'Believe in Him whom He has sent'

  • July 28, 2009
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 2 (Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, 31; Psalm 78; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35)

People often idealize the past and forget the painful struggles and difficulties that they experienced. Previous jobs or living conditions become the source of nostalgia and wistful longing when we face the difficulties and struggles of the present. In the years following the momentous changes of 1989, many cast wistful eyes back to the period of communist rule. Things were “better” economically and there was “law and order.” The terror and lack of freedom were forgotten.

Today there are many who long for a very romanticized and inaccurate image of the pre-Vatican II church. This is human nature, but the good old days were never the good old days.

The Israelites have forgotten the sting of the lash and the degrading humiliations that they experienced during their slavery in Egypt. Faced with the unknown and the apparent lack of food and water they rail at Moses and want to return to Egypt. After all, they say, we had enough to eat. Things were safe and predictable — we had a place. The quall and the manna that are given by God are meant as a sign and proof that God has not abandoned them and that He will care for them. They obviously need those constant reminders just as most people do.

But as the story unfolds, it becomes distressingly clear that even these continual gifts of life itself will not be enough to keep their faith firm and unwavering. People quickly forget that God is the sustainer of life and is always with us. When people get frightened and lose their nerve, faith and trust disintegrate.

The miraculous feeding has impressed many of the crowd but in all the wrong ways. They first of all wanted to make Jesus king, and now they have followed Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and are peppering Him with questions. This entire chapter is a sort of verbal fencing match between Jesus and the crowd and an opportunity for John to disclose more of the divine identity of Jesus. Jesus knows perfectly well that they are captivated by the physical nature of the miracle. He begins to contrast the food that is temporary and perishing with the food that is eternal in an effort to raise their understanding from the physical to the spiritual level. This eternal food of course is the sustenance and life that He alone can give.

When they ask what “works” they must do to please God, He responds in the singular by insisting that there is only one “work” — “to believe in Him whom He has sent.” It doesn’t sound like much — just believe — but in John’s Gospel belief is more than most people bargain for. It is a total surrender to the one sent from God and a willingness to dwell continually in Him, assuming His mind and heart as one’s own.

But before the crowd is willing to believe in Him they demand His credentials — authenticating signs — to prove that He is indeed the one He claims to be. As if He hasn’t done enough already! They also boast that their ancestors were the recipients of the divine manna in the desert. But Jesus fires back with laser-like intensity, insisting that the only source of the heavenly bread is God — not Moses or anyone else. And now God is prepared to give true bread to the world — real sustenance and eternal life.

As in most of John’s Gospel, the people understand these words in a literal and physical sense. They are more than eager to receive this bread for they understand it as an endless source of ordinary food. By applying the metaphor of “bread of life” to Himself in the same way that He did with “living water” in chapter 7, Jesus establishes Himself as the fulfilment of the human yearning for wholeness, inner peace and eternal life. We do both Jesus and ourselves a great disservice when we treat Him merely as the means to avoid hell and go to heaven. Jesus does more than “save” — He transforms as well as providing eternal life, the spirit and access to God even as we still live.

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