Last Sunday (if we can remember back that far), we heard the familiar account of Jesus’ feeding 5000+ people with a mere 5 loaves of bread and a few fish. The story ended with the people remembering how God had provided for them in the past – and then drawing precisely the wrong lesson, leading Jesus to withdraw to the mountain alone. The Old Testament is full of such stories of God providing for his people – and the people missing the point, grumbling as we hear them doing again in today’s 1st reading [Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15].
When today’s gospel [John 6:24-35] picks up the story in the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000, the people’s persistence has paid off to the extent that they have reconnected with Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, although they remain clueless as to how he got there. The stage is set for Jesus to challenge his hearers in yet another reenactment of the age-old Exodus drama of God providing for his people and being greeted with grumbling in response.
To begin with Jesus challenges the crowd to consider why they are there, what they are looking for, why they are looking for him. His question could just as well be addressed to us today – or any day. Why are we here? What are we looking for? Obviously, we are meant to appreciate and identify with the experience of the crowd in the gospel story and to recognize how very much like us, Jesus’ audience was that day in Capernaum (as were their ancestors before them in the desert, grumbling against Moses and Aaron). Only then might we also appreciate how Jesus was offering himself as the bread of life, the new manna in the desert, as a remedy, an alternative to what we would be on their own – much as the original manna in the desert had been a remedy for the people’s hunger, an alternative to the inadequate food they could find on their own. Unlike the original manna, however, which was (in the end) more like a temporary snack, Jesus, the bread of life, is really more like a full meal – intended to remain with us, in order to change us into something new, to transform us, to get us out of ourselves, and so give life to the world.
This was something the Capernaum crowd would have a tough time accepting – as we shall soon see over and over again in the Gospel readings over the next few weeks. The fact is that we all naturally tend to live - as Saint Paul says [Ephesians 4:17, 20-24] - in the futility of our minds, clinging, more or less comfortably, more or less uncomfortably, to what Paul calls the old self and its deceitful desires.
Jesus, the bread of life, however, gives life to the world, precisely by signifying an alternative vision of life – a gift from God who is so deeply connected with us as to become food for us forever.
In Jesus’ sharing of his life with us, we are introduced to a whole new way of thinking, acting, and being, which destroys detachment and creates connection. If only we would actually get out of ourselves enough to experience it as it is meant to be experienced! Then, we would understand the sense of Saint Augustine’s famous saying, “Become what you receive.”
If, in other words, we would actually (as Saint Paul says) put away the old self of our former way of life and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth!
At Capernaum, the crowd was offered such a future. We will hear, over the next several weeks, how people responded, some one way, others another. But meanwhile that future is already here, where we already experience the transformative power which Jesus, the bread of life, is bringing to us and, through us, to our world.
Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 2, 2015.