Homily: The Conclusion of John 6

Image result for bread of life blood

(with gratitude to Brant Pitre and Mike Aquilina)

Two weeks ago, we were unfolding the Bread of Life Discourse, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, which finishes in today’s Gospel Reading. I described John Chapter 6 as basically having four parts (as far as our Lectionary readings go): The miraculous feeding of the 5000, then the first half of the Bread of Life Discourse, then the second half of the Bread of Life Discourse, and ending with the reaction of the people.

We saw that Jesus’ emphasis in that first half was “believe”: “whoever believes has eternal life.” And the second half of the discourse, here, Jesus’ emphasis is “eat”: “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.”

You might remember also that in the first half of the discourse, the focus of Jesus is to establish faith in his divinity, as the foundation of the second half, in which Jesus establishes that his flesh and blood are real food and drink.

Another parallel: in the middle of the first half, it says, “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. and then Jesus further drives home the truth of his divinity.

Then, in the middle of the second half, it says, “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat? and then Jesus further drives home the truth of his flesh and blood being real food and drink. “Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

So… those who do not consume flesh and blood; they have biological life, but not his life; they have temporal life, but not eternal life. Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” So you are what you eat, right? If we eat natural food, we attain and preserve our natural life. And if we eat supernatural, spiritual, eternal food, we attain and preserve our supernatural, spiritual, eternal life. Our human substance is united into communion with his divine substance, because he is the one mediator between God and man, the one in whose nature humanity and divinity are in communion. “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.The Manna was bread from heaven, but it was not heaven itself. Those who ate that bread still died. But we who eat the bread that God gives which is God himself, “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Not naturally, but supernaturally. We will still endure natural death, but we live eternally, in communion with God.

And now at the end, the people respond... “Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” Why would they say, this teaching is hard? Does Jesus clarify for them that the bread is just a reminder, a symbol, of his love for them? No. He says, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.”

Now this is the verse that creates all the problems. What Jesus says is not to soften the previous 60 verses, but rather, he ties it to the resurrection, the ascension, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

He doesn’t say, “my flesh is of no avail,” especially after he just said repeatedly and emphatically that his flesh is real food. He says the flesh is of no avail.” What does “the flesh” mean everywhere in scripture? It means appearances, the fallen, natural, material world. It means that he’s not referring to eating the natural flesh of a dead man, but that the Bread of Life is the divine transfigured flesh of the resurrected Christ. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, which gives life, it will be his flesh. Since when does “spiritual” mean “just symbolic, less than real?” A spiritual reality, a sacrament, is not less than what it appears to be, but infinitely more. The Eucharist is not made less by calling it spiritual: it is a more profound reality. The manna, the bread from heaven in the New Testament cannot be less than the manna of the Old Testament. That’s not how biblical (typology) fulfillment works: it’s always more real (sacramentally) in the New Testament. So the bread from heaven of the New Testament must be more than the bread from heaven in the Old Testament, and in the Old Testament, it was physical bread, which was given by God, and gave (at least temporal) life to God’s people during the Exodus. So the New Testament manna, the new bread from heaven, must be more. Indeed, it is more! Jesus is “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.

But by appearances, which is of no avail it will appear to the senses to be bread. Even his disciples said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” Is that because they understood Jesus incorrectly? Well, what happens next?

Chapter 6, verse 66 (John 6:66): “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” These disciples understood exactly what Jesus meant, and it was too hard for them. They left. And Jesus watched them leave, because he, too, understood exactly what he meant, and he knew it was hard, but it was the truth. He didn’t correct their misunderstanding, because they didn’t misunderstand. Rather, he turned and said to the Twelve. “‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.’”

I’ll end with this final thought. This past week I was listening to a podcast by Catholic speaker Mike Aquilina on this topic, and he made this observation: At the beginning of the chapter, there is a crowd of 5,000. Then it was Jesus’ disciples and the Jews (the religious leaders). Then, as Jesus continues, it was just the disciples. Then by the end, it was just the Twelve. And finally, it comes down to just two, besides Jesus, being referred to directly: Peter, who we just heard from, and Judas, about whom it says, “Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe, and the one who would betray him.” As the chapter unfolds, Jesus’ teaching on his real presence in the Eucharist becomes more intense, and the choice of responding to that teaching become more focused. In the end there are two options: Peter or Judas.

This is perhaps where Judas spiritually left Jesus: on the teaching of the Eucharist. When did Judas outwardly leave Jesus? At the Last Supper, when Jesus took the bread and wine, and said, “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood.”

Jesus knew Judas’ heart, that he had inwardly rejected this essential truth, but outwardly remained, hung on, as one of the Twelve. And we know the rest of the story of Judas, and we know the damage that is caused by duplicity among believers. Those disciples who did not accept the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and left Jesus showed more integrity than one who outwardly pretends to believe in Jesus, but inwardly rejects the truth of his word. Peter or Judas. To whom shall we go? 

What do you and I do now?


Homily for the Sunday after
the Grand Jury Report
on Child Abuse by Priests

August 19, 2018

Once again, “it’s been a rough week to be a Catholic in the Diocese of Harrisburg.” I said that a few weeks ago, when the diocese came out with its internal list of priests with allegations of improper sexual behavior. This past Tuesday, the Grand Jury Report came out, with the horrific details of 300 priests in almost every diocese in Pennsylvania– priests whose grotesque depravity in their repeated abuse of the children of the families of the Church inflames the mind and heart. And then to read about how Church leaders who knew of allegations, and sometimes even confessions from the priests, repeatedly moved the priests into new communities of unsuspecting families. This makes a lot of people understandably frustrated, and angry, including myself, and also my brother priests, who work hard to be good shepherds; we are frustrated and angry along with you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say. Two things keep coming back to the forefront. First is that it is understandable that there are those who have reached their limit of patience with the Church and its clergy, and they will leave the Church. Yes, I understand that reaction. As Catholics, as human beings, our hearts sympathize with the ongoing suffering of the victims and their families.

As Catholics, as human beings, our hearts sympathize with the ongoing suffering of the victims and their families.

Even those who don’t leave might be asking, as one parishioner asked me, “Am I supporting, and materially cooperating, in all this sin, by giving my offering to the Church?” The short answer is no; Our collections support our parish ministering to our people, our schools, and our community. Our weekly collection does not provide for the expenses of the diocese. It’s a good question.

Note: The less short answer is still no, but soon we will have the Bishop’s Annual Lenten Appeal, which provides for the ministries and programs and operating expenses at the diocesan level, and at that time, some of those costs (not covered by the diocese’s liability insurance) will be part of the diocesan financial obligations. Perhaps, in addition to providing for the operation and ministries of the diocese, a better way to consider the question of “cooperating in the sin” is that of providing for justice to the victims who have suffered, and have been judged deserving of compensation for their suffering. 

But a question that I have struggled with is, as I read articles and talk to people, if the people of the Church are crying out for strong shepherds to stand in the breach against the abuse and corruption, what should I do, who desires to be a good shepherd for you, the people entrusted to my care? And the answer I have found is that people want to be helped to understand what to do with this. How to respond in light of this corruption in the Catholic Church that we love and believe in.

That is the second thing: our possible way forward… not as a diocese, not even necessarily as a parish, but you and I as faithful Catholics, in the midst of this mess. A big part of the answer comes in next week’s Gospel reading, when it says, “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Luke 6:66-68).

Now, I would love to dedicate this whole homily to the beautiful teaching of the Bread of Life Discourse, and so perhaps the timing is the work of Satan; that this is distracting us from this cycle of readings on the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the substance of the communion and unity of the Church. Or, perhaps it’s the work of the Spirit: that these readings are what is being proclaimed as the backdrop of what is going on in the Church. Another parishioner said in response to the scandal being addressed during the homily, “Father, we don’t come to Church to hear about this ‘garbage.’” (Although she didn’t say garbage!)

The way through this is that our faith is not in priests, not in bishops, not in the pope, but in the Master who has the words (and is the Word) of eternal life; the One who gives His flesh for the life of the world; Whose flesh is real food, and Whose blood is real drink; Who is the Truth that sets us free. I’m not saying that we should just continue with business as usual; that what’s going on shouldn’t affect us. If we have a conscience that can share in the suffering of victims of abuse, then not being affected is not a possibility.

So what do we do with this?

First, we must pray. We pray for the healing of victims, and that there be no more victims. Our prayers guide our hearts and our actions; our prayers inspire hearts and minds to change. Our prayers are a real weapon against real evil. We pray, with great devotion. Prayer is necessary, but not enough.

We believe that the Catholic Church is the true Church founded by Jesus Christ Our Lord. The Catholic Church serves more people, feeds more people, heals more people, houses more people, educates more people, than any institution in human history could ever dream of, and it will continue to do so. The Catholic Church might not be popular in the United States. But in a hundred years, five hundred years, a thousand years, there may not be a United States, but there absolutely will be the Catholic Church, until the end of the age. Jesus Christ promised us this.

To whom would we go? This is the Church in which we eat His flesh and drink His blood and receive eternal life; it is through the ministry of the Church that God gives us pardon and peace and absolves us of our sins; it is the Church of the Communion of Saints, in heaven and in our midst; it is the Church that calls Mary blessed for all generations; it is the Church of sublime beauty and supernatural truth, even if in the flesh it is subjected to grievous sin and need for constant conversion. To whom would we go?

So what do we do with this?

We continue on the mission we received at our baptism: the mission to make Jesus Christ present in our lives, and in the world, by continuing His mission as priest, prophet, and king.

We continue on the mission we received at our baptism: the mission to make Jesus Christ present in our lives, and in the world, by continuing His mission as priest, prophet, and king:

  • As priest, He offers prayer and sacrifice, He glorifies the Lord and intercedes for the needs of the people, He blesses the world by His example of virtue and wisdom, and He calls the world to repentance and conversion …and we follow Him.
  • As prophet, He speaks the divine truth, in season and out of season, He invites others into life in the Truth, into life in relationship with the Father; He suffers, He endures ridicule and shame, He turns the other cheek to those who insult Him …and we follow Him.
  • As king, He shows us that divine power becomes poor that we might become rich; as One who is great He becomes the least and the servant of all; He lifts up the lowly, He feeds the hungry, He welcomes the stranger, He clothes the naked, He cares for the sick, He gives to the poor; as the greatest He becomes the smallest, and concerned about the smallest, the weakest, and most vulnerable. We pick up our cross daily, we deny ourselves …and we follow Him.

After these recent events, there will be more people who leave the Church. There will be more people who reject their call into a deeper participation in the life of Jesus Christ, or will look elsewhere, like wandering, lost, and scattered sheep. We heard a few weeks ago, God say through the prophet Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture… You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… and bring them back… I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble” (Jer 23:1-4).

The God we love and serve is a God of mercy. He is the God of healing, and consolation, of hope, and love, of nourishment, and bounteous generosity.

Where is Jesus in all this? He is close to the brokenhearted, and blesses those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He is the one who transforms the felix culpa (the happy fault) of Adam’s sin into the victory of the resurrection of the Son of Man; He is the one who transforms our human sinfulness into his victory in us, for when we admit we are weak and wounded, then we can be healed and be strong, for His grace is sufficient. He calls us to walk on the water toward Him (which we cannot do on our own) and to focus on Him, and not on the storm raging around us.

What do we do with all this? We unite our suffering, our anger and frustration, our fear and distress, to Jesus on the cross. He draws us to himself, so that as He embraces us in his agony and death, so He also brings us through to the victory of the resurrection and the life of grace. We pick up our cross, and we follow Him.

He calls us to pray for (and provide help for) those in need, including our enemies and persecutors. Let us indeed pray for victims, let us pray for priests; let us pray for us all.

  • Saint Patrick, patron saint of our diocese, pray for us.
  • Saint John Vianney, patron saint of priests, pray for us.
  • Saint Germain Cousin, patron saint of abused children, pray for us.
  • Saint Joseph, protector of families and of the Church, pray for us.
  • Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and the bread of life: I trust in you.