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AUGUST 13, 2006: NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

I Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:30-5:2
John 6:41-51

Most tours of the Holy Land offer the option of a side trip to Mt. Sinai. Though the vast majority of biblical archeologists doubt the mount to which the tourists are brought is the actual Mt. Sinai we hear about in Exodus, the modern practice of visiting the mountain of the covenant is interesting. In Scripture only one person - the prophet Elijah - ever visits the sacred mountain (Horeb) after the original covenant-making Israelites depart its premises, and when he finally arrives after his forty day and forty night trek, Yahweh tells him he shouldn't have come.

The ancient Jews never seemed nostalgic for the mountain which witnessed their agreement with Yahweh. Though they built many shrines in Israel after they defeated the country's original inhabitants, no Jew ever goes back into the Sinai to build a shrine at Mt. Horeb.

On the other hand, no Jew can ever forget what happened on that special piece of real estate. The 613 laws which their ancestors, at that place, agreed to keep is a central focus of their faith.

Early Christianity imitated early Judaism. No disciple of the historical Jesus seems to have returned to the land he inhabited for over 30 years to create shrines out of the places he frequented. It was almost 300 years before Helena, Constantine's mother, made a serious attempt to even locate those special places. (That's why there's little certainty about the authenticity of many of the Holy Land's sacred Christian places.)

Like our Jewish ancestors, our Christian ancestors were more concerned with the meaning of what happened than with the place where it happened.

When, for instance, John's community gathered for the Lord's Supper, its leaders didn't want them to get bogged down in the externals of the event. We know from the evangelist's chapter 13 foot washing pericope that he expected Jesus' disciples to go beyond the actual ritual in order to appreciate the value and worth of everyone joining in the Eucharist.

But it's also clear from today's gospel passage that John was specifically concerned that his readers not get bogged down in just one interpretation of the bread and wine employed during the meal.

In today's narrative, John stresses that the bread we consume is more than just a guarantee that one day we'll reach eternal life. It's actually a part of that eternal life. "Amen I say to you," John's Jesus proclaims, "whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life . . . . This is the bread that came down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die."

Some of us probably don't understand the unique meaning John gives to our participation in the Lord's Supper. He believes when we gather for this meal, we leave this world behind and take a step into eternity. If we understood, we'd have outlawed clocks and watches in eucharistic communities centuries ago, just as Moslems outlaw shoes in mosques. We'd have a sign in every vesting area forbidding ministers to leave with a watch on his or her wrist. Time, as we know it, doesn't exist during the Eucharist.

Yet as Paul reminds his community in Ephesus, there are always time-conditioned dimension in everything our faith expects us to experience. No matter how close-knit we are, our community constantly faces the danger of "bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling." The Apostle reasons that God doesn't relate to us in those ways. How then can we relate to others in those ways? No matter how our formal Eucharist is structured, it must always show that we're imitating Jesus' sacrificial love for all.

Just as we're to leave our watches on the vesting table or slip them into our pockets and purses during the Breaking of Bread, so should we also leave behind our human, time-conditioned view of others during the celebration.