Moving from earthly bread to the bread come down from heaven is the challenge of today’s gospel. It’s a theme that runs right through the Good News of John. For instance the woman at the well was faced with a similar reality. Will she be content with mere earthly water or is she open to the new, living water that endures to eternal life? The whole point of miracles in John is that they are signs of a deeper and more enduring reality. We too are faced with the same challenge today. Are we merely content with the visible, tangible world around us, or are we willing to trust in a deeper, spiritual world and go for it?
It would seem that the multitude had everything going for them and therefore would be disposed to accept the bread come down from heaven. Initially they were full of enthusiasm. They had physically followed Jesus into the desert, they hung on his every word and were so awestruck at the multiplication of loaves and fishes that they wanted to make him king. But when Jesus spoke of a new level and a bread that endures to eternal life, they were not able to follow him. The more Jesus insisted the more they began to question: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” All of a sudden it seems to matter naught that Jesus performed an incredible miracle the day before.
Strange then that the woman at the well could accept Jesus’ teaching where the crowds floundered. She had very little going for her. She wasn’t even a Jew, had a poor reputation, and had never even heard of Jesus let alone follow him. And yet from a very suspicious and hesitant start she entered into conversation with this total stranger and ended up believing that he was the Christ, the promised one. How come this woman accepted Jesus and the multitude couldn’t?
One can only surmise but two pieces of the puzzle come to mind. One is that their God was too small. They were used to their God working wonderful deeds and miracles through the likes of Moses and Elijah, but that was in the past. Surely God couldn’t do the same today and certainly not through a simple village peasant, a son of Joseph, the carpenter! It was inconceivable that their God would stoop so low. This would be a surprise God and they were not into a God of surprises.
Secondly, if their image of God was too small, so was their own self-image. Thus they could not come to terms with a God who was interested in them, warts and all, and address them in the flesh. It’s all right for Moses and Elijah but surely not for ordinary people like themselves. Of course this is an awesome truth that we also have to battle with, namely that God, through Jesus wants to enter into a loving relationship with everyone. Nor does Jesus want to meet us in just any old way. He desires us in the deepest depths of our hearts, where we can open ourselves to God and listen to what the Father tells us.
Sadly, for the multitude, all this was a bridge too far. Many found Jesus’ teaching too difficult and parted company, going back to their old ways. This must have been sorely disappointing for Jesus because he was so aware of what they were missing out on, namely, Jesus amazing ability to give life. We see this in the woman at the well who believed. Having made that deep contact with Jesus she rushes into the village a different person, knowing a different life, one of a new quality, a life that in some way already belongs to God’s world. No wonder Jesus dares to say: “anyone who eats this bread will live forever”.
There is a cautionary note for us in the unbelief of the multitude. We, like them, are tempted to domesticate God, make God small enough to handle. The consequence of this is that there is nothing new under the sun. But the love of Jesus is both ever old and surprisingly new and the key to our going forward is a deep, personal contact with him. This means allowing God to be God and Jesus to be Jesus in our daily lives. If we don’t feed on this contact with Jesus we will keep on being ignorant of what’s most essential, most decisive about Christianity. That’s why there’s nothing more urgent pastorally than to care for our relationship with Jesus the Christ the best we can.
If in the Church we don’t feel ourselves being drawn by that God incarnate in a man who is so human, close and friendly, no one will save us from the state of mediocrity in which we regularly find ourselves submerged. No one will stimulate us to go beyond what our institutions have established. Our Christianity will end up being a worn-out creed and dead in the water.
Today, let us allow Jesus to feed us with his Spirit of creativity. Let us hunger for the living bread come down from heaven and may our hearts always be willing to entertain the God of surprises.
Sunday, August 9, 2015