We humans are embodied spiritual beings. Our bodies are pretty obvious, and at times obnoxious. (Just ask those of us who have had an abundance of birthdays to celebrate!) Our spiritual dimension continually invites us to more: more life, more freedom, more love. Our whole life is an ongoing attempt to bring our bodies and our spiritual selves together in some kind of cooperative alliance to promote our total wellbeing. 

We know, confirmed by scientific advances, that we do better when we take good care of our body: enough rest, exercise, good nutrition.  What about the spiritual dimension of our life? What do we feed our spirit?

Just as with our bodies, if we are not forced into a survival mode, so with our spiritual “life,” we can choose what we take in as nutrition. Do we gorge ourselves on spiritual junk food? Do we try to fill the emptiness within with nourishment that has little, or no, substance? Empty calories that give us the feeling of being full – the illusion of feeling satisfied? With a diet the equivalent of spiritual puffed pork rind crisps, we can become spiritually fat, sluggish, barely responsive to the movements of God in our life. We have filled ourselves with all the right answers, what more could there be?

Of course, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit, and we have been graced with plenty of assets to help us to remain internally mobile, active, attentive – like imagination, curiosity, wonder, an unquenchable thirst to learn and to grow… We deeply desire fullness of life, as much love as we can receive and give, the freedom to choose what is truly good and life-giving for ourselves and for those we share life with. With what might we nurture ourselves for what we truly need?

In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, there are more than 60 verses around the theme, the Bread of Life. Jesus declares that he, himself, is the Bread of Life (verse 48). He goes on to say that his flesh and his blood are the food that we need and want. He gives himself completely that we might have life in abundance (verses 49-58). But how can we eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood? It’s all symbolized in the Eucharistic Feast.

It begins with our willingness to receive the gift of Jesus’s love – to take it in, to let it become our very own flesh, – the substance of our lives (transubstantiation?). We make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love, Whenever we enter into any communion of love, whenever we really hear and digest the Word of God, whenever we open ourselves to the mutual intimacy and vulnerability of community, whenever we allow anyone and everyone access, through compassion, to our heart, we are consuming the flesh and blood of Jesus. Isn’t this is the daily bread we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus has just escaped up the Sea of Galilee from a crowd of hungry people that, having been filled with a meal of bread and fish, wanted to come and make him their king. For Jesus, there is only One who is sovereign, only One who has the right to claim absolute loyalty. Besides, neither the Roman oppressors, nor Herod the Tetrarch, would be very keen on such a populist movement. 

In the Gospel of John (here John 6:22-29), with its sophisticated development, rich theology, and layers of meaning, very little is as it seems at first glance. A crowd, having come up the sea by boat in search of Jesus, finds him at his “home base” of Capernaum. They ask,”Rabbi, when did you come here?” Or maybe, “How did you ever slip away from us? We have big plans for you!” Jesus, as usual, doesn’t bother with their superficial question. He directs the conversation back to something essential by pointing out, “You’re not seeking me because you have seen signs, but because you were able to stuff your bellies – and through no effort of your own.”

These people had made considerable effort to track down Jesus, but not for the best of reasons. Why do we look for Jesus? What do we want him to do for us? Save us? From what? What do we hope to get from being his follower? A heavenly reward? According to Jesus, this is not the basis for the kind of faith that leads to the fullness of life that Abba God desires for us. See the signs! There’s a whole new way of living, doing, being, waiting for you to embrace and to share.

Jesus is ready, and willing, and able, to give us bread that nourishes us eternally. To receive this life-giving gift, we need to see the signs, and we need to let go of any and all of our self-seeking. Jesus gives freely of what he has been given. He gives us himself in all his giving. “This is me, for you.” We need to make giving of ourselves in selfless love the substance of our following Jesus. Fed by the very life of Jesus, given completely in love, we have what we need to continue the work of bringing in God’s Kingdom.

There is plenty of consolation, and more than enough challenge in verses 31 and 32 of the Eighth Chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus is in Jerusalem and he is talking with some of those who claim to be his disciples. Jesus’ words, once again, act as a threshing of grain, separating those who say they believe and follow from those who remain faithful to him, even though (like us?) they don’t always understand where he’s coming from and what he is really trying to say. They just know that, for them, it’s better to follow, to listen and to let the Spirit work it out inside them. They sense that there is something special about Jesus, and they want to be part of it. Jesus says, “If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

The first, and most basic task of a disciple of Jesus is to immerse ourselves in his word, and in the Word that he is from Abba-God. The verb in Greek can be translated as remain, abide, continue, but the image it invokes is to make oneself at home in Jesus’ word – the Good News, the Gospel of God’s Kingdom of mercy and love. Let this be the base and the space from which we live, speak and act. Let ourselves be formed and transformed through intimate connection with God who is Love speaking within us in words we cannot hear with our minds. This is what makes a follower into a true disciple of Jesus.

From this intimate experience, over time, we come to have a sense of what is truly from God and what is not. This is the basis for discernment. We develop an inner inclination about what is genuine and what is false. This knowing allows us to see more clearly and to choose more in line with Jesus’ lived and living values and desires. It’s not a head thing. It’s a feeling, an acquired radar for identifying the truth (and the Truth – who is Jesus).

With the third phrase we come to the big spiritual outcome. This truth we come to recognize and follow will set us free.  Of course, we can object, like the adversaries of Jesus, that we are not unfree. But as long as our lives, or any facet of our lives, are rooted in anything false, we are caught, trapped, enslaved to that falsity. The more radically we are grounded in truth, the freer we are. The hardest part is detaching ourselves from our favorite untruths, the lies we tell ourselves and others, the ones we have cultivated so painstakingly over the course of our lives. What can give us the courage we need to risk the truth is the promise of Jesus, “The truth will set you free.” There’s nothing to hide. The truth of God is infinitely more beautiful than any false images we have about ourselves, others, the world. 

Life is a high stakes proposition. We are invited, if we choose to enter the game, to gauge our options, to build up our resources, and when the moment is right, to move all our chips to the center of the table. Of course, out of fear, we can choose to stand around on the edges and watch.

Jesus (Matthew 7:12) quotes what we refer to as The Golden Rule. “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.” According to Jesus this “rule” sums up all the teaching of the Law and of the prophets. Basically it encourages us to treat others as we would like to be treated. The opposite also applies. Don’t treat others as you don’t want others to treat you. But Jesus also says (Matthew 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets, I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”

Jesus aligns himself, and his mission, squarely and surely with what God has been doing through the Law, that great spiritual treasure, and the prophets, those strong, irritating, and comforting voices speaking out on behalf of God. He has no intention to destroy those pillars of belief and of practice. He has come to bring them to their fullness – beyond anything imaginable. Jesus, in his very being, and in his teaching/healing ministry, sums up and surpasses what went before.

In the light of Jesus, the bar for The Golden Rule is now raised to, Do into others as God has done to you. We are invited and challenged to treat ourselves, others and creation as God has treated us –  with true care. This is the biblical description and understanding of justice – way above and beyond our quid pro quo notions of what’s right and fair. What payback can there possibly be for all God has done, and is doing for us? All we can do is pass the goodness along, to any and all.

 

It’s tricky. We want to be seen as “good” (but we often mean nice). We know that we are to speak the truth. But, sometimes, we want the person we are dealing with to know that we know what’s really right and good and true. And other times, we want to avoid dealing with things. Being both caring and honest is a challenge. It takes practice.

Love and Truth go together. One without the other leads to disaster. If a relationship is important to us, we need to risk holding love and truth in the dynamic tension that they generate, and offer them carefully joined, but without fear.

Life is all about relationship. Love presupposes a relationship that fosters mutuality and openness. A loving relationship is nurtured by direct, open, honest communication, through dialogue. Fundamental to love is respect/reverence for our self and for others.

Truth without love is a weapon. We can hammer others with our righteousness. If we care more about being right than about the other, what does this say about this relationship? Of what value is an uncaring relationship?

Love without truth is saccharine sentimentality. It has no depth, no viable future. We often try to avoid difficult, messy or unpleasant situations. We can hide behind excuses: “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” or “They can’t handle the truth.” There is no respect for the other’s capacity to grow or to change if we can’t be truthful with her/him. Of what value is a dishonest relationship?

One possible way to handle this kind of courageous conversation is: Before speaking, STOP, and consider: How can I communicate my love, care, concern AND clearly, simply say what needs to be said? This requires practice. Maybe we begin with an apology: This is hard for me. I don’t know how to say this well. I care deeply about you, and I feel that there is something important I need to say to you.We have no control over the reaction or response this will evoke, but it’s very important to take a chance on the intimate relationship between Truth and Love.

 

At the beginning of Chapter Eight of the Gospel according to Mark (Mark 8:1-21) there are a series of interconnected events. First, Jesus facilitates the feeding of a crowd of 4,000 people. After this, Jesus and the disciples get in boats and cross the Sea of Galilee. When he lands on the other shore, some Pharisees come up to Jesus and demand that he provide them with proof of his credentials from God. “Give us a sign from heaven!” This is a test of Jesus’ legitimacy. Who do you think you are? Where do you come from? What right or authorization do you have to do what you are doing? Show us! Now! Jesus simply replies, “No sign will be given to this generation.” Jesus gets back into a boat with his disciples and leaves those Pharisees to wonder, or to gloat at their ability to get under Jesus’ skin.

When they are away from shore, Jesus gives a warning to his followers (which means us, too). “Beware of the leaven of  the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” As happens so often, the disciples (us?) jump to conclusions and miss Jesus’ point. They (maybe because their stomachs are growling?) assume that Jesus is chiding them because they have only one loaf of bread on board (and what is that among so many hungry people – sound familiar?) This misunderstanding leads, once again, to a deeper, fuller teaching.

Remember that immediately before the Pharisees challenge Jesus, he had orchestrated the operation that fed 4,000 hungry people. Doesn’t that, by itself, hint that God is at work in and through Jesus? The disciples had been there, had participated in that gracious experience. And you, my close followers? Don’t you see? It’s not about bread people! So, what is Jesus warning us against?

Jesus used leaven as a parabolic example of the tiny, subversive, and potent action that brings about the Kingdom of God. But, in popular Israelite culture, leaven had another connotation. Leaven came to signify an agent of corrosive action – indicating an invasive, pervasive source of evil. The leaven of the Pharisees, as Jesus frequently pointed out to them, was their hypocrisy. They had powerful influence, but used it in a way that made things worse for others – especially the little, ordinary people. The leaven of Herod was manifested in his ruthless and amoral behavior – greed, lust, domination, control… He, too, used his role, which might have brought about much good, to make lives more difficult.

This type of leaven is seductive – to use your role, power, influence to try to manipulate or control others. Often, fear, threats, coercion are employed to get your own way. This leaven cannot build anything positive, much less God’s Kingdom. Fear is a powerful influencer. Jesus bet his life that love was even more powerful. Which leaven do we choose?

Do you ever wonder, when two sports teams are vying for victory against one another, and their ardent fans (on both sides) are praying for their side to win, who does God listen to and grant favor? All those cheering for Notre Dame University (for example), and all those cheering for Southern Methodist University, as their teams meet in some athletic contest, hands folded, eyes raised to heaven, cry out to God. The more fervent their loyalty is, the more they petition God to intervene on behalf of their beloved athletes – and for the pride of their school. They make their peace of mind, their wellbeing, their happiness dependent on the outcome of a game. Who is God attending to with blessing, and who does God choose to ignore?

Yes, this is an exaggeration, but our human tendency to curry God’s favor and use God against those who, we believe, oppose us, is very real. We want a god who takes care of us, and who brings about the defeat and disgrace of our enemies – a god who is on our side. Sports team against sports team, party against party, warring nation against warring nation, denomination against denomination, religion against religion, and so it goes. We pray for our side to win, to be right, to be number one. The outcome determines who God really likes – who is good and right and justified.

But what if the outcome, the result, has nothing to do with who God favors, or considers to be good?  Jesus describes God, in a most un-partisan way, allowing rain to fall on good and bad alike, the sun to shine on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5: 43-45). Is it possible that God desires, as much as possible, that any and all opposition ends in some kind of win-win situation  – that all enemies discover their commonality, and realize the terrible waste of hostility? So much more can come from cooperation for the common good than from ego-driven claims of superiority over others. Whose side is God on? God is on our side – as long as our OUR is big enough to include enemies as well as friends.

How many weddings have incorporated the passage, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, to focus on the dynamic which will (they hope) guide and empower the life together of the new wife and husband? St. Paul uses a Greek-style eulogy of “the greatest virtue” to point out the primary place of love in the life of all who follow Jesus the Christ. We know the descriptive flow… Love is patient, love is kind, love is… But there’s (at least) one element of love that Paul omits. Love is inconvenient.

To put it simply: love involves personal relationship; personal relationships are messy and unpredictable. Once we allow another person to have access to our heart, we can count on our life being out of (our) control. Our time, our attention, our care are no longer mine alone – they are ours. Love is always a call to ecstasy – standing outside of one’s self – caught up in the gravitational pull of the other. Love demands availability. My plans, my program, living life on MY terms, all this is up for grabs. How inconvenient! 

We have this ego-tendency to think that I have the right to set my own course, to determine my own fate, to “do it my way.” This might have been true if I was the only creature ever brought into existence……but probably not. J. P. Sartre said it best (from this point of view), “Hell is other people.” We are all (in-laws, outlaws, ancestors, aliens..) in it together. And we need to care for each other, love one another, otherwise there’s no future for anyone. Talk about inconvenient!

Here’s a troubling thought. We believe that God is love (1 John:4-16).  Love is particularly inconvenient. It follows, then, that God is inconvenient. God, who invites all into relationship – who, as our lover, claims the right to break into our lives whenever, however love requires – is notoriously bothersome, refusing to leave us alone to stumble forever in the dark. God asks things of us that totally disrupt our “best laid schemes.”  What conveniences do we need to lay aside in order to experience more fully the warm, all-embracing, inconvenient love that is God?

 

Where would we be, if not for a break now and then from the work of staying alive, of loving, of trying to do good and to make things better? Our Jewish ancestors in faith were on to something! Realize the need for regular time off, and use God’s work of creation as its justification. Make a calendar with space just to be, every seven days. God rested. We rest. We need this. 

It seems that we have forgotten this healthy rhythm. We run non-stop from activity to activity, from one all-absorbing doing to another all-absorbing doing. We collapse, get less than enough rest, get up and race off to the next busyness. What are we afraid of? What are we running from? Is our world any better because of our intense, foot-on-the-accelerator lives? What would happen if we stopped, if we gave ourselves a break, as God proposed?

While we seem to have Sabbath-amnesia, in Jesus’ day, there was often another kind of Sabbath distortion. The religious leaders among the Israelites back then, afraid that the people’s lax, or partial, following of the Law, would bring God’s disfavor again – to the point of losing even more of their religious privileges grudgingly conceded by their oppressors – insisted, demanded, strict compliance. The Sabbath was to be a day of complete rest from any and all work, or from anything that could possibly be viewed as work. It got to the point where ordinary people felt constrained from living their lives on the Sabbath. It was impossible for many to adhere to the various rules used to explain the Law, and they faced condemnation from the authorities.  

Remember how many times the Sabbath was thrown in the face of Jesus, and used as concrete proof that Jesus could not be from God? One instance is found early in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 2:23-27). Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath. The disciples are clearing a path as they pass through, and picking grains to munch on – to the leaders this equals trail-breaking and harvesting. They are working. When the authorities call Jesus on this, another egregious defiling of God’s holy day, Jesus reminds them that David, God’s chosen ruler, had taken the loaves of bread offered in the Temple, which were only for the priests, and ate them, and even shared them with his companions (literally bread-sharers).

Jesus finishes with the statement, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” Rules, even the Law, were intended to help us to live well, not to force us to jump through ever-tightening hoops. The Sabbath was a gift to humanity to help us to live more humanely. It is meant to give us space to rest, to remember God and our relationships, to savor creation, to do good, and to engender joy, not to stifle it. We need Sabbath, regular times and spaces of rest, awareness and appreciation, built into our lives, to be fully human.

It’s pretty simple. If you are prospering, God is on your side, If you give God a percentage of your gains, God will increase your wealth multiple times, proving, once again, that God is on your side. God wants you to do well, whether you (as Fr. Pat Dolan would say) are doing good, or not. Even if you are cruel, small-minded, insufferable, God can’t help but make sure you are saturated with riches. It’s divinely guaranteed!

So, the opposite must also be true. If you’re poor, suffering, struggling, sick…, God has turned away from you. Even if you are doing good in the world, if you are just getting by, God has no time for you (or for any such losers!). God’s favor (or lack thereof) is clearly shown in each person’s life. A version of this distorted image of God has been with us for millennia. This self-serving theory keeps coming back with new energy in every age, it seems.

The wisdom from various spiritual traditions is: It’s not what you have, or how much you have, that matters, as much as what you do with what you have. Having too much can be spiritually perilous, as can having too little. Either extreme can turn our hearts away from God and in on ourselves. We can become possessed by what we have, and by what we do not have. God becomes a second thought, or ceases to have any place in our lives.

How radically refreshing is the approach of Jesus! God loves you. If your circumstances are difficult and your resources are few, God does not turn away from you. If your circumstances are easy and your resources are copious, God does not put you ahead of others. God-loves-you! Keep God number one, That’s the most important thing. Trust God. Share what you have been given with those in need. Prosperity can be a blessing, or it can be a curse.  God knows.