Only last week we read that the people whom Moses had led to freedom soon began murmuring / whispering / complaining because they had left the comfort of captivity behind. They no longer had the food they’d always enjoyed in Egypt. Did he want them to die of hunger in the desert? When Moses passed on the complaint, God began to send them manna, bread from heaven.
And what do we have in today’s gospel? The Jews were complaining to each other about Jesus, because he had said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’. He ordered them to stop complaining and listen. But by the end of his teaching some of them were going to be horrified. Let us look closely at what he says. No one can come to me unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me. There seems to be a sketch of a plan here, and by implication some are drawn to Jesus and maybe some are not. It is no accident that the first reading today concerns Elijah’s journey into the wilderness. In fact he was running away from the vengeful Queen Jezebel. He wasn’t going anywhere in particular; he was just trying to escape. He was exhausted and ready to die. As he slept an angel came to wake him, provide food and tell him to eat. This happened twice, with the angel saying: Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you. He had no plan, but God did. Strengthened by that food he walked for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he was to encounter God and receive a fresh commission to purify Israel. God was drawing Elijah to himself, and not just to say hullo.
The gospel continues: It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God, and to hear the teaching of the Father, and learn from it is to come to me. This is a fairly free quotation of a verse of Isaiah, but it calls to mind a passage from Jeremiah that we read at Mass last Thursday: Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they will be my people. This is God the lover seeking to draw his people to his embrace. Jesus has come in his Father’s name to pursue this task. That is why he says: Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the one who comes from God: he has seen the Father. I tell you most solemnly, everybody who believes has eternal life. We saw last week that Jesus told the crowd that the work God required of them was to believe in the one he had sent. Today he repeats what we read last week; he says: I am the bread of life. And I repeat what I said last week, that the rabbis commonly used bread as an image of the wisdom which is the knowledge and love of God. Belief in Jesus is our path to life.
Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die. It is unlikely that his hearers really understood what he was saying here. The manna which fed the ancestors was material food for material bodies. The people listening to Jesus would also die, but their souls would live on in a better place if they accepted and applied the teaching he was giving them. He stressed: I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever. The prophet Amos had written: Behold the days are coming when I shall send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord. That was an announcement of punishment to be endured unless the people returned to the Lord and observed the terms of the covenant. By contrast, the book of Ecclesiasticus, promises the man who fears God and practices the Law, that Wisdom will nourish him with the bread of understanding and give him the water of learning to drink.
Up to this point, then, Jesus is speaking the language of rabbinical wisdom which at least some of his hearers would have recognized. Then comes the shock: the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world. Here he is giving the word ‘bread’ a Eucharistic meaning which we will explore next week. To recapitulate, Jesus is the Teacher, sent to help us to appreciate the beauty of the Law, and to understand the Father’s love for each and every one of us. Given our own weakness, he is going to give us a new and special food to sustain us on our journey through life.
Today’s extract from the epistle to the Christians of Ephesus gives practical advice for the life of the community. While he doesn’t say so in so many words, St Paul is aware that tensions do arise even between good people. So he advises: Never have grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice to anybody, or call each other names, or allow any kind of spitefulness. In moments of irritation, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you, too, have your faults which others may find very trying. Paul writes: Try to imitate God, as children of his that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as he loved you.
Those of you who have been following the Olympic Games will be aware that in many sports the winner is the athlete who has done whatever it is – running, swimming, canoeing – fastest. Prayer is not like that. There is no medal for saying the fastest Our Father. For that reason I recommend that you slow down each time you say it and think about the words. First of all, the very words ‘Our Father’ recall our privileged status as members of God’s family which we acquired at the moment of our Baptism. Towards the end we ask God to ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against’. With those words we acknowledge our own imperfections – and declare that we forgive other people theirs. God could certainly argue that if we don’t forgive others when they annoy or harm us, there is no reason for God to pardon us. Paul reminds his correspondents to: Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.
The outstanding characteristic of the Christian community should be love. At times we have to work hard at loving our neighbour, at desiring what is good for them. When stressed we should pause and recall what Christ has gone through for us. (Quentin Howard)