Tag Archives: Gospel of John

The Bread That Came Down From Heaven

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.” John 6:51-58.

This week, the Lectionary’s Gospel passage offers us Jesus’ assurance, an assurance linking the Eucharist to eternal life.  Before we get there, however, it’s worth putting this text in a bit of context.

First, let’s look at the historical context.  In first century Palestine, bread wasn’t simply one of the four basic food groups, something nice to eat with a hearty meal.  More often than not, bread was the meal.  In other words, bread generally stood between a person a starvation; bread was the difference between living and dying.

If we turn to the textual context, we find earlier in the same chapter that Jesus fed the five thousand with a meal of bread and fish. I think John uses this passage to explore the truth and the mystery of the loaves and the fishes.  In the midst of want and hunger, Jesus used bread to teach the crowd about God’s abundance and love for them. Within the same chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples who are terrified when they see him walking on water. So, within this chapter, we see Jesus taking away our hunger and our fear.  Now, we come to today’s reading.

Jesus assures the crowd that he will “abide in” those who partake of his flesh and his blood. It’s pretty clear that the Christian community in which John dwelt had an established Eucharistic tradition, and John’s Gospel links the Eucharist to  Jesus making a permanent home with those who share in that great feast. Through the bread and the wine, we invite Jesus into our lives and take comfort in His promise that He will remain with us through all the things that frighten us: hunger, frailty, and even death.

Six times within this chapter St. John uses Greek word καταβαινω, which we translate as “came down” or “descend.” John’s Gospel presents us with a deeply incarnational narrative:  the story of God coming down to dwell with us in the flesh. That incarnational theology is deeply tied to the Eucharist:  Jesus said “This is body.  This is my blood.”  This isn’t philosophical or ethereal; Jesus invites us to share in a real feast. He invites us to feast on His life.

Jesus invites us to share in a deep sacramental mystery.  Somehow, our new life (abiding with Him) lies in that bread and that wine. I don’t pretend to understand how this works but as C.S. Lewis observed in Letters to Malcolm, “The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.” I pray we all take and eat of the Living God who came down and dwelt among us, and who abides with us still.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Still Hour

    

So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last high tide.
     We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.  We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb.  We are afraid it will never return.  We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth and fluidity–in freedom in the sense that dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.  The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping even.  Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer suggests a problem many of us struggle with in our spiritual lives:  the gravitational pull of the past and present which distracts us from the current movement of the Spirit. I wonder if that’s not, in part, what Jesus had in mind when he said, “[I]f I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.”  John 16:7.  As long as Jesus remained physically with the apostles, they were trapped in the memory of their failures or lost in their Messianic expectations for the future.  God had something quite different in store for them.

The past and the future bind us in a kind of Pushmi-pullyu struggle.  We hear this in our churches regularly.  “I really liked the music before they changed it” or “I’m really worried about the direction our new minister is moving the church.”  I think we do something similar in our own lives.  “I was not brought up in a home where reading the Bible was important so that’s just not a big part of my spiritual life.”  “Maybe once the kids are gone we will go to church more regularly.”  We feel the gravitational pull of the past and the present, sometimes longingly, sometimes full of anxiety, but always distracting us from the present moment.

Sometimes, we encounter the diversion of longing for a time when we felt really close to God, or when church offered a more meaningful experience.   In Letters to Malcolm,  C.S. Lewis compared this to shouting “Encore!” to God.  We tell the Almighty things were better before, and want Him to make it like it used to be.  Lewis wrote, “It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.”

Whether we find ourselves diverted by the past or the future, we confront the difficulty of locating God (and ourselves) in the present moment.  The movement away from the immediate always assumes that God’s presence today will not suffice.  We go chasing after a richer yesterday or running away from a distressing tomorrow, and run the risk of overlooking the presence of the Spirit today.  Perhaps we undervalue the advice of the psalmist:  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Spirit of Truth

Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But, now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Today is the Feast of the Pentecost, which serves as the terminus of the cycle which marks and celebrates the life of Christ.  Easter has come and gone; Jesus has ascended to the Father. These events have filled the disciples’ hearts with sorrow.  Their Rabbi, their friend, is returning home and leaving them.

In other sense, however, we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the Church.    The Church must now learn to listen for the voice of God within the community of believers inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus describes the Spirit as the Advocate (in Greek, parakletos).  The word parakletos connotes an advocate in a legal proceeding, who comes to the aid of a witness or a cause.  Just so, the Spirit will come to assist the disciples as they bear witness to the message of Jesus.  The term parakletos also connotes a comforter, an assistant and a companion.

Jesus has assured us of the presence of the Advocate, of the immediacy of the Spirit.  He promises that the Spirit will lead us into the truth. The Spirit will direct us through and to faith, a radical trust in the life and message of Jesus. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters refer to this process as theosis, a journey through which our lives become more and more deeply entwined with the life of the Father and the Son.  Remembering the image of Jesus as the vine, through the Spirit the life of the Father and the Son is grafted onto our lives, our history.

The reading today points also to the unity and interdependence of the Trinity.  Jesus teaches that “all that the Father has is mine” and that the Spirit will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to us.  Jesus teaches that no member of the Trinity acts independently; similarly we need to learn to live interdependently. Pentecost involves learning to trust God as a companion, and learning to trust each other.

Henri Nouwen once wrote that “education to ministry is an education not to master God but to be mastered by God.”  Pentecost involves listening for the Trinitarian voice within the Church and in the world.  That voice will remain near us and within us.  Jesus promised us that the Spirit of Truth would offer us that sense of comfort, that sense of confidence, that sense of peace.

Pax Spiritus,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Abiding in Him

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:1-11.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Daily Office, we find Jesus talking about His favorite topic: relationships.  I think Jesus cared more deeply about this subject than virtually any other, and perhaps we should, too.  In this remarkable passage, Jesus addresses our relationships with Him, with God the Father, and with each other.  I believe the refrain within this passage provides the key to Jesus’ meaning.  St. John uses the word “abide” eight times, so we should probably understand the sense in which he uses it.

One of the greatest problems we encounter in modernity is that vast number of people who feel adrift, who feel isolated from the world and cut off from anything that offers meaning in their lives.  As Willy Loman observed in Death of a Salesman, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”  Jesus compared such lives to a branch cut away from the vine, which will ultimately wither.  He observed that “the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine”.

All of us sometimes feel cut off from our source, and Jesus offers us the remedy:  “abide in me”, “abide in my love”.    Too often, we try to make our way alone.  We forget that relationships provide the very basis of the spiritual life.  To “abide with” means to participate in a very special sort of relationship.  To abide with Jesus and to abide in His love means that we will make Christ our spiritual home.

As with all relationships, abiding with Jesus involves a reciprocal settlement, a complementary arrangement.  Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Thus, we should ask ourselves, “What sort of dwelling place have I prepared for the Lord?”  Jesus calls us not simply to remain with Him, but also to make a home for Him in our lives.  Unless we permit this mutual indwelling of Christ, we will find ourselves spiritually “dying on the vine”.

St. John does not suggest that we admire Jesus as a historical figure from the past, or that we attempt to emulate something that was quite wonderful once. To abide with Christ does not mean that we merely prepare for that day in the future when we might see Him.  Abiding with Jesus means to make our home with Him here and now.  The term implies persevering, remaining true, and lasting steadily.  When we abide with Christ, we will share St. Paul’s conviction “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding connotes that we will remain with Jesus, and He will remain with us.  Like the branches on the vine, our continued existence depends on remaining connected to the Source of our lives.  If we allow the Word to make a home within our lives, we will feel the Divine pulsing and surging across all creation.  At that point, this holy relationship begins to determine how we act and how we love.  Thus, keeping the commandments becomes less like a burden, and more like a presence.  We are thereby grafted onto the tree of life, grafted onto the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I think that’s exactly what St. John had in mind when he wrote about a time when our joy would be complete.

I wish you the joy of God’s presence,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

Whom Are You Looking For?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

In today’s Gospel reading, Mary, the beloved disciple, and Peter discover that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. St. John opens the story with Mary, walking to the Lord’s burial-place early in the morning before sunrise. We’ve studied John’s gospel well enough and long enough to know that he intends to convey a double meaning when he tells us that she walked to the tomb “while it was still dark”. I’m certain that for Magdalene and the other disciples, this was a terribly dark time.

St. John begins the story with a mystery: the body of Jesus is missing. The disciples first encounter only the physical evidence of what looks like a grave robbing. Someone has rolled the stone away, removed the body of the Christ, and left behind only the burial linens. Mary runs to get the other disciples. Peter and the beloved disciple confirm the absence of Jesus’ body, but none of them yet understands what this might mean. Mary then meets a man she assumes to be gardener, and without understanding it, she has encountered the risen Lord.

I’m struck by Jesus’ question to Mary, “For whom are you looking?” We’ve heard Him ask a similar question before. Jesus asked John the Baptist’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” John 1:38. When the soldiers come to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Him, Jesus asks them, “For whom are you looking?” John 18:4,7. We also recall in John’s Gospel that some Greeks came looking for Jesus. John 12: 20-21. I suspect that this Easter Sunday, our churches will be full of people who are looking for Jesus, even though some of them may not even know it.

Consistent with John’s repeated theme of misunderstandings, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Without knowing it, I believe she is right. I think St. John intentionally calls us back, not just to the garden of Gethsemane, but also to the Garden of Eden. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and re-made creation. That morning, Mary met Jesus and encountered the fulfilment of God’s directive: “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:2).

It also strikes me that the tomb wasn’t really empty at all. That tomb was full of the visions and hopes of God’s people: dreams of a better world, dreams that they would be better people, dreams that death would not prevail, and dreams for reconciliation with God.

In a sense, that tomb resembles the stable in the Chronicles of Narnia: it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The tomb contained God’s dreams for our life with Him. Within that tomb, the disciples will find the revelation that God’s promises were not empty. Those dreams they had weren’t in the tomb any longer; they were walking around and were alive! The shackles of sin and sorrow and death have been broken.

The passage ends with Mary’s affirmation of faith, despite the darkness of the horror on Golgotha: “I have seen the Lord.” I hope that, on this Easter Sunday, you are looking for Jesus. I’m certain that He is looking for you. And I hope that, like that good saint, we can tell the world : “We have seen the Lord.”

Happy Easter! He is risen!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

He Loved Them to the End

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

In the Lectionary reading for today, we feel the reverberation of Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion from Monday’s reading.    In many respects, today’s Gospel contains the adhesive which bonds all of the events of, and the readings for, Holy Week together.  St. John reports that Jesus knew that the hour of his death had come; this passage records how chose to spend his last hours with his friends.  “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus assumed the role of a servant, of a slave.  Reluctant to have his Rabbi assume this role, Peter protested.  Jesus assured Peter, however, that this way was the path to sharing in the life of Christ.  He teaches them that serving each other offers a great blessing.  Jesus teaches, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In a terribly poignant moment, Jesus calls his disciples “little children” and tells them his time with them has grown very short.  Jesus then offers them the great commandment:  to love each other as He has loved us.  We love each other because He loved us first, and showed us how to do it.  I’ve come to believe, the more time I spend in John’s Gospel, that there’s really only one sin:  the failure to love.

I have often heard church leaders talk about a “path to discipleship”, and I suppose that’s a useful discussion in some sense.  But Jesus says that there’s only one true marker of his disciples:  they love each other, reflecting Christ’s love.  Jesus paints a portrait of divine vulnerability, reflecting a God who entered into human history, subjected Himself to shame, and poured Himself out to show us how to live.  This moment in John’s Gospel, in which God acts like a slave, constitutes a critical moment of God’s self-revelation.  “This,” Jesus tells us, “this is what the Kingdom looks like.”

Love serves as the glue which binds the readings for Holy Week together.  Love rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Love filled the house with a fragrant oil.  Love lights the way so that the darkness will not overcome us.  Love surrounds us in a great cloud of witnesses.  And tomorrow, Love will be hoisted on a Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

While You Have the Light

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus said this, he departed and hid from them.   John 12:30-36.

As a child, I always dreaded that moment in the evening when my mother turned off the light.  I was firmly convinced of monsters and the idea that they had particular sway during the night-time hours.  (Up until the age of around eight, my chosen career path was “vampire killer.”)  Years later, I decided that while there are certainly monsters in the world, we make our own evil.  Now, I’ve come full circle and have accepted that there really is something out there called evil, and that evil is a spiritual reality.

In this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to walk in the light “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”  Once overtaken by darkness, we struggle to see where we’re going.  We take the wrong path; we get lost.  Jesus tells us that “the light is with you for a little longer.”  Deep into this journey through Holy Week, we get the feeling that we are walking at dusk, as the light is fading.

This passage resonates with the opening of John’s Gospel, which described the life of Jesus as the light of all people.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John 1:9.  If we believe in this light, we become children of God, or “children of light.”  John seems to suggest that living into our Christian life will work a fundamental change in our spiritual DNA.  As we travel through these scriptural pilgrimages during Holy Week, we should remember that Jesus calls us to become children of the light, reflecting the light of Christ into all the dark places of the world.

Jesus does not suggest that His followers will not experience the darkness.  Good Friday teaches us that’s just not the case.  Christianity does not operate as some sort of good luck charm or talisman against the darkness.  Jesus’ assures us of something quite different.  He tells us that the darkness will not “overcome” those who walk with Him.  Once again, that’s got to be good news.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis