Traffic Jam Spirituality

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

The other day I was tailed and then passed by a heavy-duty pickup truck with a message. It told me from its bumper, in large bold caps, to TRUST JESUS! I have never been a fan of bumper stickers. Not only do they (in my opinion) junk up a car’s appearance, certain bumper stickers foist religious (or not) beliefs, push moral and political stances, and crow children’s accomplishments in the faces of disinterested strangers in a way that is, well, obnoxious.

Bumper stickers that tell others how to act are particularly boorish in traffic. They speak to the popular notion that whatever we think must be proclaimed publicly. Perhaps we are headed for a dialogue-free society in which everyone just blurts out their opinion using the nearest technology and then disappears in a plume of exhaust.

Maybe I make too much of it.

In all fairness, I knew nothing about the driver of the TRUST JESUS! truck. He was just like every other person on the Turnpike who simply wanted to get from one point to another. But he happened to be in front of me for several miles and having this command in my face started to bother me. What exactly did this driver mean by “TRUST JESUS!” and who did he think he was, anyways?

Jesus said “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” [John 6:51]

Although their bellies were filled, the crowd did not see God’s hand in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. And while they recognized Jesus’ teaching authority and wondrous deeds, they were blind to his true relationship with the Father. They found his claim, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” [JN 6:41b] to be preposterous. After all, everyone knew Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, so how could he claim to have come down from heaven? Their opposition mounted and yet the crowd remained in his presence, grumbling and murmuring  within earshot of Jesus. These people, his opponents, were limited by their partial view of life, and of God. They trusted God, not Jesus.

It has been said that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God made visible in the world. However, as theologian John Shea says, “One who is not in touch with the inner light of God cannot see it in the outside world.”* For this reason, Jesus’ enemies were not capable of seeing Jesus for who he was, and they did not see God’s doing in Jesus’ mighty works. Neither could their hunger be sated, because they refused to ingest Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is talking about transformation. He offers his unconditional gift of self as food for the world to all of humanity. It is an invitation to the table. “And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” [JN 6:51b]. This goes back to why the TRUST JESUS! bumper sticker bothered me. Of course we should trust Jesus. But there’s more. Discipleship requires active and ongoing participation in Jesus earthly mission, here and now. Jesus did not say trust the bread, Jesus said eat the bread, all of it. Eat the entire loaf, take it in completely and be transformed.

EAT THE BREAD. Now there’s a bumper sticker I would not mind following.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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*John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 204.

It’s a miracle!

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

In August, 2013 a news story circulated about a mysterious roadside “angel” who appeared at the scene of a head-on collision where the victim was trapped inside her crushed vehicle. The man, described as wearing priestly garb, prayed with and anointed the 19-year-old woman, provided calming reassurances to the rescue workers that all would be well, and then disappeared from the scene without a trace.

This story took off and gained international attention. The Missouri miracle, as it was called, was intriguing. Who was this man who emerged from the corn fields with anointing oils? How was it possible for anyone to come and go when the road was blocked in both directions? And why did none of the photos taken at the scene include this person? News reports and the internet buzzed with speculation. Even Diane Sawyer wanted to know.

Who doesn’t love the idea of a miracle? Miracles seem to point to a higher power’s participation in worldly events. They cause doubters to pause. Believers want to attribute these baffling life-saving events to divine intervention, and why not? But as well-known Jesuit priest and author, Fr. James Martin, said in a comment to the Huffington Post “Most likely the priest will be identified, and people will be able to thank him.” Spoilsport. Still, Fr. Martin’s point is that human acts of bravery and extreme kindness happen all the time. Oftentimes they point to God’s engagement in human history. But this kind of pragmatic response just pops the balloon of hope held out by many who hunger for a “real” miracle.

The multiplication of the loaves and fishes [John 6:1-15] was a real miracle. It was an opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples about spiritual abundance, and the crowd enjoyed the miraculous result. The feeding of the 5,000 revealed that God does great things with just the smallest offering; the tiniest spark of faith was more than enough to work with. And after everyone had their fill, the disciples gathered 12 baskets of fragments.

Lesson learned.

But the next day the crowd was hungry again, and they went in search of Jesus and more bread. The crowd did not see the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as a miraculous sign of God’s care; they saw it as dinner.

Jesus knew this and in one of his most difficult teachings challenged the crowd to understand his identity as one sent to fill their lives, not their bellies.

“Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life” [John 6:27a]. The double play on the word work referred both to the kind of work that provides enough to eat and the kind of work expressed through obedience to the Law given by Moses. The Jews in the crowd who heard the latter grew uneasy. They asked, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” and Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” [John 6:28-29].

Oh boy. Understand how outrageous this statement was to the hearers: “We have Moses, are you implying you are greater than Moses? If so, what can you do to prove it? Moses gave us manna to eat!”

Spiritual hunger: that universal human longing for the moreness of life. The myriad religious expression in human history acknowledges there is not a single civilization which has not attempted to satisfy the desire to know the higher power. But, Jesus says “Don’t work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life.” In other words, Jesus is the bread of life whose presence makes God known in the world. A life nourished by and lived in imitation of Jesus is a life lived toward union with God.

And sometimes that union is expressed in miraculous events.

Many people hoped the Missouri miracle man really was an angelic apparition. Turns out Fr. Martin was right and Rev. Patrick Dowling, a priest of the diocese of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, MO, stepped forward a few days after the accident. In an interview with ABC News, Fr. Dowling said, “he was only doing the basic job of a priest and most of the credit goes to God.” He went on to add, “I have no doubt the Most High answered their prayers and I was part of his answer, but only part.”

Was the Missouri miracle a miracle? Absolutely. As Fr. Dowling stated, “the credit goes to God.”

Today’s readings can be found here.

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Still hungry? Gospel texts from John’s “Bread of Life” discourse [John 6] are read from the 17-21st weeks of Ordinary Time (B) [Lectionary for Mass and the Revised Common Lectionary], and will be explored with a view towards discipleship here on The Good Disciple blog..

There is enough, there is always enough.

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Did he, or didn’t he?

Did Jesus actually organize a meal to feed a crowd of 5,000 from just five barley loaves and two fish?

Yes.

Did Jesus use a child’s contribution as a way to encourage those in the crowd who had some food to share it with those who had none?

Yes.

Some people are offended by the latter explanation. They claim it undermines the intent of the gospel writer. They claim it weakens Jesus by dismissing the possibility that he actually created a bottomless bread basket and endless fish platter from the five loaves and two fish. Others (including me) disagree. Jesus did create a bottomless bread basket and endless fish platter. He did it by changing the hearts of those who said “I’ve got mine, go get your own” to “I have a little, but I can share it with you.” This was as much a miracle then as it is today.

Like the five barley loaves and two fish the child offered to help feed the multitudes, the humblest offering has the capacity to transform society. Jesus knew this; everyone ate, everyone had their fill, and there were leftovers. There is enough, there is always enough.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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(This gospel [John 6:1-15] begins the “Bread of Life” discourse which will be the topic for the next five weeks.)