Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

August 16, 2015 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 9:1–6 / Ephesians 5:15–20 / John 6:51–58
Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

Perception affects us far more than we usually realize. Our “personal perspective” shapes what we understand as reality. This is true on so many levels: gender, age, family system, race, religion, social and national identity, education…. A comprehensive understanding of reality can be known only to God. This is why people need what theologians call revelation (God “revealing” to us what we otherwise would not recognize nor understand). It is also why we need the Church––a faith community with continuity that can make reasonable claim for trustworthiness and authority. As individuals we are just too limited to discern reality and truth.

This is one of the reasons I became Catholic. As I will make clear a bit later, I came into the Church from a wonderful tradition. Yet no Christian tradition other than the Catholic Church has the fullness of Christian Faith. That leaves Catholic people with a lot to live up to.

My early Christian formation was in a tradition that did not recognize the literal Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Cup of Communion. My tradition had an intensity of faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ, but it was blind to a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I have no idea how many times I read the sixth chapter of John in my pre-Catholic life. I do remember one of my grad school teachers making a big deal out of “The Bread of Life Discourse” that progressively unfolds in this chapter, but there was no recognition of any connection to the Eucharist. It’s a matter of perspective: if you can’t see it, you don’t get it.

Once you see it, though, there is a shift in perspective. Once you see it, it is impossible not to see it. I have been on both sides, and I have experienced the WOW of an expanded perspective. I do understand how many Christians just don’t see it; I was once one of them. But now I see it, and there’s no going back.

Yet my journey into the Church extended over eight years. I did not see at once everything that brought me to a crisis of decision about the Church (and I should remind all of us again that none of us sees “everything”––no matter how great our personal perspective, so we always need the constant help of the Holy Spirit and the Church!). But as I began to see the almost unbelievable things Jesus says in this chapter of John’s Gospel, I was also plagued with questions that seemed discouraging. Then I saw this was exactly what happened even as Jesus gave these words. In the following section that is part of next Sunday’s readings, Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This is hard; who can accept it? ….As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

I had some particular hindrances and discouragements. My thoughts went something like this: If Jesus is literally present in the Bread and the Cup, then where is the power and the glory? Why aren’t we all driven to our knees every time the Tabernacle door is opened? How can people who dishonor the Sacrament not be burned to ashes on the spot? Well, those answers came rather easily. When Jesus was walking the roads with his disciples, people looking at him did not see power and glory. They saw an ordinary-looking man who at times was conspicuous and intriguing, but nothing that compelled their belief. The only time Jesus revealed his glory was at the Transfiguration, and that was to the three “top” disciples so that they would have something tangible to hold onto when they later had to face Jesus’ crucifixion. So the true nature of the Eucharist is usually hidden just as Jesus went around mostly incognito. God does not overwhelm us to force our belief.

I had a second, and more troubling, question. If Jesus is literally in the Eucharist, and Catholics really believe this, then why aren’t all Catholics conspicuous because of their holy lives? Jesus says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. One of my earliest obstacles to giving the Catholic Church any serious consideration was most of the Catholics I had ever met. To refer again to my earlier tradition, I had been formed by people who both modeled and taught that being a Christian means inviting Jesus into one’s life and allowing the Holy Spirit to do a process of conversion that changes a sinner into a saint. I was taught that the words I use matters. I was taught that how I respond to others in everyday life matters. I was taught that the way I spend my money matters. I was taught the implications of what St Paul says in today’s second reading: Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise…. be filled with the Spirit…

Then the Lord gave me another insight. I would not have wanted the congregation I was pastoring to be judged by its worst member; likewise, the Lord let me see I was not to judge the Catholic Church by “Catholics” who were not living it. Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” We who are in the Church shape the way onlookers perceive the Catholic Church (so again I’m back to the sub-theme of perception).

I once had a perspective that did not see the Real Presence of  Jesus in the Eucharist: “literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity”. On the other hand, most Catholics grow up hearing that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus, or at least grow up in a context where this is assumed. Could it be that the Eucharist is so assumed in our Catholic contexts that we lose our perspective? It seems we can come to Communion with presumption: it’s just what we do…. yeah, the Church says this is Jesus, so “okay”…. “Well, I’m here, but I don’t expect much because it seems that not much ever happens….”

The Lord helped me see even more: For whatever reason, the practical effect of the Sacraments depends on us (again, I think it’s because God refuses to overwhelm us in order to make us love him). There is inherent power in the Sacrament, but the effect of the Eucharist in your life depends on the degree to which you open yourself to Jesus. Our response of faith affects the power of the Sacrament in our lives. Think of Jesus in his hometown: he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).

Truly listen to what Jesus said: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. These are the words of our Lord. This is the core of who we are called to be as Catholic Christians.

Now hear again the invitation in our first reading: Wisdom says, “To the one who lacks understanding (and this is all of us; we do not graduate from the school of faith in this life), come eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed…” In a former sermon I made the point You are what you eat. In the name of our Lord I call all of us to believe and “feed” on Jesus with our bodies and in our souls: Ask Jesus to unleash the power of his life within you when you receive him in the Eucharist. Be open to him. Seek him. Obey him. If we will do this, our lives will be transformed and we will be a testimony to the truth of our Lord’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

God and the Cross

John Stott once said, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in,” he said, “is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sunday, August 2, 2015

You Are What You Eat (revisited)

August 2, 2015 –– 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15 / Ephesians 4:17, 20–24 / John 6:24–35
You Are What You Eat (revisited from 8/19/12)

Every rational person on earth, every day, is making decisions about the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment. Even subconsciously we all choose the things we think will make us happy. How do we decide what is good for us?

Some think that personal pleasure is high on the list. The physical senses and appetites are strong and we can easily think physical pleasure is the recipe for happiness. The Israelites, hungry and thirsty and feeling their vulnerability in the desert, told Moses: If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! Yet here we are immersed in physical comforts: food choices beyond description, homes that can maintain our ideal temperature, access to medical care that is almost unbelievable…. and beyond the physical, we have options for personal entertainment that are past numbering. Yet how many truly contented people do you know?

Another way of understanding this is self-centeredness––selfishness. Countless people around us believe that if they can always get their own way they will be happy. This can mean cutting others off when they drive. It can mean doing whatever it takes to be at the head of the line. It can mean being deceitful or back-stabbing others to get ahead at work. It simply means living Me first! St Paul identifies this kind of mentality in the second reading when he warns not to live as the Gentiles (or pagans) do, in the futility of their minds….

So, whether it is a hedonistic life indulging the senses…. or a steady ingestion of entertaining distractions to avoid facing the hard issues of life…. or a way of living that “feeds” on trying to be in control…. the underlying truth is simply this: You are what you eat.

Think of the way most people in our culture seem to live. They feed on a steady diet of prime-time entertainment. There is broad acceptance of main-stream media with its assumption of relativism and self-gratification. Then we wonder why so many people are impatient to the point of being mean, feel constant stress, and express cynicism instead of having hope for anything better. There is a disconnect so that cause and effect seem imperceptible. How often do we think: You are what you eat?

It is in this context that we hear St Paul’s words: Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. You are what you eat. So Jesus gives us a different choice that can make all the difference in this world––and for all eternity. He presents the two options clearly: Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you. We are surrounded with voices clamoring for “the food which perishes”, but how do we find “the food which endures to eternal life”? Jesus gives several facets of the answer.

First, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” This is not mere mental assent. This is not taking “Jesus” from our shelf of options when it’s convenient (or when life is inconvenient and we are forced to admit that we need help). Believing in Jesus means taking seriously that Almighty God came into our world as a real human being and both told and showed us what is most important. If we “believe” him, we will not give priority to the food which perishes.

Second, this means a right understanding of what is real and true: “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” We live in a world that gets “real and true” upside down and backwards. Our world questions whether anything is absolutely true and rejects any authority that questions our “right” to choose as we please, But there is another option: Jesus Christ came down from heaven to give us the truth and show us the way. Only Jesus is able to give life to the world.

As Catholics entrusted with the fullness of Christian Faith, we believe that Jesus gives himself to us in a wonderful and mysterious way: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. His words become even more explicit as this Bread of Life chapter develops its conclusion. With growing emphasis the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel beckons us to face one thing: You are what you eat.

I have been challenged by one of my friends from some years past who would not watch more hours of TV each week than he spent in public and personal worship. How can we feed on spiritual junk food (or even media “poison”) and hope to become more and more like Jesus? There is cause and effect in the spiritual world.

St Ignatius is known for his discerning of spirits. In the early stage of his conversion he was attracted to “worldly” things like books of fiction and tales of knights and battles. In today’s world he would have liked action movies and video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. But as he read first his fiction and then stories of saints, he began to notice something.

When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts he still experienced great joy. (From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez)

He was learning the basic lesson: You are what you eat. And so I end where I began. Every day,  each of us is making decisions about the the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment and the things we think will make us happy. How many truly contented people do you know? You are what you eat. Jesus calls us to feed on him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

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