As I mentioned in introducing the Gospel, we have been listening over the last two or three weeks to reflections that John has put into his Gospel about that miracle that Jesus performed in the desert, where with the five loaves and the two fish he fed over 5,000 people. So after that extraordinary event, John begins to reflect on the meaning of this miracle because in John's gospel, miracles are always called "signs." They are indications of something else.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
In this case, Jesus himself points out that this miracle is like what happened in the desert way back when the Jewish people were fleeing from Egypt and they were beginning to find themselves in a desperate place without food, without water, and God provided for them. You remember, Jesus compared what he did in the desert with that event in the Old Testament, only he says, "As God gave your ancestors manna in the desert and then they died, I am the living bread. The miracle I have performed is a sign of who I am and I am the living bread. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever." Then when some say, "How can this be?" "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. But if you do, you have eternal life."
That's one of the things that I think is important to notice about this Scripture. Jesus is telling us that for all of us who share in this banquet, this Eucharist, the feast of the body and blood of Jesus, we begin to live eternal life now. Most of us, I believe, probably think eternal life is something we gain after we die. It will be that new life as we transition into the full presence of God.
But, "No," Jesus says, "It starts right now." We begin to live with his life, which is eternal life. "In fact, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you."
The second thing, I think, to notice about the reflection today that John offers us is that this bread that we receive, the gift of the body and blood of Jesus is nurturing. It nourishes us because through receiving the Eucharist, the full humanity of Jesus together with his divinity -- Son of God and Son of Mary is joined with our humanity, with who I am as a human person.
So as I receive that bread and drink from the cup I begin to be transformed into Jesus. If I allow myself to fully appreciate what is happening, reflect on it, try to respond to it, then I begin to change; I become more and more like Jesus. So this is truly an astounding gift that Jesus gives to us—the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus under the form of bread and wine so we can eat and drink it. It's a gift that brings to us even now, God's life in Jesus.
Now at the time that Jesus said those words, if you go just a bit further in John's gospel today, you'll discover that some of them had a very difficult time accepting this truth as perhaps we do too. John says, "After hearing this, many of the followers of Jesus said, 'This language is hard. Who can accept it?'" So they were challenged by it as we might be. It does demand a gift of faith to accept. Jesus was aware that his disciples were murmuring so he said to them, "Does this offend you? It is the Spirit that gives life, not the flesh. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life."
Jesus reaffirms what he has said, but then John tells us, "Many disciples withdrew, no longer followed Jesus." Jesus asks those closest to him, "Will you also go away?" Peter spoke up, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and we know that you are the Holy One of God." As we celebrate this Eucharist today, I hope each one of us, as we come, in a sense, face to face with this extraordinary mystery that God in Jesus becomes present on our table, the altar and we receive God.
Under the form of bread and wine, God enters into our spirit life, into us to change us. It is a hard truth. Jesus could be saying to each of us, "Will you also go away?" Though we pray and we ask for the gift of faith and trust in God's word and with Peter we can say, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You are the one who has the words of everlasting life and we will accept what you say." As we do this with deep faith, trust in God's word, accept what Jesus has said, "This is my body, this is the cup of my blood," when we accept that reality, receive the body and blood of Jesus and let it begin to transform us, we will truly begin to live in an evermore full way everlasting life, the life of heaven.
We will begin to change as St. Paul urges us in the letter to the church of Ephesus, "Pay attention to how you behave. Do not live as the unwise, but be responsible. Make good use of your time. Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of God is." And then finally, "Gather together (as we do today) with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and celebrate God in your heart giving thanks to God in the name of Jesus." That phrase "giving thanks to God," if you go back to the way it was written in the original Greek, it really says, "be Eucharists."
The word "Eucharist" means thanksgiving. Paul is saying each one of us should let ourselves be Eucharist—be filled with thanks and joy and rejoicing because of this marvelous gift that we receive. The more we thank God for it and let ourselves be thanks, the more God will change us so that we become like Jesus whose body and blood we receive in Holy Communion.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]