Monthly Archives: August 2018

You Are What You Eat

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Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” [The full readings for this morning can be found here.]

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you here this morning, and I’d like to thank your provost and your clergy for this kind invitation. I should also thank you for your warm hospitality while we’re visiting with you today.

You know, when I was growing up, out in West Texas, one of the things my mother used to tell me all the time was, “You are what you eat.” She was trying to be wise, trying to convince me to avoid junk food and so she often repeated, “You are what you eat.” This, of course, explains my lifelong aversion to cauliflower, asparagus and brussels sprouts. You see, I did not like brussels sprouts, asparagus and cauliflower, and I did not want to be brussels sprouts, asparagus, and cauliflower. Thus, I did not eat them. That being said, I have come to believe, as has happened so often, that my mother was right. We are, we become, what we eat.

Our gospel passage this morning sort of operates as a summary of a fairly long discourse Jesus began in Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. It’s well worth exploring. If you’ll remember, this chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand, one of the signs in John’s gospel that reveal the true identity of Jesus. As in the earlier passages, there’s a clear We also hear the echo of the story of Moses and the burning bush, when God tells Moses: I am who I am. John piles layer of meaning upon layer.”

Now, it’s worth remembering that for Jesus’ audience, “bread” probably meant something very different than it does to most of us. For most of us, bread is something nice to accompany an otherwise pleasant meal. We might even shun it if we’re watching our carbs because there’s plenty of other things to eat that are good for us.

But most of Jesus’ audience, and most of John’s audience, lived on a subsistence income, making barely enough to live on for that day. And for them, “our daily bread” often meant the difference between living and dying. Just as for the five thousand who came to hear Jesus, or the Hebrews wandering in the desert, bread was the solution to the ever-present problem of hunger. Bread was the solution to the problem of living another day.

Remember that Jesus says that whoever eats of his bread will live forever. That’s a variation of the Greek phrase for “eternal life.” Too often, we hear that and we think Jesus is talking about going to heaven, but I think Jesus understood that phrase differently. Notice Jesus says whoever eats this bread “has” eternal life. Both in the Greek and in our translation, the phrase is in the present tense. So this life is “eternal,” signifying that it is imbued, or a sharing, with the divine. And that’s a characteristic that belongs exclusively to the divine. Because we know every created thing fades away; nothing lasts forever.

But this divine or eternal life Jesus is offering is available now, not simply later on, in heaven, somewhere out there or up there. Jesus was telling his audience, and by that I mean us, that this life is already available to us: right here, right now. The sacramental life is not like a mortgage, where you wait until you make the last payment until you get the title. The sacramental life is a sign that God is already waiting for us—right here, right now.

I don’t want you to walk away from this passage with the impression that Jesus is only talking about some misty, ethereal, spiritual food. As Frederich Buechner has observed, “We don’t live on bread alone, but we also don’t live long without it. Remember, Jesus has just fed lunch to five thousand people. In part, Jesus is talking about real food in the kingdom that he announces. In his sermon in January 1980, Archbishop Óscar Romero spoke of the great poverty of most of the people of El Salvador. “There is hunger not because the land has not produced enough food,” said the archbishop, “but because some people have monopolized the fruits of the land, thus leaving others hungry.”

Romero knew that the church, in the effort to announce the kingdom of God and establish signs of its present reality, could never restrict its mission to people’s spiritual problems and dissociate itself from their temporal ones. If we want to share in the life of Jesus, in the kingdom, then our concerns should be the concerns of Jesus. And he was concerned with feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and binding up the brokenhearted. Or, as Saint John Chrysostrom said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never find him in the chalice.”

We cannot tend to the spiritual needs of people and ignore their lives. We cannot look after their souls and ignore that they are starving. For the same reason, we cannot follow the “spiritual Jesus” and ignore the real man who was born in a stable and died when they hung him on a tree like a scarecrow. Toward the end of this chapter, when the crowd is horrified at Jesus’ teaching, he asks the disciples, “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of life.”
Peter was right, or he was almost right. Jesus not only has the words of life, he is the Word of life. And we are called to feast on that word, that life, so that we may share in it. We are, after all, what we eat.

This passage focusses us on one of the great mysteries of John’s gospel: the mystery of the Incarnation. Unlike the story of the manna in the desert where God feeds the Jews, God (in the person of Jesus) has become our food. And Jesus promises that this food is God’s invitation to participate in the divine life: not later, when we die, but now. We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, wait until the moment of our death to feast on God. It’s right here, at this table: so take, and eat. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018

What Are You Looking For?

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The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter). [The full readings for today can be found here.]

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’

In the name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
It’s an interesting choice, this passage that the Church has given us for the feast of St. Dominic. It’s an interesting choice, the choice that Andrew and Simon Peter made, to follow this wandering rabbi named Jesus. And it’s an interesting choice, the choice that Andee, Jason, Rosie, Wesley, Patti, Travis, Craig and Rafael are about to make. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, one of the few things that all four gospels agree upon was that John baptized Jesus. And in each Gospel, it’s a dramatic event. In Mark’s Gospel, the heavens are riven apart. In Matthew and Luke, we hear the very voice of God calling Jesus the beloved. But in John’s gospel, we get a kind of second-hand report, a report from John the Baptist, who says that he saw the Spirit coming down like a dove. And that Spirit announces that Jesus will baptize, not with a baptism of repentance and forgiveness like the Baptist, but with the Holy Spirit. And John then announces that Jesus is the Son of God.
I want to pick up this story on the next day, however. The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples and as Jesus walks by, John shouts, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” John hearkens back, perhaps to the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, or perhaps to the Passover lamb, with an insight into the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ ministry. It’s an early hint that following Jesus might not lead us down an easy road. As St. Thomas More said, “No one gets to heaven on a featherbed.” And yet, these brothers and sisters here with us today have chosen to follow Jesus, in the path of St. Dominic. It’s an interesting choice.
Then, the following day, John repeats his curious announcement and Andrew and another of John’s disciples begin following Jesus. The text has always left me wondering: what was it about Jesus that was so compelling? One of the giants of Anglican theology, Archbishop William Temple once observed, “We are Christians because we have been taught; and those who taught us were taught themselves.” But Andrew knew so little when he began following Jesus. My sense is that these two disciples had a profound hunger, a deep thirst to drink from the living water of the logos, the Word made flesh.
In John’s gospel, we meet a number of people who have this longing: Andrew, Nathaniel, Nicodemus, Thomas and the beloved disciple. Each of these are looking for the Truth, the veritas, the divine logos walking among us. They have the same spiritual hunger that we have all seen in these brothers and sisters who are about to take their vows this evening. And when one is full of that kind of passionate longing, nothing short of the Truth will do.
In our world, millions of people are looking for the truth. They look for it in wealth, in politics, on the television, on the internet, in dark conspiracies, in songs and books and art. We live in a nervous, anxious age. As St. Augustine observed, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are forever restless until they rest in You.” And while we may find hints of truth in art, or science, or music, the real Truth most of us are looking for isn’t an idea or a scientific discipline or a bit wisdom: it’s a person. It’s a person who asks us, just as he asked Andrew: “What are you looking for?”
So, when these two disciples begin following Jesus, the first thing he asks them is “What are you looking for?” What are you looking for? It’s a profound question. And it’s almost exactly the same ancient question Dominicans have been asking those about to make their vows for a very long time: What do you seek? What are you looking for?
As the gospel passage progresses, these two disciples ask Jesus, “Where are your staying?” The translation falls a bit short. In the Greek, the word is basically “abide,” the same word Jesus uses when he tells the disciples: “Abide in me.” It carries with it the connotations of “Where do you remain, where is your home where do you abide, where is your center?” And Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” He doesn’t give them directions, he tells them, “You have to follow me to understand.”
There’s a rich sense in which we cannot understand the heart of Christianity at all until we begin to follow Jesus. There’s a real sense in which the Christian life, the practice of abiding with Jesus, cannot be understood or explained—it has to be lived.
And then Andrew, well Andrew does something remarkable. He runs and tells his brother about Jesus, certain that he’s found the Messiah. So, I suppose in that sense Andrew may be the first Dominican. You see, he does what we Dominicans have been doing for years: he brings the world to Christ.
And when Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a new name. He tells him that rather than Simon, he will be called Cephas, or Peter. Again, there’s an old tradition in the religious orders of the brothers and sisters taking a new name. (I wanted to do that, but the Master at the time wouldn’t agree to call me Brother Batman.) Now, this tradition of taking on a new name makes sense, because our vows in the religious life are simply a continuation of the baptismal promises, and our baptism calls for us to be named.
But Peter isn’t only one who gets a new name: Jesus is called the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and the Messiah. This renaming tells us something very significant. In Christ, we are made (as Peter was made) a new creation. This is a story about new beginnings—a new beginning for Jesus, and a new beginning for Andrew and Peter, who decide to follow him. It’s an interesting choice.
Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2018