual of worship the Eucharist, wherein we feed on “bread from heaven”: the bread of God’s Word and the bread and cup of the Sacrament. The same gracious and mighty God who fed ancient Israel also feeds us. God does so despite the fact that we, too, are imperfect and relatively few; that we, too, regularly complain and grumble; that we, too, have so often forgotten the event and love which made us God’s chosen. Yet, God still feeds us.
John’s Gospel passage today is a sort of invitation to us who are the Church to become part of the crowd and to share in the step-by-step learning process through which Jesus guides us.
First, we need bread. Think about all your experiences of bread within your lifetime and what it has meant to you, both in specific situations and in an overall way. Bread is desirable, filling, necessary to life, readily available for most. But we have many more important needs, beyond physical hunger. Perhaps the very physical bread of Holy Communion can lead us to see our need for something much deeper and more sustaining.
Secondly, our search, ultimately, is for whatever it is that can fill our inner hunger. How do you and I find peace of heart? What or who can fill our deepest need for being worthwhile? for being needed? for accomplishing something lasting? for love? How can I cope with my limitations and weaknesses, or fill up my loneliness, especially when others misunderstand me; when I’m just not up to life’s demands; when tragedy intrudes on my convenience and comfort? Who can sustain me? Many times we already have the answer, though we don’t always want to hear it or act upon it. Our works, our activities, our plans and projects, our busyness won’t get us very far in the long run. “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One whom the Father has sent.
Third, it’s necessary and beneficial for us to reflect on our own religious heritage in order to understand the Eucharist better. As Episcopalians, we stand in a great religious tradition, one worthy of our trying to understand it better and of living in its light. The great Jeremy Taylor, chaplain to King Charles I and later the Anglican Bishop of Down and Conner, writes this in his The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1651):  “As the ministers of the sacrament do in a sacramental manner present to God the sacrifice of the cross by being imitators of Christ’s intercession, so the people are sacrificers, too, in their manner: for besides that by saying ‘Amen‘ they join in the act of him that ministers, and make it also to be their own; so when they eat and drink the consecrated and blessed elements worthily, they receive Christ within them, and therefore may also offer Him to God, while in their sacrifice of obedience and thanksgiving they present themselves to God with Christ, whom they have spiritually received, that is, themselves with that which will make them gracious and acceptable. The offering their bodies and souls and services to God, in Him, and by Him, and with Him, who is His Father’s well-beloved, and in whom He is well pleased, cannot but be accepted to all the purposes of blessing, grace, and glory. This is the sum of the greatest mystery of our religion; it is the copy of the passion, and the ministration of the great mystery of redemption.
Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us as “the bread of life” in the Eucharist. The satisfying of our spiritual hungers, which is the goal of our spiritual search and the only basis for our religious tradition, is the person of Jesus Christ, now become for us “the bread of life.” “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.‘ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” (Mark 14:22-24)
Corita Kent writes: 
We knead new bread
and we need new bread
and this can be said of the bread and of the word
In trying to get hold of things mysterious
we try to invent something definite
and mystery must always be redefined
or better yet
come at newly and indirectly
through stories and things around us...
(Footnotes And Headlines, p. 13)   

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