With this Sunday, the Church begins a presentation of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. (Excerpts from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John will be the Church’s Gospel reading for the next few weeks.)
The Gospel of John is in its elegant literary style, perhaps the most beautiful of the four Gospels. It begins with what might be described as a hymn of praise to God in Christ, who revealed himself to the world by accepting for himself a human nature and living a real, human life.
God is not presented in the Gospel of John as merely an idea or feeling, but as a living, divine person who offers his creatures (that’s us) the extraordinary possibility of sharing a relationship with him. This relationship imparts great gifts to those who accept it- foremost being the forgiveness of our sins and friendship with God.
John writes from the perspective of one who knew the Lord Jesus intimately, personally. His Gospel is not presenting a theory about the Lord Jesus, the kind of which historians create, but testimony to how the Lord Jesus revealed himself as God- a revelation that John himself encountered in real flesh and blood. The Gospel of John is not about how a man named John knew a figure of historical importance, but how he met and became friends with Jesus Christ who is really and truly God. Jesus Christ is not for John a symbol of God or a new kind of prophet, but he is God himself, who surprised everyone by revealing himself in the world as a flesh and blood man.
John insists that this privileged encounter with God in Christ is not the stuff of legends or myths, but of actual fact and real life circumstances. Thus he describes how not only his own, but how other people’s encounters with God in Christ transformed their lives forever.
John presents the revelation of God in Christ in the context of seven great events or signs. In each of these events, God in Christ speaks and acts in the person of God and what he says and does upsets the status quo, throwing people off, initiating total conversion in some and inciting great anger and opposition in others. In each case, the Lord Jesus compels people to make a decision about him, and if that decision is accepting him for whom he reveals himself to be, then that person’s life is transformed.
Whatever our decision might be, for or against, the encounter with God in Christ changes people’s lives forever.
The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is about a great miracle through which God in Christ manifests his divine identity. This miracle is feeding a vast multitude of people with a small quantity of food.
Now I know, some preachers try to sell this idea that the great miracle is that people were provoked by the Lord Jesus to be generous, and there was no real multiplication of the food. This is not only a bad, corrupted interpretation, it is not what the testimony from the Gospel of John is about.
Sharing what we have with others, especially with those in need is a good thing for us to do, but the testimony in the Gospel of John you heard this morning is not first and foremost about us, it is about the Lord Jesus, and in this particular case it is testimony to a miracle that John believed indicated to him that the Lord Jesus was God. Precedents for this kind of miracle existed in the story of Israel’s great prophets, and one was referenced today, a story about the prophet Elisha from the second book of Kings, but as the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John progresses, it becomes clear that what the Lord Jesus has done in this miracle was about much more than showing himself to be a wonderworking prophet. Jesus Christ is acting and speaking in today’s Gospel in the very person of God!
I can’t stress to you enough that this revelation, the revelation of Jesus Christ as God, is what the Gospels, indeed, what the Church is all about.
Testimony to the revelation of Jesus Christ as God is extraordinary, indeed upsetting for many, especially now as God is viewed as little more than an idea or feeling, rather than a living divine person with whom we can relate to.
Ideas and feelings are our own, we make them and give them whatever significance that we prefer. Persons are different, as in every person we meet, there is always a potential demand placed on us, a decision- if this is the case with the human persons that we encounter, how much more so for Jesus who is a divine person, who is God.
It is because of the demand and decision that Christ places upon us that it seems easier for some folks to make him less that who he claims to be. It is for this reason that some folks take a Gospel, like the one we heard today, and want to make of it a nice, pleasant story about sharing, rather than a weird and wonderful miracle. Nice, pleasant stories are emotionally satisfying and let’s face it, place little if any pressure on us to do anything. Miracles are emotionally upsetting, and if accepted for what they imply, the pressure to change one’s life in response is immense indeed!
Jesus Christ is not just a maker of stories. Jesus Christ is a maker of miracles.
There is one more thing about today’s Gospel that is important to know about. John is up to something in the sixth chapter of his Gospel and if you miss this detail you miss the point of what he saying not only about the Lord Jesus, but also about his Church and how we come to have a relationship with God in Christ in his Church.
John presents this miracle story knowing that stories about the miracles of the prophets anticipated and foreshadowed the Lord Jesus. When the prophets worked wonders, they were signaling to the people what God would one day reveal in Christ.
John wants us to understand that what Christ does in this miracle anticipates and foreshadows a wonder that he will work in the Church- he will feed his people, with something greater than that of the multiplication of food. God in Christ will feed his people with his own divine life and this will happen in the Eucharist, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The miracle story you heard this morning is really a kind of introduction to a greater revelation that God in Christ will reveal in the Eucharist.
The remainder of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel will provide startling insights from the Lord Jesus himself regarding the Eucharist, and like the miracle of today’s Gospel, what Christ the Lord has to say about the Eucharist will place a demand on us and compel us to a decision.
Demand and decision.
These two categories are likely not ways that many Catholics nowadays are accustomed to think relate to the Eucharist.
The Eucharist has become for many Catholics a nice gesture, a pleasant custom, a way of feeling good about oneself, that the Eucharist places a demand on us to change our lives and compels a decision for or against Jesus Christ is likely not what many might think when they come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
But more than anything else, this is precisely what the Eucharist is doing and compels us to do.
Because the Eucharist is not just an idea about God or a feeling about Jesus, instead, the Eucharist is an encounter with the divine life and presence of God in Christ.
And as the Gospel of John, makes it clear, the encounter with God in Christ will always and is supposed to change your life.