Eternal life comes with being open to God

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  • August 6, 2009
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 9 (1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)

Few would argue that life is easy. Each life brings its share of hardships, pain and disappointments, as well as blessings and joys. Even the lives of those who “have it all” are often visited by suffering and sorrow.

And it is the same with any community, nation or church. There are times when it all seems like too much. The great temptation is to imitate Elijah — to sit down by the side of the road and beg for an end to it all. The weariness and discouragement can set in during a time of financial hardship such as we are now experiencing. Marital difficulties, struggles in the workplace, depression or addictions and personal tragedies can threaten to overwhelm us. This response would be more justified if we were alone and forced to rely only on our own resources. But in fact we are not alone. If we are open and willing, we are always fed and sustained by a higher power. God will give us what we need for every moment, not necessarily what we want.

Elijah’s flight from Jezebel is almost his undoing. He cannot go on — his own powers are utterly depleted. It is at this lowest point — the point where the divine presence is the strongest — that the angelic messenger appears to give him food for the journey and words of encouragement. God’s sustaining power will come to us in many ways: inner strength beyond the ordinary, divine “coincidences” and the quiet and sometimes anonymous help from those around us. We always have accompaniment on our journey.

It is said that God does not feel or suffer but many passages of Scripture disagree. The author of Ephesians knows that there are things that “grieve the Holy Spirit.” The divine heart is pained by bitterness and anger; slander, unkindness and negativity of all sorts — in short, by our lack of love. All religions and ideologies claim absolute truth but love and compassion in its various manifestations form the absolute truth by which we should all live.

The crowd is not pleased with Jesus’ claim to be the bread that came down from heaven. The metaphor of bread is less offensive to them than His claim to have come down from heaven. Who does He think He is? After all, we know who His parents are. Like many people, they are in the clutches of a material and literal understanding of things that are spiritual and transcendent. Literalism can be the absolute death of arriving at a deeper spiritual insight. And on the surface His words are certainly strange. Can we say that we would have responded differently?

His retort is uncompromising: if any of them were really attuned to God they would recognize His true identity even beneath the veil of a physical body. By believing that Jesus is the one sent from above people show that they are listening to God and walking in His ways. Eternal life results from this openness to God. We must keep in mind that He is speaking to His immediate audience. There are many credible reasons for unbelief for those far removed by time, distance, culture, religion and upbringing.

Returning to His metaphor, Jesus reiterates His role as the bread of life. The manna that the Israelites received in the desert was only physical or material sustenance. Just like our bodies, it is temporal and passes away. Jesus descends from above to bring us a new type of divine presence and sustenance. This will provide life for the one eating it — and that person will not die. It is obvious that this is not meant in the literal and physical sense. All living creatures eventually die; this is a fundamental law of nature. Jesus is not speaking of physical death but the spiritual death that is separation from the divine source — God. To live forever in John’s theology means to be always alive in God and conscious of this divine life. This eternal life — being filled with the presence of God — we can begin to experience in this life. But Jesus concedes that it will first involve death — His own — His flesh given for the life of the world.

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