August 12, 2018
Homily for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost B – August 12, 2018 – Christ Church, Ontario
2 Samuel 12: 16-25
John 6: 35. 41-51
The Gospel of John adopts a literary tecnique which drastically opposes one reality to another. On one side, you have the religious experts who understand nothing and on the other side you have Jesus who is the Wisdom of God incarnate. On one side you have the common understanding of bread as bread and Jesus as Jesus-the-son-of-Joseph, and on the other side you have bread that is living and true, which is Jesus himself The-Bread-of-Life, on one side you have earthly and common meanings and on the other side you have nourishment from heaven. There is inherent risk in such a strategy, the risk of breaking reality into two and falling into dualism. If we take John's way of speaking for a description or reality, that is exactly what happens. We then attribute less value to things that are below (such as our bodies, our desires, common things in the world) and more value to things that are above (such as Jesus, the soul, and revelations from God). This has indeed happen historically, and the Gospel of John has been the source of much Christian dualism which, by the way, also functions to separate people, contrasting a less enlightened group with a more enlightened group. In reality, this Gospel is very much focused on the Incarnation, on the divine entering time and presenting itself in a human form. The word “flesh” which appears at the beginning of the Gospel in the famous sentence “The Word was made flesh” also appears in our reading for today, to testify and make clear that a union of humanity with divinity is here signified and praised, not a separation between them. Our passage ends with a very strong statement which affirms that the flesh of Jesus is given as a gift for the life of the world. While we might be troubled by the sacrificial overtones, clearly “flesh” here is not a bad thing and the world is not a bad thing either, although it needs to be revitalized by the flesh of Jesus.
But why does John's Gospel adopt such an oppositional tecnique between the earthly and the heavenly, between the common bread and the living bread, etc. when it has clear pitfalls? The original intention, I believe, was that of awakening the mind (rather than that of describing reality). We go on living and we take for granted our deep and often unconscious understanding of reality, that we have partly inherited and partly formed in our first years of life. The challenge that this Gospel presents is to see common things in a totally new way and with a totally new meaning: common bread is divine substance, a man that we know very well is a privileged channel to the divine (in its purest and most intense form). This Gospel want to shatter our regular experience, which is why it appears so rigid at times, with Jesus presenting a stern face, only to open up and flourish into beautiful poetic statements which represent the other side, the kind of perception of life that one can reach if one lets go of one's attachment to the world as she knows it.
The common reality which we share so often is dull and hard to bear. We are tired of the violence that we witness or experience day by day; we are tired of our daily routine or the behavior of other people; we might be anguishing for our own sickeness or that of a close friend; we might be even be tired of ourselves and our falling into the same unhealthy behaviors. All of this is real. And yet, it is comparable to the situation of the people of ancient Israel being on their journey of freedom but complaining among themselves, ruminating over and over their own sad understanding of their reality. And when they get the manna, the bread that falls from heaven, they start complaining about the manna. They don't understand, they are caught up in their own experience of need, in their own experience of their lack. They are us. In our un-enlightened state.
It would be interesting, at some point, to share among us in what sense receiving the Eucharist, the bread of heaven, is for each of us an experience of enlightenment. Our passage very openly speaks of being taught directly by God, or rather it speaks of the Eucharist as the context in which such ancient prophecy becomes actualized. What happens there at the altar table? Perhaps there is an experience of being welcome despite everything, perhaps there is an experience of peace, perhaps there is an experience of communality. And many other things, I am sure. I don't want to exaggerate in my description, because things such as welcome, peace and communality, which might seems ordinary, they are actually not at all ordinary, they are altogether mystical, although we might be used to them out of our regular religious practice. It is absolutely not an ordinary thing that a piece of bread would produce the enlightenment it produces, whatever it is for each of us, an enlightenment which can grow more and more if we refuse the Eucharist as routine and we pay special atttention to what we learn through it. Not what we learn from the homily, or from the reading or the prayers, but what we learn specifically from receiving the holy bread and the holy wine. What opening happens there? What insights are received, what promise to transform our perception of our ordinary life? Because that is the divine teaching, that which happens beyond all words.
The Gospel of John has one code word - “life eternal” - to signify the experience of eternity within time, insisting that such experience is more permanent and significant than any other, and that even the apparently ultimate experience of death is not ultimate at all, when compared to the power of such life eternal. Not life that goes on for ever – that would be life perennial – but the intensity of life, that holds more value and more reality than anything militating against it, death included. How are we going to take the challenge and built our parish life and our perception of it upon what transpires from our communal peak experience of the Eucharist, rather than on our differences or disagreements? How are we going individually to turn around our lives and let eternal life shine through our own flesh which, like the flesh of Jesus, can become nourishment and life for the world? This is not a matter of intellectual belief, but of experience. Let us be challenged and let us be taught directly by God. Amen.