Faith or Famished. A Meditation on the Gospel for the 19th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. In particular he is summoning us faith in himself, and the truth he proclaims about his presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus declaring that he was the bread that has come down from heaven. Today’s Gospel opens with his Jewish listeners grumbling that he  claims to have come from heaven. Throughout the gospel Jesus stands firm on his call to faith and teaches them on the necessity of faith, it origins and its fruits. Lets learn of what the Lord teaches us in four stages.

I. The Focus of faith. The gospel opens with the grumbling of the crowds since Jesus claims to have come from heaven – The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven, ” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?

Their lack of faith is a scandal and also shifts our focus to the need for faith, and also how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.

First, recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 of them with five loaves and two fishes, and there were still 12 baskets full of leftovers. It was this very miracle that had made many of them follow him, when he went to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and provide evidence for the truth of his his words. Jesus said elsewhere,  …for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).

Thus their lack of faith, their grumbling and murmuring was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the only miracle he had work till now or would work. Recall that he had:

Changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out numerous demons, healed a the lame, healed the woman with a hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness in numerous individuals, one of them blind since birth, cured the man with a withered hand, Walked on the water, Calmed storms at sea, Fed 4000, Fed 5000, healing of the deaf and mute, Caused miraculous catches of fish, Raised the widow’s son, Raised Lazarus

So the question is What are they (we) going to focus on? What Jesus does, or where he’s from? It seems clear they are more focused on his human origins, where he from and who is human kin are.

Many today as well seem more focused on the human dimensions of the Church, or the foibles of believers, or even on their own struggles. Yet how many today really put their focus on what God is doing, on the many daily miracles of simple existence, and of the many ways even defeats often become victories?

So whats your focus? On mere human things? But what if the focus is on God, and that God is worthy? Is faith your focus? We can see why Jesus focuses on faith, because, frankly, we are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.

II. The Font Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: “Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Jesus here teaches two things, that our faith in him comes from the Father, and also, that we are a hard case.

First Jesus teaches that his Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture elsewhere teaches this truth

1. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8)

2. This is my beloved son, listen to him. (Matt 3:17)

3. But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. (John 5:36)

4. I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me. (John 8:18)

Here then is the central work of the Father, to save us by drawing us to faith in his Son, when He sent to redeem the word.

But Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally involves considerable resistance on our part. And this fact is evident in the word Jesus uses, namely, that the Father must “draw” us to the Son. the Greek word here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse) – means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade, and it always implies some kind of resistance from what is drawn, or dragged. For example is it also the word used in John 21:6 for drawing a heavy laden net to shore.

Thus Jesus points to their (our) stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn, and stiff necked, so the Father has to exert effort to draw, yes even drag us to Jesus.

Yes we’re a hard case and we have to be “drug.”  Some one once said,

I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, spoke ill of the teacher or the preacher. Or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four letter word. I was drug out to pull weeds in mom’s garden and flower beds and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help out some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline or chop some fire wood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the wood shed. Those drugs are still in my veins; and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin, and if today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place today.

III. The Functioning and Fruit of Faith – Jesus goes on to teach of both how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

First, as regards the functioning of faith, the Greek text is more clear than our English translation. The Greek word here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active, participle. This construction signifies an on-going action, and is better translated as “He who goes on believing…” or “He who is believing….”

The danger is that we reduce faith to an event, or to an act. Thus some say, they answered an altar call, others point to their baptism. Good. But what is going on today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith since faith is more than an event. It is an on-going reality. It is more than something you have,  it is something you do, daily. It involves leaning, and trusting in God. It is a basing of our whole life on his Word,  the daily obedience of faith.

Scripture says elsewhere of this on-going necessity for faith:

(1) But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard. (Col 1:21ff)
(2) Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. (1 Cor 15:1)
(3) He who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:13)

Jesus, having taught of the on-going quality of faith also speaks of its fruit which is “eternal life.” Here too we have to move beyond reductionist notions of what is meant by eternal life.

The Christian use of the word “eternal” does refer only to the length of life, but the fullness or quality of it. The Greek word here that is translated “eternal” is αἰώνιος (aionios – where we get the English word Aeon). And aiṓnios, according the Greek lexicon of Scripture does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.

Note too that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei) and is a present, indicative, active. Thus it does not refer to something only that we will have, but something we now have. So believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now, as a present possession. It is true, we do not enjoy it fully, as we will in heaven, but we do have it now, and it is growing within us.

Thus, Jesus teaches that the one believing, enjoys the fullness of life in him, even now, and in a growing way, day by day. One day too, we will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in heaven.

Here then is Jesus teaching on the functioning of faith (its on-going quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e. the fulness of life).

IV. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn the heat a bit, and test their faith. Not only has he come from heaven, but he is Bread they must eat. And the bread is his flesh. He says to them –  Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 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.”

Now this final verse points to next week’s Gospel when this will be developed more fully and graphically. But in effect, having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of his most essential teachings, the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

Without faith, they (we) cannot grasp this teaching or accept it. And, as we shall see next week, most of them turned away from Him and would no longer follow him, because they could not accept what he was saying, they did not have the faith to trust him in this matter. They scoff and leave him. We will say more on this next week as John 6 continues to unfold for us.

But for now, let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps we can say with the Centurion, “I do believe, help my unbelief” or with the Apostles who said, “Increase our faith!” Or we can say with St. Thomas Aquinas:

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, (sight, touch and taste, in thee fail)
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed)
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says)
Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth).

But in the end we either have faith or will be famished. Either we will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table, or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.

Behold how few come to the Lord’s table in these days, these days which so lack faith. Only 27% of American Catholics go to Mass anymore. If one has faith in the Eucharist, how can we stay away? We cannot. To the degree that we believe, will will never miss a Sunday. And our devotion to he Lord will grow daily. And our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.

It’s either faith or famished. Do you believe?