“I am the bread … that comes down from heaven … [you] may eat it and not die. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”
By the time St John’s Gospel had been committed to writing, some 40 or 50 years had passed since the dying and rising of Christ. St John and his community would have been well aware that many who had followed Jesus were now dead. Those who had attended the Eucharist and shared in the bread of life had, in fact, died – as martyrs, or from disease, or of natural causes in old age. No-one would have even suggested that Holy Communion could prevent the physical death of the human body. Instead, the “living forever” which was promised would have been understood as living in the same way as the Risen Jesus. It would be a different kind of living, with God in heaven – until the promised day arrives when God will give transformed bodies to all those who have died. Jesus promised in the words we’ve just read that He will “raise [us] up at the last day”.
Enjoying the fullness of this spiritual life, which never ends, needs us to do something. We must choose to stay connected to Jesus. And that’s not as easy as it sounds, because seemingly petty things can get in the way. “Your fathers ate the manna in the desert, and they are dead,” said Jesus. Why was it that the generation of Jewish people who were led by Moses in person could not receive eternal life from God? In the story of Moses we are told that the people grumbled about the difficult journey which God has asked them to make. Their punishment for failing to trust in God was that an entire generation would live and die in the wilderness before their children could enter the promised land. The Jewish ancestors who ate the manna were not spiritually dead because manna was inferior to what Jesus could offer – they were spiritually dead because they failed to put their trust in God.
Keeping that trust firm is not easy. If you are at a stage in your life or faith where you feel discouraged, where your faith in God doesn’t seem to provide much support any more, then take heart. Faith is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are times during the race when God will seem far away. These are the times when we must make a sheer act of will to continue to put our trust in God.
The first temptation is to say “I’m not worth it. God doesn’t care.” Resist! You can’t go far in the New Testament without seeing that Jesus chooses to love and to care for all people. The Good News is that Jesus’ love extends to everyone who is willing to receive it. NO MATTER HOW INADEQUATE YOU FEEL, God really does love you.
We can, however, distance ourselves from God by our own behaviour. “Everybody who believes has eternal life” says Jesus – but believing here is not just an intellectual act. We might translate it better as “everybody who puts their trust in Christ”, and that trust must be expressed through the choices we make. The Israelites who failed to keep their agreement with God were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. If we claim to be Catholics but do not follow the instructions left to us by our Master, we are not keeping our end of God’s bargain, either. And what God requires of us is that we must always forgive others – we may, when appropriate, offer a word of correction, but we must not penalise anyone for their failings. We mustn’t maintain grudges against others, or behave harshly or rudely towards any other person, or allow ourselves to express any sort of spitefulness.
The next temptation is to say “I’ve blown it. I’ve held a grudge. I’ve been rude. I’ve acted spitefully.” If so – repent! The only way to true healing is through acknowledging your failings. Don’t be afraid to go to Jesus. He already knows your shortcomings. He died on a Cross so that these faults, these very faults which trouble you so, can be forgiven. He is standing with his arms open, yearning for you – “Come! I long to forgive you. Come to me. Ask me. ASK ME!” There are only two things which can prevent Jesus forgiving us: the first is our unwillingness to ask, and the second is our refusal to extend forgiveness to others.
Whatever guilt we carry for our own wrong choices, let us run quickly to the feet of Jesus and exchange our burden of guilt for the free gift of forgiveness. When we receive Holy Communion today, let us also be mindful of how we have received the message of Jesus into our lives.
The offer of the Bread of Life is not costless. It costs our pride – we must admit that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. We must also give up our diffidence that we are unworthy of a share in God’s life. Of course we’re unworthy – and we acknowledge this at every Mass, in the words we speak just before we receive Holy Communion. But this isn’t about what we deserve. This is about real love, God’s deep desire that we accept the gift which Christ came to offer – his Body, given for the life of the world.
Friends, the Word of God places before you again the choice which all Christians must make: Death, or Life. You can choose to hold on to grudges and spiteful instincts. That way lies spiritual death. Or you can give up your old sins, your spitefulness, your grudges, and choose Life – a life worth living on earth, a life centred on giving and receiving love and forgiveness, a life which, though your body may die, will carry you from glory to glory and into the Heart of God. Choose Life – for anyone who eats this Word, this Life, this Bread, will live for ever.