Bottom line: If we come to Jesus, we will never hunger and thirst for anything else. He is the Bread of Life. That is Jesus' identity.
This is the second of five homilies on John, Chapter 6 - the Bread of Life Discourse. In the first homily I used the example of Sister Barbara. She shows how we can draw strength from prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and the daily reception of Communion, the Bread of Life. I talked about the "love languages," especially acts of service. Jesus expressed love perfectly and he can help us to love - both God and neighbor.
Before we can understand Jesus' love, we have to ask, "Who is he?" That is what I want to speak about this Sunday: Jesus' identity.
To talk about Jesus' identity I begin with a reference to last Sunday's Gospel. You might remember that, after Jesus multiplied the loaves, the people wanted to make Jesus their king. That was how they saw Jesus' identity: Someone who could free them from Roman oppression, bring down their enemies. They wanted to carry Jesus away and crown him as their king.
The interesting thing is that they are not wrong. They recognize at least part of Jesus' identity. He is a king. He admits his kingship when he stands before Pilate. Jesus is meant to rule. So the people have it partly correct.
They do not, however, see the whole picture. Jesus is meant to rule, but not for just a few years - and he doesn't belong to only one group. That's why Jesus withdraws from them - not that they are wrong, but they have too narrow a view of who he is.
So it is down to our day. A New York Times' columnist named Ross Douthat has written a book titled, "Bad Religion - How We Became a Nation of Heretics." He argues that we Americans, by and large, still want Jesus to have some place in our lives, but that (like the people of his day) we want to limit him. That's the definition of heresy - not some new idea about Jesus, but a limited idea.* "Heretics" emphasize one aspect of Jesus in a way that leaves everything else out.
Some, for instance, want a Jesus who simply affirms them as they are. Douthat uses the example of the book and movie, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Her spiritual journey, he observes, "begins with throwing over her husband of five years (a man whose devotion and decency she praises to the skies) because she's bored and frustrated and isn't ready to have kids, and ends with her finding love with a handsome Brazilian in Bali."
Through it all her theological viewpoint does not change. At the beginning she hears "God's voice" encouraging her to act on her feelings and that voice keeps affirming the goodness of her choices. Even though she spends time in a Hindu ashram, she doesn't reject Christ, but rather sees him as "the great teacher of people."
In addition to Elizabeth Gilbert, many others in our culture (Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, etc.) see Jesus as a good teacher. They are not wrong about that. Jesus is a great teacher of people. But, you know, he teaches a lot more than just "feel good about yourself." He calls us to repentance. There are some things we should feel bad about, that we need to change. And Jesus warns about consequences if we do not.**
Jesus is more than a great teacher: He is a prophet who challenges us and a redeemer who brings forgiveness of our sins. In "Bad Religion" Ross Douthat addresses other limited, narrow views of Jesus. He analyzes the "prosperity gospel" of Joel Osteen, the recycled Gnosticism of the DaVinci Code and the dangers of blending religion and nationalism - making a kind of "American Jesus." Jesus, in fact, judges all nations - including the United States.
So, if these views of Jesus are too narrow, who then is he? To understand Jesus' identity we have to be alert to "I am" statements. We have one in today's Gospel. Jesus says, "I am the bread of life." When you think about, that's a lot more than king or guru or business partner. Jesus is the bread of life. We need him as we need food.
The twentieth century mystic, Teresa Neumann, dramatically illustrates the need for Jesus. She a medical enigma because from about the age of 24, she was apparently able to live without eating. It was not what we call anorexia, but is known medically as inedia. She somehow survived with no other food than the Eucharist. Naturally, people accused her of fraud or mental illness, but she allowed skeptics to investigate. For example, a team that included a physician, observed her round the clock for two weeks. Quote: "They confirmed that she had consumed nothing except for one consecrated sacred Host a day, and had suffered no ill effects, loss of weight, or dehydration."***
I am not encouraging anyone to imitate Teresa Neumann. She had a unique charism. In a singular (and literal) way she illustrates Jesus' words, "whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
The question before us this Sunday: Who is Jesus? For me - Who is Jesus? Is he some small part of my life - or is he as necessary to me as food and drink? It will finally come down to a question about the Eucharist. I don't want to get ahead of myself; we will face that issue at the conclusion of this series of homilies.
Today we have learned something about Jesus' identity. He comforts us in our troubles, but he doesn't say he will affirm us no matter what we do. He helps us have a better life, but he doesn't guarantee financial success. He teaches the purpose of life, but he doesn't give secret knowledge to make us superior to others. He is meant to rule our lives and our world, but he does not allow us to use him for personal political ends. What he tells us is this: "I am the Bread of Life." If we come to him, we will never hunger and thirst for anything else. He is the Bread of Life. That is Jesus' identity. Amen.
*Heresy comes from Greek word hairesis meaning to select. Instead of trying to see the whole picture, a heretic selects the part that personally appeals to him and leaves out the rest. See I Cor 11:19 and 2 Peter 2:1
**One of the consequences of our lack of repentance is that we cannot teach our young people. J. Budziszewski, author of On the Meaning of Sex, has a poignant observation in an interview by Teresa Tomeo. (It begins at 13:00)
***In Guiding Light (Cycle B Homilies) Fr. Joe Robinson writes: "I was helped by reading about a German mystic, Teresa Neumann, who died in 1962 who lives for 36 years without any food other than the Eucharist. The Nazi authorities took away her food rations' card during World War II for this reason. From what I've read, I am satisfied that her fasting on nothing but the Eucharist has been verified scientifically. You can look up more information about her on the internet."
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