August 5, 2018
Homily for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost B – August 5, 2018 – Christ Church, Ontario
2 Samuel 12:1-13a
Ephesians 4:1-6. 14-15
After the story of the feeding of the thousands, which we read last week, the lectionary presents the “Discourse on the Living Bread” which is found in the Gospel of John. We will read it throughout the month of August.
The story of the feeding of the thousands, which we read last week, shows in all Gospels the same sequence: Jesus taking the loaves of bread, giving thanks, and distributing the bread to the people (John 6:11). Such sequence is the fundamental structure of the Eucharist which the Church has celebrated from the Apostolic times to this very day. It's what we do. But there is more to it than a simple repetition of the sequence. We know by experience that what happens at the altar table is not just the physical breaking of bread. What happens is something that comes from above, from “heaven”, we say, meaning that although we “do it” by our gathering, setting up the table, placing on it the bread, and so on and so forth, we know in our depths that what happens is not of our doing. What looks like something known and predictable - a piece of bread - is truly something else. It is a “living bread”, which is quite a strange metaphor if you think about it. The strangeness of such metaphor, of course, is supposed to make us think deeply about it. This “living bread” is a divine substance which gives life to the world, that is, to us who celebrate the Eucharist and, beyond us and through us, to all. This is what we believe, but I am sure that for most of us this is a personal experience as well.
Behind the writing of the Gospel of John there was a community of which we know nothing, except what we can glean from the text itself. I am convinced that the Discourse of the Living Bread reflects some of the experience of the Eucharist in that community, and I would like to touch tentatively on two aspects of such experience. The first one has to do with satisfaction and the second one with truth, and they have to do with each other. The “living bread” is presented as something which responds to our deepest desires to the point that we are “filled and satisfied” (John 6:11-12). “Whoever comes to me will not be hungry again” (John 6:35). That's not how human desire works, actually. Our experience is rather that of being filled and then desiring again, and then filled and then desiring again, in a never ending sequence. Sometimes we host deep dissatisfaction because we are never filled, we are not satisfied enough in this or that aspect of our life. But the Gospel of John is engaged into shattering our regular experience, and for understanding it we need to realize that, while our normal condition does include desiring as the experience of a void or a lack, we also have experiences of plenitude, of fullness, which can be so intense to justify calling them glimpses of eternity. We all have, at some point in life, some ecstatic experiences of this kind. They can happen through art and nature, through music, through sexuality or other kinds of intimacy, through dance, through physical or intellectual activities, even through good food and friendship. Time stops, eternity is there. Of course not all aesthetic experiences, not all intimate moments, not all engaging activities, not all shared meals, bring with them this quality of eternity. It is a rare thing, it seems, and quite impossible to contrive. From the point of view of time we can say that any such experience of plenitude is fleeting, but we are encouraged by the Gospel of John at least to stop assuming that the point of view of time is the only true one. Or, in other terms: What if we stop thinking of our life as centered on our lack, and we start thinking of it by placing in the center our experiences of fulfillment, of abundance and overflow? It is then, maybe, that we encountered the deepest truth of our lives and the world.
What is interesting for us today as a Christian community is that the experience of the Eucharist is presented in the Gospel of John as modeled on such experiences of eternity, or perhaps even as the model for all of them. Clearly there are references in the Eucharist to all those other experiences (there is music, there is beauty, there is intimacy, etc.) but there must also be a specificity to it. The central point, I think, is sharing, as Fr. Gary pointed out last Sunday. Rather than being a moral duty – and here, again, I invite you to turn around our common way of thinking – sharing is actually a need for human beings, a very deep need, a desire that we hide even to ourselves inasmuch we are afraid of losing our defenses, our protective barriers. But when we gather for the Eucharist, no matter how much conflict there might be in the Church, or how much readiness to share there is, the power of the Sacrament is such that overcomes. We are all again sitting on the grass together, there is no one who is more important than anybody else, we all have the same hunger, and Jesus is there again to give us the living bread, to make us partakers of an experience of communion to such a fullness which words fail to grasp.
The Gospel of John relies on its typically odd metaphors when it tries to talk about such plenitude and satisfaction. Besides the bread which is living, another of such metaphors states that the bread is true. Of course, bread cannot be true no more than can be living, because bread is not a proposition that can be true or false just as it is not an animal or a plant that can be living or dead. But again, this is supposed to fire up our thinking and inform our experience. Our translation talks about “real bread” instead of “true bread” to underline that the opposite of “true” in this case is not “untrue” but is “unreal”. The Gospel of John indeed tries all it can to show to its readers that there is a way of staying in contact with the deeper strata of reality which usually we do not see and we do not experience consciously. The eternal life of which John talks extensively is not just in the fleeting ecstatic moment, and surely it is not in the after-life, but is embedded into our everyday life like a underground river. The trick is to find it or, rather, to let it emerge and let it separate itself from the morass of our anxieties. We live in unreality inasmuch we keep believing that we can live without sharing, inasmuch we do not admit that deep sharing constitutes us as human beings. We live in reality when we do the opposite. For us Christians, it is partaking of the Blessed Sacrament, sharing the true, living bread, that constitues our sacred portal to the world of reality, although I believe that other people have their own ways of getting there.
In an age of untruth and lies, it is of course important to exercise our responsibility in terms of searching for factual truths, for what did or did not happen, for what is or is not happening. But it is even more drastically important to live true and real lives. Lives that are focused on fullness rather than on lack. Lives that overflow with such fullness because they accept to be nourished with the bread of truth. The truth of our common humanity, more than anything else.
There is a small village in my own region of Italy, in Piedmont, where some years ago people started intentionally to welcome desperate African immigrants, finding jobs for them, etc. Right now the public discourse in my home country is all focused on how dangerous and violent are all such immigrants. Some interviews conducted among the local population of the village showed how false such rhetoric is, but more than anything, they connect the experience of truth with the experience of reality and fullness. One man, who started off as a “racist nazi”, as he defines himself, states in his interview that working with young Africans in training them has not only given him a job, but has made him feel “real” for the first time in many many years. All of us need to convert in such a way, leaving behind false understandings and ideas about ourselves and others, and moving steadily toward the deep reality of our lives which, despite even serious troubles, are blessed and can be full and overflowing. Amen.