Living Bread

"That's when I want you—you knower of my emptiness, you unspeaking partner to my sorrow. That's when I need you, God, like food," wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in his Book of Hours. Rilke's intense hunger for God is one known and expressed throughout our faith tradition, from the Israelites' walk to freedom, to Jesus. We will see examples in the coming weeks of food imagery; more important, we will know God's continuous invitations to the banquet. From Elijah, who promised that "they shall eat and there shall be some left over" (2 Kings 4:43) to Jesus, God always provides extra. In some of the most powerful writings of the New Testament, John describes the embodied God as our only source of nourishment and true life. In Christ our deep hunger and loneliness is fully satisfied: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever" (John 6:51).

Paul insists that our experiences of God move beyond thinking into being, to "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:17-19). We are invited to take the food God offers, including Christ, as more than symbol: real food for our real bodies. The invitation, however, is just that. Both Joshua and Jesus emphasize that the covenant is a free agreement between two parties. It seems that God is not interested in anything but our authentic choice to be in relationship. Like Joshua, we can choose freely: "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

July 6

Prophets in Our Midst
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Though the church's official celebration of Pentecost is over, we continue to witness and celebrate the action of the Spirit not only with the post-resurrection community but also from the beginning of our relationship with God. Ezekiel, a priest renowned for his knowledge and emphasis on liturgy and ritual, also knew the work of the Spirit. The Spirit gives him the strength to stand before God and the wisdom to understand God's command (Ezekiel 2:2). He is cautioned, however, that despite his warnings, his community is unlikely to heed the call to repentance. Regardless, God assures Ezekiel that "they shall know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezekiel 2:5).

Jesus has no such luck in his own hometown. After healing a bleeding woman and a sick girl, Jesus returns to his community to teach in the synagogue. His friends and neighbors discredit and ignore Jesus, and are unable to believe that the Messiah they've longed for has arisen from within their midst. Jesus, disheartened, "was amazed at their lack of faith" (Mark 6:6).

Though it's easy to ridicule their lack of perception, dismissing either community as ignorant oafs prevents us from acknowledging the many examples of our own hardness of heart. The lack of faith displayed by Jesus' and Ezekiel's neighbors is all too present in our churches and our world. Like the psalmist, we must pray for mercy: "Have pity on us, O Lord, have pity on us.... Our souls are more than sated with the mockery of the arrogant, with the contempt of the proud" (Psalm 123:3-4). Like Ezekiel, perhaps we too will receive the blessing of the Spirit so that we can stand before God and understand, hear the prophets around us, and heed their call to repentance.

July 13

Between the Lines
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Mark's detailed account of John the Baptist's death merits careful scrutiny for many reasons, one of which is the role that women play in the narrative and how their actions are similar to that of other biblical scapegoats. The account raises interesting questions about its purpose within the gospel and the larger narrative of our Christian history. Many questions about the female characters and their actions arise from this single account.

First, though the women in this story play the most critical roles in the narrative, they are not important enough to be named. Herodias' name is simply a derivative of her husband's, and her daughter is not named at all. Second, in one of the most erotic episodes in the entire New Testament, female sexuality is present as a dangerous undercurrent. Though John had reprimanded Herod for marrying his brother's wife, it is Herodias who was enraged "and wanted to kill him" (Mark 6:19). Her daughter's sexuality also has dangerous consequences: Herod is literally driven out of his mind by her erotic dance and makes outlandish promises to her. The women, portrayed as taking advantage of Herod's weak state, "force" him to kill the Baptist. In this way, Herodias and her daughter play roles similar to that of Eve; they are the "temptresses" who lead men astray. Like Pilate, Herod emerges as a reluctant executioner and the women become the scapegoats for John's murder.

This account plays upon powerful archetypes that, intentionally or not, have had critical implications for the Christian community's perception and treatment of women throughout history. It serves as an excellent opportunity to discuss Christian attitudes toward women and female sexuality, themes that are still taboo in many churches.

July 20

Tearing Down the Walls
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This week's gospel summarizes the themes of all the readings: Jesus is the one who unites, the one through whom we are healed of our physical and spiritual divisions. The disciples, having been sent out in pairs (discipleship has never been a solitary endeavor), return triumphant. The previous chapter informs us that they were able to heal and anoint those in need. On the other side of the sea, at Gennesaret, it is Jesus who heals; the people of Gennesaret were enlivened by Jesus' presence and "scurried about...and began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was" (Mark 6:55). Mark highlights their great faith, in sharp contrast to the crowds of Jesus' hometown. Like the bleeding woman, the faith of the people and their own agency bring them new life, unlike those in his own community who refused to believe and demanded more signs.

Paul also writes of the healing effect of Jesus. In Christian communities that are increasingly composed of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul insists that only by maintaining Jesus as the common denominator can they hope to remain united: "He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:17-18). No one in the community has the advantage of being first; all are made equal by their equal access to God through the Spirit. Jesus alone is a "righteous shoot to David" (Jeremiah 23:5) who unites, not destroys: "For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity through his flesh" (Ephesians 2:14). Just as Jesus physically healed people and erased boundaries of cleanliness and uncleanliness, so the work of the Spirit continues to break down barriers of worthiness and unworthiness in the growing Christian community.

July 27

Love that Surpasses Knowledge
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

These readings initiate a four-week cycle in which food as spiritual and physical sustenance takes center stage. The special focus allows us to reflect upon the rituals that celebrate the connections between nourishment and God and to reassess the sources of our own spiritual nourishment. Second Kings reports the feeding of the multitudes by Elisha, who assures the people that not only will there be enough food for all the hungry, but "there shall be some left over" (2 Kings 4:43). In doing so, he sets the stage for Jesus' feedings, which also provide more than enough food. The connection allows John to indisputably link Jesus to one of Israel's greatest prophets and to clearly connect Jesus' actions and powers to those of Yahweh. This connection is reinforced in the account of Jesus walking on water; his reassurance to the disciples, "It is I" (John 6:20) can also be translated as "I am," the words used by Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures.

It is Paul, however, who discourages us from getting lost in complicated symbolic explanations for these very corporal miracles. He reminds us that, like the people fed by Jesus, we experience the love of God with our whole selves. Thus he prays that "you, rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:17-19). Feeding 5,000 people with a little bread and fish clearly "surpasses knowledge" and any feeble attempt at rational explanations. A fully lived Christianity is one incorporated and expressed not only by our minds, or even spirit, but also with the physical hunger and desire of our bodies.

Unfortunately, many Christian churches have done a good job of removing our bodies from religion and spirituality, making faith a journey for only the mind and soul. Paul's writings and Jesus' life invite us to move beyond symbolism and abstraction to rejoice in the physical bodies that God loved enough to try out in person.

August 3

Journey Toward Freedom
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

There's nothing like coming face to face with existential dilemmas right in the middle of scripture. In Exodus we witness the portrayal of one of the most archetypal struggles of the human condition—human freedom. Like the Israelites, we experience it on our own desert journeys toward liberation. The exodus is not a one-time event but an ever-present invitation to march with God through the desert, aiming for freedom. Like the Israelites, our faith often gives way and we find ourselves longing for the comfort and security of spiritual slavery, someone telling us what is right and wrong, what to do, where to go. We long for a "Santa Claus God" who will allow us to remain spiritually passive and dependent, not a God who demands our input and active effort to maintain the covenant. The Israelites never finally solved the dilemma of human freedom, and neither have we. Our religious inheritance is the struggle itself, trying to balance the gift and responsibility of freedom with our inclination toward fear and the need for security and control.

Generations after the Israelites, our brother Paul also took the journey and wrestled with the same issues. Like the Israelites, the first Christians were just getting used to their new relationship with God and coming to terms with what this covenant really meant. Paul understood that freedom was simultaneous with responsibility in the body of Christ, which he encouraged them to build toward maturity "so that we may no longer be infants...swept along by every wind of teaching" (Ephesians 4:14).

As Christians, our journey toward freedom begins and ends with Christ, whose body becomes the anchor that grounds our lives and prevents us from being swept away by so many winds. When we accept our freedom and joyfully build Christ's body, every hour and every day, we too become sources of strength and stability for others—and bread for the life of the world.

August 10

Got Jesus?
1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

In the third sequence of readings with food imagery, we witness Elijah's long walk to freedom. In a journey filled with symbolism, Elijah's task is nothing less than to repair the breach between God and the Israelites and to restore the covenant. He walks for 40 days and nights toward Mt. Horeb, where the covenant was forged through Moses and where Jesus will later appear transfigured with both Moses and Elijah. Again, food plays a prominent role: Elijah is nourished physically and spiritually by an angel: "Get up and eat! Else the journey will be too long for you!" (1 Kings 19:7). It is advice that we too must heed. Only arrogance or ignorance (or both) would lead us into a desert—spiritual or physical—without sustenance. Like Elijah, we cannot possibly hope to complete our journey to spiritual maturity without the right nourishment and determination.

In John's telling of the bread-of-life discourse, Jesus hints at exactly what kind of passion and discipline is required. The verbs used in this sequence, while translated as the more general word "eat" in English, were originally the Greek words used to describe eating in a ravenous, animal-like nature, closer to "gnaw." This usage emphasizes the true fleshiness of Jesus' body, and therefore its suitability as real food for the journey. Don't be fooled—Christianity is not a tea party, and the Eucharist is not a platter of tea sandwiches. Christianity is a difficult journey, with deserts to cross and mountains to climb, and the Eucharist is the only real food suitable for the task.

Paul knows this, and for this reason he insists that the Christian life demands radical changes: "All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you," he insists. We must also "be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving each other as God has forgiven you in Christ" (Ephesians 4:31-32). Hard as all of this is, we are assured that we will not go through it alone. Rather, we will be sustained by angels, the body of Christ, and the love of one another.

August 17

Taste and See
Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Like Jesus, Wisdom—the feminine manifestation of the divine—offers the only food that will bring true life: "Come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live" (Proverbs 9:5-6). She encourages God's people to choose her offerings over those of "foolishness," a theme Paul continues in his letter to the Ephesians. In part of his guidelines for Christian conduct, Paul cautions against overindulgence, which he associates with ignorance: " do not continue in ignorance...and do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Similar advice found in Colossians reveals early Christianity's struggle under a hierarchical Roman society that was threatened by the community's egalitarian practices. Paul, most likely writing from jail and thus more than aware of the dangers of "subversive" behavior, pleads with all communities to engage in the best conduct possible to avoid unwanted attention.

John is also concerned with authorities, for he reports that "the Jews quarrelled among themselves" upon hearing Jesus' claims that he alone is the living bread and wine who can bring eternal life. Their confusion and hostility reflect the determination of the early Christian community to gain its independence—this time from the Jewish community and synagogue.

The psalm serves as an excellent point of unity and wisdom. The physical imagery is powerful, for we are invited again to know God through our physical senses, to "Taste and see how good the Lord is." Like manna in the desert and the Eucharist, the psalm evokes the joyful knowing of God with our physical hunger. And it warns us to keep our motives pure, for "The great grow poor and hungry, but those who seek the Lord want for no good thing" (Psalm 34:10). Whatever faith we profess, we are assured that only those "who seek the Lord" will be truly satisfied. Those who seek to be great, to be better than/holier than/smarter or more powerful, will be left hungry.

August 24

‘We Will Serve the Lord'
Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Again we see how very much God wants our decision to be in relationship to be a completely free choice, not one born of guilt, obligation, or half-interest. As Joshua makes clear, we are free to choose idols and false gods if we wish: "If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your father served...or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling" (Joshua 24:15). In the end, the Israelites do choose Yahweh, who liberated them from slavery; the one who "has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry"; who is "close to the broken hearted; and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:15-18).

Though this indeed is the God who saves, the call and the covenant are no easy matters or once-and-for-all decisions. Rather, our relationship is a lifelong process of give and take, of struggle and witness. No one knew this better than Jesus, who met the doubt of his followers with sober acceptance: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But I know that some of you do not believe" (John 6:63-64). As some of the Israelites must have done, some followers of Jesus opt out of the call to discipleship: "As a result of [Jesus' words] many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (John 6:66). What follows is not instant death-by-lightning-bolt from heaven, or even a curse from Jesus; only Jesus' confirmation that those still with him wish to remain. We are free to choose God or not, and we must be ready and prepared for the enormity of that choice.

Paul, writing from jail as "an ambassador in chains," has lived the consequences of his choice in body and spirit, and warns us that if we say yes, we must do so wholeheartedly, prepared for all that discipleship will bring: "So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace" (Ephesians 6:14-15).

August 31

Speaking Louder than Words
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This final week is all about action. Deuteronomy is a reminder that simply following God's commandments will identify our true allegiances and "thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations" (Deuteronomy 4:6). In the psalm, those worthy to dwell on God's holy mountain are only those who practice justice and charity, the core themes of the covenant: "...who shall dwell on your holy mountain? They who walk blamelessly and do justice; who think the truth with their heart and slander not with their tongue" (Psalm 15:2-3). The letter from James reinforces the theme. He stresses the importance of action: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only" (James 1:22), and insists that the love of justice and charity is the true evidence of "pure" religion: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27).

In Mark's gospel, the issue of actions vs. words is treated by Jesus at the request of the Pharisees, who criticize the disciples' lack of observation of purity laws. Jesus does not hide his contempt for the Pharisees—addressing them as "hypocrites"—and claims that they "disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition" (Mark 7:8). He quotes the prophet Isaiah, highlighting the tremendous gap between the pious words of their lips and the hardness of their hearts. If we are to truly live our faith as encouraged by Deuteronomy, the psalm, and Paul, we must also learn to discern the purity of our actions and to ensure that they are always meant to glorify God and not to protect our own egos or preserve our own power. Paul's advice is the clearest: Our actions toward the most defenseless among us speak clearly about where our hearts truly lie.

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