Sunday, July 29, 2012

Proper 12B (July 29, 2012)

Receiving What We Already Are
Readings: 2 Kgs. 4:42-44; Ps. 145:10-19; Eph. 3:14-21; Jn. 6:1-21

Sometimes I wonder how all of us here consider miracles stories in the Bible. Do you think they “really” happened, especially the story of Jesus’ feeding of more than five thousand people? And what do we mean by “really”? What’s real and what’s not real in today’s gospel reading?

When we say this “really” took place, does it mean that Jesus literally and historically manufactured the loaves of bread and fish enough to feed more than five thousand people? Or are we saying something like the little boy’s act of sharing/sacrificing his food with others moved everyone’s hearts so they all shared their bread and fish with those without food?

Both approaches to today’s gospel reading, I think, have some truth, yet I don’t think it is enough to get deeper into the actual meaning of the story that St. John wants to convey. Because it ends up deciding whether it “really” happened or not and reducing its message into a mere historic or scientific incident as if our faith depends on our pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historic approaches to the story, rather than understating it symbolically and analogically.

To decide what’s real and unreal is, of course, very important because it helps us to see the impossible possibility of God. Nonetheless, I still think it’s not enough. I argue that this kind of miracle story should be perceived symbolically and analogically because it not only goes beyond what’s real and unreal, but also takes us to see its primary meaning.

It is definitely not my intention to confuse you with so many theological or philosophical ideas of what’s real and what’s symbolical. If I make myself clear about today’s reading, I think it really happened. It took place historically, and what’s more great about today’s miracle story is that it is “really” as well as “historically” still happening today! Jesus is still feeding more than five thousand people! And today, I invite all of us to see this great miracle happening around us.

In order for us to get a better understanding of today’s gospel reading, we should have some background knowledge regarding Passover because in the story Passover was near. It is the Jewish festival also known as Pesach, which commemorates the story of the Exodus, God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. There were ten plagues God caused in Egypt to make the Pharaoh free the Israelites. Especially the tenth plague was the most daunting one in which the firstborns in Egypt were struck down. For the Israelites to be saved from the tenth plague, God commands them to mark the doorposts with the blood of a spring lamb so that God could “pass over” the firstborns in these houses of the Israelites.

God finally liberates the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and takes them to the wilderness which would eventually take them to the Promised Land. And Moses becomes the leader of all. While being led by him in the wilderness, the Israelites complain about how poorly they are being fed. Some even say it would’ve been better to remain in Egypt as a slave. God hears their cry and feeds them every day with manna.

So this one sentence that “the Passover was near” reminds us that Jesus is taking the role of Moses who not only led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but also received the Law (the Ten Commandments) from God. We see a large crowd following Jesus who sets them free from the slavery of sin. And they are hungry. In this sense, manna from heaven must be given to them.

On the other hand, in our reading from the Book of the Second Kings, we encounter the prophet Elisha who feeds a hundred people with twenty barley loaves and fresh grain. Considering the fact that today’s gospel reading is written long after this passage about Elisha, we can speculate that Jesus takes the role of the prophet Elisha.

Now, it seems quite clear that Jesus takes the roles of both Moses and Elisha. If we push this idea a little bit further, we can even state that Jesus fulfills what Moses and Elisha do represent, which is to say he completes the Law and the prophesy as the Messiah, the Son of God the Father in unity with the Holy Spirit.

Thus, Jesus completing the roles of both Moses who represents the Law of God and Elisha who represents the prophecy regarding the Messiah, takes five barley loaves of bread and two fish. He gives thanks to God. He breaks them and distributes them. Of what do these four acts of Jesus (taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to all) remind us? It’s the Holy Eucharist!

At the Eucharist, Christ sacrificed himself and gave himself as the eternal manna from heaven to us all. So we receive the Body of Christ, not because we deserve to get it, but solely because God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit love us unconditionally even though we are unworthy. If we consider the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the miracle of Jesus feeding more than thousand people is still happening. He gives himself as the heavenly bread to feed us and we are being fed with his Body until we see him again.

But this is not the end of the story about today’s gospel reading. Remember that he has nothing in his hands to give people to eat. The sources of feeding the five thousand are indeed from the little boy whose name is not even mentioned. He gives his entire food to Jesus even though it seems so little to feed thousands of people gathered around Jesus. I do believe there’s something that we can learn from this little child. Why can’t we give something that I have to Jesus so that He can multiply them to give those in need?

At the Eucharist, we not only receive the Body of Christ in our body, but also we receive what we are. We are joined with Christ and we are the Body of Christ as the Church. Thus, giving ourselves to God is nothing, but giving the Body of Christ to God to feed others in hunger.

Christ has called and gathered all of us as his Body. We must realize that we are what we receive at the Eucharist. When we kneel down before the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist, we not only take his body and blood, but also become one with his body and blood. We are his body and blood which is to be sacrificed to God so that God can feed the hunger, heal the sick, forgive the unforgivable, and love the unlovable.

St. Augustine once said, “When you eat this food and drink this wine, they will be transformed into your substance. Equally you will be transformed into the body of Christ, if you lie in obedience and faithfulness. The Apostle reminds us of the prediction in scripture: ‘Two will become one flesh’. And elsewhere in reference to the eucharist itself, he asserts, ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body’. You, therefore, begin to receive what you already begin to be.” (The quote from The Meaning in the Miracles, Jeffrey John)

Thus, we not only pray to God, “Lord, have mercy,” but also cry out, “Lord, let me be your mercy to others in need!” I would like to end my reflection with Corrine May’s song about today’s gospel reading. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Proper 11B (July 22, 2012)

From Hostility to Hospitality
(Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ps. 23; Eph. 2:11-22; Mk. 6:30-34, 53-56)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples to retreat from people after they come back from teaching and healing people. St. Mark adds that they don't even have time to eat because people are always in need of them. Jesus's idea of having a retreat from people in a deserted place, however, fails to realize, not really because of people, but because of his compassion toward those who, in his eyes, look like sheep with a shepherd.

Jesus's metaphor of sheep without a shepherd shouldn't be perceived as a bunch of helpless people who simply want to get something from Jesus. I think they are not too different from us. They do have their own families, occupations, homes as well as their usual problems of life. Sheep without a shepherd are not that helpless or useless. They are indeed able to sustain their lives on their own at some level, which doesn't mean that they don't really need a shepherd. A shepherd fulfills what sheep can't do on their own such as protecting them from their predators and climatic changes or getting them distant sources of food and water. A shepherd is the one who does what sheep can't do for themselves.

Using this relationship between sheep and a shepherd as an analogy, we can suppose that one of the main reasons why people keep following Jesus like sheep without a shepherd is that they are looking for something that they can't fulfill themselves. There might be some rich people as well as the poor, the healthy as well as the sick, and the old as well as the young. What they have in common before Jesus is that there's a huge void deeply hidden in their heart and this void only gets disclosed when they encounter this man from Nazareth. Their void is completely exposed before Jesus and they follow him after that experience, for they do believe that he can fill that void not with things temporal, but with things eternal.

We might want to claim that each one of us has each different void in our hearts. If we consider how we have developed our voids, that claim might be true. Yet, no matter how differently our voids are being developed, the main cause can be found in our relationship with one another. And I name it "hostility" that divides each one of us and destroys a chain of trust among us. Once we are brutally beat up by a force of hostility, we are deeply scarred, which in turn creates a void in our hearts. A friend becomes an enemy when that friendship is negatively effected by a force of hostility.

St. Paul in his letters to the Ephesians teaches us there exists the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between Greeks and Jews in the Church. If there is this hostility dividing two groups in the Church, no doubt there is also a great division between each different groups in the world. I think what St. Paul teaches is undeniably true and still valid when we look at our world. There's a great division between South and North Korea, a racism in America, and so on. What happened in Colorado can be an example that shows our world is so divided by hostility. Why is James Holmes so hostile to the world to the point where he shot random people at the theatre? Hostility doesn't make us strong, but aggressive and defensive. It simply kills us all.

Unfortunately and quite shamefully, hostility can be easily found among Christians. We all have some bitter experiences of how hostile a church or Christians can be. We might be victims of hostility within our faith communities or the ones who beat up others with a force of hostility. In this messy reality of hostility in the world as well as in the church, St. Paul's voice comes to us afresh (Eph. 2:14-22).

Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is, hostility between us! Recall the scene when the risen Christ comes back to the disciples who hide themselves in an attic out of fear and greets them "Peace." Jesus himself is indeed the peace that Jesus proclaims. Not only he breaks down the wall of hostility between us and unites us in one body by sacrificing himself on the cross and reconciling the world to himself, but also teaches us how we can do the same. We can only break the wall of hostility by sacrificing ourselves just like Jesus. By no means, we are sacrificing ourselves to save ourselves or others. We "can" sacrifice ourselves only because Jesus has already saved all. That we can sacrifice ourselves to break the wall of hostility is the evidence of Christ's salvific work for the world.

So we who are called to follow the way of the cross are constantly reminded to break this wall of hostility wherever we go. This is a call to turn "hostility" to "hospitality." Wherever the word hostility arises, we are called to change it into the word "hospitality." Hostility heals and revives all.

Jesus showed his extreme hospitality at the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, is the hospitality of God fully revealed to us in a fully human form. We are no more locked up in sin or in the hostility to God and each other. Instead, we are gathered together at the cross to be sent out to the world so that we proclaim the good news of hospitality (not the bad news of hostility)! This call is nothing, but Jesus's command to us to love one another.