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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Nourished to be New Creations

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August 1, 2021: the Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15
Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
John 6:24-35

A reflection by Jon Schum

This is the second of five Sundays during which the continuous reading of the Gospel of Mark pauses in deference to the “Bread of Life” discourse from the sixth chapter of John. This Sunday’s passage concludes with the climactic revelation of Jesus: “I am the bread of Life.”

Using the metaphor of bread, these readings seem to be all about the eucharist – and have indeed enriched our eucharistic theology – but they are more about the wisdom themes that invite us to trust.

In the Exodus, text we hear the familiar story of God providing manna in the desert at a critical time in salvation history.  Seeming to forget that they have been liberated from oppression in Egypt, the people complain of their hunger and even pine for their days in Egypt, willing to trade freedom for a pot of meat.  God hears their grumbling and sends bread to rain down from the heavens.  Yet it is only a daily portion, a test to see if the people will trust in the providence of God, i.e., that there will be bread again tomorrow morning, and meat (quail) in the evening.  There is likely a natural explanation for this bread, thought to be a substance secreted by the tamarisk tree. When the people see this substance, they ask “What is this?” -  which in Hebrew is the basis for the word “manna.” Yet although they were natural phenomena, these favorable occurrences were perceived as divine providence.

In today’s gospel passage, the two images of bread and the action of feeding the crowd (last Sunday’s gospel) begin to broaden.  The people who pursue Jesus across the lake had earlier been fed and are now looking for more of the same.  It is a hunger, but one that is a bodily craving, that compels them to seek out Jesus. 

Jesus acknowledges this hunger for bread but invites the crowd to consider this: the bread given to them only provides temporary satisfaction, but Jesus offers nourishment that endures,  “life-giving food that would last for all eternity.”  The crowd realized that normally, to procure food, one has to work for it, and work hard.  In a twist on the notion of work, Jesus reaches for a deeper truth.  The bread which Jesus offers requires a different kind of work, God’s work.  The work of God is “to believe in the one whom God has sent.” 

Those in the crowd demand a sign, akin to the miraculous manna that fell from heaven.  Jesus asserts that the true bread is the One who comes down from heaven: “I am the bread of life.”  Those who followed saw Jesus as a source of bread. Now they are challenged to see Jesus as the source of life.

Today’s reading from Ephesians suggests implications of this reality.  In addressing the newly baptized the author admonishes them to “put aside your old self…and put on the new self that has been created in God’s likeness, in the justice and holiness of the truth.”  This new life demands radical change.  Conversion to Christ requires the stripping of the old identity and a reclothing with the new.  This is not simply reinventing or restoring ourselves.  Diane Bergant, CSA, comments on this passage: the newness of which the author speaks is “the newness of the new heaven and new earth, of the new covenant, of the new spirit, of the new wine, of the new Jerusalem…The new age has come with Christ and (we) must be re-created as new selves if (we) are to be a part of it.” (Preaching the New Lectionary, Year B)

Quite an awesome order!  The old bread no longer satisfies.  Our spiritual longings and hungers, our highest aspirations, and our striving to be our best self, find ultimate realization in the One who is the Bread of Life.  Our task is to believe in the One whom God has sent, the One who gives life to the world.

Our coming-out experiences may help us to appreciate this movement from the old self to the new self.  Shedding the self that we are not, and embracing who we are called to become, is to encounter radical newness. It is to realize that we are each created in God’s image and called to live freely as God’s own beloved. 

We need both physical food and spiritual sustenance to appreciate the wholeness God wishes for us.  As we pray for “our daily bread” we ask for that which is enough for today and trust that God will see us through tomorrow, as God did for the Israelites in the desert.  

There are many in the human family who cannot take in much spiritual nourishment because their bodies are pleading for bread.  Jesus first fed the body and then ministered to the soul.  During the past year we saw too many troubling examples of both global and local food insecurity.  Many were unable to work for bread or feed their children.  There were long lines at food banks.  The challenges of food scarcity have not gone away. 

Our Dignity chapter here in Boston has collaborated with the Arlington Street Church for over 35 years to provide a weekly supper for those who go hungry far too often.  Many of you also volunteer at and support agencies and programs that provide sustenance for those in need.  You advocate for legislation and public policy to address economic inequality.  A friend of mine who travels often is grateful for the hospitality he finds away from home.  In turn, he follows the simple practice of sending back a donation to the local food bank. 

As we are gradually returning to the altar table, post pandemic, we will again hold out our hands to receive the Body of Christ.  When we do so, we create a hollow openness in our hands, expressing our deep longing for the One who fills our emptiness with food that will last.  May this divine abundance flow through us and into the world.

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Jon Schum
 and his husband Ron Lacro are longtime Dignity Boston members. Jon has served on its board and liturgy committee and is one of the chapter's ordained presiders. For many years he supervised and provided arts-based therapeutic programming for an elder services agency in Boston. He is currently a co-facilitator of the Aging with Dignity caucus.

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