Monday, February 18, 2013

Homilectics Assignment 1: Bread of Life

For our last year of study, we have been working and reading on homiletics. We've presented one to our classmates, and I have been giving reflections on the readings when I act as precentor at sung vespers. I'm going to post the ones I've delivered so far, and will post others after I deliver them. This one was my first. It was based on the readings from August 12, 2012 (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time): 1 Kings 19:4–8; Ephesians 4:30–5:2; John 6:41–51.

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If you watch any television at all, you might be familiar with a series of commercials for the Snickers candy bar. One that I find amusing is with Joe Pesci, who’s at a party with a younger man, and they’re talking with a couple of young ladies. One looks away at another man walking by, and Joe Pesci takes offense. He makes some harsh comments.

“What, we’re not good enough for ya? Are you supermodels or something?”

His friend drags him into the kitchen as says, “Brad, chill out. Eat a Snickers. You get a little angry when you’re hungry.”

The tag line is “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

Joe eats the Snickers, and moments later, he’s a decent-looking 20-something guy again. I only wish a candy bar had that kind of power in my experience.

I know that I get a bit cranky when my blood sugar is down. I’m not myself either, although if I turned into Joe Pesci that might be an improvement. I get a bit whiny, maybe even a bit belligerent—definitely not obedient and not good prophet material.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, Elijah isn’t really acting like himself either. He’s just wiped out all of Queen Jezebel’s false prophets, and she plans to kill him for it, so he’s on the run. Exhausted, he plops himself down by a broom tree—which is a kind of shrub—and he asks God to take his life from him.

He’s weary. He’s whiny. He seems defeated.

In actuality, it’s not physical exhaustion that troubles him. It’s that he cannot bear to see the idolatry and lack of faith in the People of Israel. He is exasperated with their faithlessness, and he can’t find a way to restore his own faith in his calling. And so he falls asleep there in the shade of the shrub hoping that he doesn’t have to wake up again.

But God is not finished with him. The Lord sends an angel, a divine messenger, who wakes Elijah and prompts him twice to eat from a hearth cake and drink from a jug of water that are there when he wakes. Then Elijah gets up and walks forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. That’s some hearth cake—don’t you wish you could just pop into 7-11 and grab a 960-hour Energy Cake?

More seriously, scripture scholars will tell you that this heart cake points to or is a figure of the Eucharist—what St. Jerome called our superstantial bread... epiousion—the same Greek word used in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread. To Jerome, this means that it is more than what we need to sustain ourselves for a day or even a lifetime. It is the source of our eternal life.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has just called Himself “the bread that came down from heaven,” and the Jews murmur against Jesus, saying, “How can he say ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
“Stop murmuring among yourselves,” He responds. He’s not exactly trying to be gentle or cautious. Then He says something next that really blows their minds. “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.”

Those are bold words, and we know from the rest of the passage that it was too much for many of His followers to take. They couldn’t accept this hard saying, which they understood quite literally. And make no mistake about it: Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively or symbolically. He meant what he said.
They couldn’t accept his words, which means that they couldn’t accept the Word, Christ Himself. They would not let themselves be nourished so that they could run the race as to finish, as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians.

We need to be fed.

We need to be fed spiritually to sustain ourselves when our faith wanes or when we become weary of witnessing to the truth.

We need to be fed—not just on hearth cake and water, which was substantial enough for Elijah. We need to be fed on the Word Himself, Jesus Christ, the living bread. Elijah’s hearth cake enabled him to walk for forty days through a desert. What, then, could we do after being fed on Christ’s Body and Blood? What do we do now when we come to the supper of the Lamb? Do we come to fill ourselves up with Christ, or do we simply come to engage in a nice communal ritual that really doesn’t mean much after we walk out those doors? What is the point of having this living bread if it doesn’t inform and transform our lives?

In a few minutes, we are going to come to the supper of the Lamb—not just to eat the Lamb’s supper, but to eat of the Lamb Himself. Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians that we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit; that we need to be cleansed of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and malice; that we must be kind, compassionate, and forgiving—imitators of Christ. We are to be what we have eaten—and not just here and now but out there in the world. We need to be bread to the world, to take the Bread of Life in word and deed to others.

To take the Bread of Life in word and deed doesn’t mean, as James says, just to tell the poor to be warm and be fed

It means that we are to feed them
and to clothe them
and to pray for them
and sometimes to correct them

Guess what? We aren’t just to do this for our friends, but even for those who don’t like us much
and those we don’t like much.

Especially for them.

The Living Bread gives us life. And we can squander it here, or we can take it out into the world and be Christ’s hands and feet.

Which do you plan to do?
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