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.