2) John 6: The Impossible Need & The Unforeseen Response

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – August 1, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalm 78:3-4, 23-25, 54; Ephesians 417, 20-24; John 6:24-35

John 6: A Review

So as you may remember from last week, we started the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, a five week journey through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. And this entire chapter begins with that very famous scene of Jesus feeding the five thousand. In the midst of that impossible situation there was a completely unforeseen response, a completely unpredictable response.

But it wasn’t just about the miraculous multiplication of food. Remember, that’s why Jesus got upset, and that’s why he’s a little upset in our Gospel today: people focus in on the incredible miracle he performed, but they miss the deeper point. The point is that he isn’t just trying to feed them for the day, he’s trying to point to a deeper hunger he wants to satisfy; a deeper, more impossible situation he wants to respond to. 

That’s the hunger we all feel deep within ourselves, that hunger we feel even to this day. It’s that hunger we talked about where you can have everything—vacations, money, cars, houses, family, jobs—but there’s still that “something” missing, there’s a hunger for “something” else. We are looking: for a freedom; for a gladness, a happiness we cannot seem to find; for the experience of a fulness, not lacking anything. And as we’ll see, that’s why it’s so important that this is all done in the context of the “Jewish feast of Passover.”

Exodus: Passover, the Red Sea, and the Manna

Because the Jewish feast of Passover is not just a celebration of that one day where the Israelites were in Egypt and they ate the lamb and put the blood on the doorpost and the angel of the Lord “passed-over” the house and the people inside were saved. The Passover is the celebration of the entire Exodus event, all of those events that led up to the people entering the promised land. The Exodus story is one impossible situation after another, page after page, and how the LORD came to their assistance in each of these impossible situations. And it’s funny, because in each situation, the people’s great idea, their great plan, their “solution”—is to remain in slavery, or go back to slavery.

At the Passover itself: the impossible situation is leaving Egypt in the first place, because Pharaoh is not about to let his free labor walk. If they try to force their way out—ha, good luck! So they say, “Moses, don’t worry about it. It’s impossible. We might as well stay here. There’s no way we can just leave.” But when they slaughter the lamb, put the blood on their doorposts, eat the lamb—the next day Pharaoh tells them all to leave. And they just walk out.

A few weeks later—and this is one of the most well-known Bible stories—Moses is leading the people out of Egypt, and they find themselves backed up against the Red Sea. And the Egyptian army is pursing them and they are just terrified! Because there’s nothing they can do! It’s impossible. But then Moses says something in Exodus 14:14. The people are complaining and getting pretty sassy: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt? You brought us out here to die? Moses, we could have just stayed in Egypt if all we’re going to do is die anyway!” But Moses turns to them—in the midst of this impossible situation, Moses turns to them and says, “The LORD will fight for you, you have only to be silent.” The LORD will fight for you, you just need to shut up and let him do it. Don’t do anything, let the LORD fight for you. And that’s when the LORD does the  completely unforeseen, completely unpredictable: He parts the Red Sea and the people walk to safety, they are saved. In their minds they only had one option: return to slavery. The best solution they could come up with was, “Ah, we better just go back to slavery.” But the LORD opened up a way for them that they never could have thought of for themselves.

And then it’s that scene from our first reading today. The people are complaining, once again. They are hungry. And they tell Moses, “You know, in Egypt we had food. Meat and bread. Every day. But now, you lead us out here where there’s no food and we’re going to die of hunger! Let’s just go back to Egypt.” Again, here they are, in yet another impossible situation, no food, nowhere to get food. And their best idea? Go back to Egypt, go back to slavery. And once again, in the midst of this impossible situation, the LORD responds in a way that is completely unforeseen, completely unpredictable: He rains down bread and meat. Each day, the LORD literally rains down bread and meat (c.f., Psalm 78). The best solution they could come up with was, “We better just go back to slavery.” But the LORD provided for them in a way they never could have thought of for themselves.

The Work of Believing In the One Sent by the Father

What is at issue in our Gospel today is the exact same thing. We believe the God exists, we believe that Jesus is real—but sometimes, oftentimes, usually we don’t trust that He is going to provide for us, at least not in any real or tangible way. Right? Since we can’t predict or foresee how he’s going to do it, we give up.

Again, that’s the set-up for this Gospel today (which, remember, is during the time of the feast of Passover). In this scene, the people cannot seem to accept that in this impossible situation the LORD can provide a solution; they don’t trust Him. And that’s why Jesus’ big instruction to the people is, “believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Believe in this Jesus, believe that the LORD will work through him in completely unforeseen and unpredictable ways, just as He did before with the people on the Exodus. Believe in this Jesus, trust in this Jesus. Just as the LORD rained down bread, sent bread from the heavens and in a completely unpredictable way and the people were fed, now the LORD sends down this Jesus, he sends this new “bread from heaven.”

This is where the rub is. For us today, here’s the rub. We’re asked to believe, to trust in this Jesus. And yeah, if I had to guess, for most of us, “believing in Jesus,” “trusting Jesus”—when we hear that we usually jump to believing things about Jesus— he was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, rose again”—and we “trust” that if we’re a good person Jesus will take us to Heaven one day when we die. But that’s not what Jesus means when he says to believe in him, to trust in him.

Jesus is saying that in this impossible situation we find ourselves in right now, he can begin to provide a solution, an impossible way forward to this need, to this hunger, to this “something” we are longing for. He can provide food that endures for eternal life.

“Fr. Michael, this is nice, but…”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “Fr. Michael, that’s nice, but come on. Let’s get real. I need to provide for myself now, be a good person, and one day Jesus will take me to heaven.” I get it. As good American Catholics, we’ve been taught to believe and to trust in what we can possess, to believe and to trust in what we can provide for ourselves. The things we believe in and trust are the things that are very predictable, reliable: family, friends, our job, money, our house, our hobbies, politics, Netflix…heck, even our sins: gossip, stuff on our phones, booze, whatever it is. These are the things that are supposed to “get us through” until one day we’re dead and can “go to heaven.”

But we know that those things don’t work. These things are the “Egpyts” we want to go back to. And yeah, they can make things better for a while, but eventually we’re back at square one, we’re back in Egypt. So yeah, we can pretend we’re not in an impossible situation, but denial doesn’t change it.

Let me share an experience of what this can look like, let me back up this ridiculous claim. Two weeks ago I was down at Camp WaJaTo helping with Totus Tuus for the week. And it was a real blessing, because that camp is a powerful moment, a powerful time for the Spirit to work.  Seventh and eighth grade girls were there that week, and there were a bunch of the eighth grade girls from St. Mary in Derby where I was assigned last year, so that was an added blessing. And like most middle school girls, they went into that week pretty skeptical. They had never been to something like that before, they didn’t even know where Lyons, Kansas was, they would rather be at home with their phone and Netflix and their dog, their bed, their shower that actually worked.

And at Totus Tuus, if you’re not familiar with it—Camp Totus Tuus is a crazy week filled with a lot of fun, hanging out, learning about the Faith, yeah. But at it’s core it’s centered around prayer and the Eucharist. And by the time you get to the end of the week, these things have changed you. For the first time, these girls spent a week with their life centered on prayer and the Eucharist, on this “Bread from Heaven”—and in an impossible way, things change. Every day there is Mass, every night there is Adoration. And things change.

One of the girls pulled me aside on the last night. (And we don’t need all the details, but she struggles with things in life, especially the Faith, caught in the ol’ impossible situation of not being able to make herself happy.) But she pulls be aside, and she was confused, and upset…but different. Something had changed. She started off, “Jesus sucks.” And you just have to know this kid. And so I asked, “Why does Jesus suck?” And she fumbled for words. But time and time again, she kept saying, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand. I don’t know what I’m feeling.” And so I just waited. And after a little, she finally realized what she was feeling. And she said, “I don’t understand this. I’m happy. I’m so happy right now. I’ve never been this happy. This is literally the happiest I have ever been in my life. And I don’t know why.”

For the first time, in an intense way, in the most inexplicable and unintelligible way—this girl experienced the way the Lord opens up the path away from our impossible situation…and we can’t even explain how. She experienced a freedom, a gladness, a happiness she could never seem to find. She experienced a fulness, a lack of nothing. And her response? “I don’t want this to change.” In other words, “Give me this bread always.” And just like that, she began to have a reason not only believe certain ideas about Jesus, or that one day she might go to heaven—but a reason to believe and to trust that Lord could do things for her even now, that he could open up a path forward for her even now.

The “Bread From Heaven” Is Given Each Day

And I can share more stories, but here’s the point: The Lord promises us something now. And it’s not something we have to go out and build for ourselves, it’s not a battle we have to fight ourself. “The LORD will fight for you, you have only to be silent.” The Lord promises us  this “something,” he freely gives us this “something.” We have only to receive it.

Day after day, week after week, we are asked to trust in this Jesus, in this “bread from heaven.” To allow him to feed us, to respond to our hunger, our need. He is the bread of life. Whoever goes to him will never hunger, and whoever believes and trusts and adheres to him will never thirst.

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