Aug 12, 2018: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Whoever believes has eternal life.

1st Reading – 1 Kings 19:4-8

Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:
“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,
but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake
and a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,
but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,
touched him, and ordered,
“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
He got up, ate, and drank;
then strengthened by that food,
he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

In today’s first reading, Elijah goes into the desert, not to pray or to recommit himself to his ministry, but to die.  The year is approximately 870 B.C.

Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Elijah is in despair; his long campaign to turn Israel back to Yahweh has failed.  He has been no more successful in turning the people away from their sinful lives than his ancestors before him.

He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,

A broom tree is delicate and does not afford much shade.  The scene of a dejected prophet taking refuge under such an insubstantial tree is a bit comical; he is unsuccessful even at finding shade.

but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.  He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water.

This isn’t the first time Elijah received miraculous rations; ravens brought him bread and meat in 1 Kings 17:6.

After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

Notice that it requires two visits from God’s messenger before Elijah responds adequately.  This could be an indication of the depth of his despair, or it might be the author’s way of underscoring the supernatural origin of what Elijah later accomplishes.

He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

The distance is approximately 300 miles, which could be traveled in much less than forty
days. The number was probably used to create a parallel with Moses (who spent forty days with the Lord without food or drink) and the Exodus (the Israelites spent forty years in the desert).  In Hebrew numerology, the number forty is significant: it indicates completeness and is associated with times of trial and change.

Horeb is the name the northern tribes used for Sinai, the “mountain of God.”  Since Elijah is a northern prophet, the use of this name is expected and appropriate.  Horeb/Sinai was the scene of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1); the golden calf (Exodus 32), and the promulgation of the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:10; Exodus 19-24).

2nd Reading – Ephesians 4:30-5:5

Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Today’s second reading includes two very unusual instructions: do not grieve the Spirit, and be imitators of God.

Brothers and sisters: Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,

The word “grieve” indicates a personal relationship, that the Spirit can be saddened by the behavior of the believers.  This demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force.

with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.

The seal is a reference to baptism, which makes an indelible mark upon the soul.  In being sealed, we are set apart as belonging to the Spirit, and also under his authority and protection.

“That we have been ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit means that both our spirit and our soul are impressed with God’s own seal, signifying that we belong to Him. By this we receive in ourselves that image and likeness in which we were created at the outset … You are sealed so that you may be preserved to the end. You may show that seal on the day of redemption, pure and unblemished and not damaged in any part. You are thereby ready to be counted with those who are redeemed” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 436), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 2,4,30].

All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you,

A list of vices (see also Colossians 3:8), all of which are detrimental to a community.

Bitterness is a disposition that cherishes resentment, clinging to former grievances.  Fury is anger expressed in violent outbursts.  Shouting refers to face-to-face quarreling, and reviling indicates slanderous words spoken behind someone else’s back.

along with all malice.

Malice is more of a quality of evil than an actual vice, including within it all sinful dispositions that oppose living in the Spirit.

“All this bitterness is not merely to be cleansed but to be put away altogether. Why should anyone try to contain it or hold it in? Why keep the beast of anger around so as to have to watch it constantly? It is possible to banish it, to expel it and drive it off to some mountain place” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 15,4,31].

And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has
forgiven you in Christ.

Paul then provides a list of virtues (see also Colossians 3:12), imploring the Christians to live in a completely different way.  They should be kind (chrēstos) and treat others with the same grace and generosity shown to them by God.

This is not a new idea.  After Israel was purchased from slavery in Egypt, they were instructed to have a special regard for aliens, slaves, and the dispossessed in their own midst (Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 5:15).  The same logic is found in Jesus’ commandment: “as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

So be imitators of God, as beloved children,

Just as children imitate their parents, we are to imitate God.

How can we imitate God?  By becoming holy, as he is holy; merciful, as he is merciful.  We are to reflect his love and goodness in our own lives, just as children reflect their parents.  And not only are we God’s children, but his beloved children: the recipients of the most free and generous love that has ever existed.

and live in love, as Christ loved us

Love is re-emphasized.  We are not simply exhorted to feel love, but to live lives governed by love, with Christ as our example.

and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Out of love, Christ offered himself for us — the ultimate act of love.  In response, we must be willing, out of love, to live lives of self-sacrifice.

There is a definite trinitarian theology here: as imitators of God, using the example of Christ, we are to live according to the Spirit.

“You spare your friends. He spared His enemies. … He suffered on His enemies’ behalf. This is the fragrant offering, the acceptable sacrifice. If you suffer for your enemies as a fragrant offering, you too become an acceptable sacrifice, even if you die. This is what it means to imitate God” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 17,4,32-5,2].

Gospel – John 6:41-51

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said,
“I am the bread that came down from heaven,”
and they said,
“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?
Do we not know his father and mother?
Then how can he say,
‘I have come down from heaven?’”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“Stop murmuring among yourselves.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Father
except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died;
this is the bread that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

This week we continue with Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse at Capernaum. Last week’s reading left of with Jesus’ declaration: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Two major themes are developed: 1) People will attain eternal life by coming to Jesus and living in union with him, 2) Their ability to do this flows from God’s gracious initiative, which is manifest in Jesus.

The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,”

In the Gospel of John, “the Jews” is often used to denote representatives of Judaism, its
leadership.  It is unclear whether that is the case here, or whether this refers to the ordinary people of the crowds.

Recall that the Jews had grumbled toward Moses before they received manna in the
desert (Exodus 16:2).

and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Some of the Jewish people were acquainted with Jesus and his parents.  He is a human being, just like them — so how can he possibly say that he has come down from heaven?

Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring among yourselves.

This kind of public sparring was designed to enhance the status of one participant while diminishing the status of the other.  Jesus responds sharply.  He ignores their protests, and in so doing, dismisses them. Instead, he admonishes them to stop murmuring among themselves.

He may have intentionally been calling to mind the murmuring in the desert during the Exodus.  If so, Jesus is basically saying, “You are behaving shamefully, just like your ancestors did in the desert.”

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,

With clever phrasing, Jesus tells them that only those drawn by God will be drawn to the one who was sent by God.  In other words, their rejection of him is evidence that they have not been called by God.

If the people believe that Jesus was sent by God, no further signs are necessary because they possess God’s grace, which is necessary to believe and understand. If they don’t believe he was sent by God, no number of signs will be sufficient to overcome their lack of grace.

and I will raise him on the last day.

Jesus escalates his claim.  He declares his eschatological power: not only is he from heaven, he is the one who will raise people from the dead.

It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 54:13, and reinterprets it to demonstrate his relationship to God.  Those who are drawn by God will be taught by God.  And what will he teach them?  Ultimately, to come to Jesus.

Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

Another audacious claim by Jesus: he is the only one that has seen the Father, because he is from God.

Amen, amen, I say to you,

In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the words are the same: “Amen, amen.” Amen means “truly,” “so be it,” “I do believe.”

The doubled amen is a solemn affirmation, an oath, signifying the importance of what is about to be said.

whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.

Jesus returns to his teaching on the bread of life, repeating his statements because the audience doubts him.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.

Jesus compares and contrasts manna, the former bread from heaven, with himself.  Although both were sent by God for the benefit of the people, the manna only sustained the people for a short time; Jesus is offering eternal life. The manna appeared overnight, or rained from the sky; Jesus proceeded from God’s very self.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever;

This is the third time (see verses 35 and 48) that Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of Life. Jesus does not attempt to soften or alter this teaching; instead, he is drives home the point and sets the stage for his next statement.

and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

This statement is both striking and ambiguous: Jesus tells us that the bread of life is his flesh.  Note the future tense (“I will give”), indicating that this is something to be accomplished at a later time.

This is very likely an allusion to the Eucharist, but Jesus is also foreshadowing his own death.  He will surrender and give his flesh so that the world may have eternal life.  In this sense, the Eucharist and the death of Jesus cannot be separated.

Connections and Themes

  • As we continue with the Bread of Life discourse:
    • The first reading shows the miraculous sustenance that God provides.  Elijah, even though he felt like dying, walked forty days and nights, strengthened by bread from God.
    • In the gospel reading, Jesus continues to make radical claims.  The eternal life he offers can only be accepted in faith, which requires God’s grace. We are assured that those who are open to God will be taught by God, but that too requires faith.  God asks of us a great deal.
    • Once again, the proper response to God’s call is outlined in the epistle.
  • There are times when it seems that the tremendous faith God demands of us is too much.  Perhaps our work for others is unnoticed or unappreciated.  Perhaps we are taken advantage of or even exploited outright.  Perhaps we are misunderstood to the point of feeling that our efforts are futile.  In times like this we, like Elijah, we can fall into despair: dejected, seeking shade and isolation.
  • At other times, we can be like the Jews who murmured against God in the gospel reading.  Perhaps our way of thinking is challenged, or someone calls to light our responsibility toward the poor and homeless.  Perhaps a bible scholar challenges our comfortable understanding of God, or Jesus, or ourselves.  In times like these, like the murmuring Jews, we might grumble and demand evidence to substantiate these new ideas.
  • Paul exhorts us away from these very understandable, very human reactions of despair and disbelief.  He calls us to live in faith, with precise instructions on how to accomplish this: we are to put away our murmuring, our bitterness, our despair, and choose the path of kindness, compassion, and faith.  Jesus’ radical claims are answered by our acceptance of them, our radical amen.

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