Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with Exodus almost immediately after God destroyed the Egyptians who pursued them to return them to slavery. Instead of gratitude and awe, the newly freed slaves said this: “Why did we not die at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we were able to sit down to pans of meat and could eat bread to our heart’s content! As it is, you have brought us to this wilderness to starve this whole company to death!” But the Lord promised Moses to rain down bread from the heavens with the instruction that each morning they only gather one day’s portion. The next morning after the dew lifted they saw “a thing delicate, powdery, as fine as hoarfrost on the ground.” When they asked Moses what it was, he replied that it was “the bread the Lord gives you to eat.” John’s Gospel picks up shortly after where last week’s left off. The morning after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Jesus and his disciples were not to be found. Those gathered found Jesus on the other side of the lake and asked him where he came from. Jesus responded that they sought him because they had their fill of the loaves, but they should instead seek “food that remains unto life eternal, food which the Son of Man will give you.” The reading ends with this: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.”
Last week I preached on the role of servant leadership against the backdrop of providing enough food for all those gathered. Today’s readings continue the theme of providing the food we need, but it shifts the focus back to God.
From the time I was a teenager I found the first reading wryly amusing. The Hebrew slaves spent generations crying for liberation under the oppressive rule of the Egyptians; anyone who has seen the 1956 movie The 10 Commandments remembers a dying slave who proclaimed that death was better than a life in bondage.
But when their dreams were realized and they were finally liberated from bondage, they turned on God and Moses with a retroactive nostalgia for their previous life. Their fear of journeying in a wilderness that couldn’t provide enough to keep them alive surpassed their faith in God. And God, instead of abandoning them or returning them to Egypt, gave them what they needed. We know this as “manna from heaven” and it’s become a metaphor for “those things we need that we cannot provide ourselves.”
It’s worth reading the rest of Exodus 16 because it’s obvious that God provided more food than they needed to get through the day but they were expected to only take a day’s portion. Those who took more than they needed found that the next morning the excess had rotted overnight.
The idea of surplus food continues in today’s Gospel. Remember last week when Phillip told Jesus there was no way they could feed those gathered? And remember when they were finished feeding the crowd, not only was everyone fed but there were twelve baskets of surplus bread? There’s a theme here: God does not provide for the few, or even those gathered, but instead God provides more than we need.
These promises take on a whole new meaning when we recognize the Eucharistic foreshadowing in John’s Gospel. I’ve spoken before about how fear of starvation has occupied much of human history and how difficult it may be to understand this from our perspective. When Jesus showed those gathered that he had the “magic bag” that never emptied, it’s not hard to imagine that his followers wanted to stay near him. This “magic bag” didn’t fall victim to bad crop years, fires, floods, or droughts.
But in today’s reading Jesus didn’t talk about a “magic bag” but of something much more valuable. Jesus talked about the “bread of life” that would not provide nutrition for this life, but nutrition for eternal life. Our reverence for Eucharist rises from these reasons and whenever (and wherever) we receive Communion we participate in the promise that Jesus made.
Except when we don’t. If these readings teach us anything they teach us that God’s desire to feed us has no limits. When God rained manna down everyone was included. When Jesus fed the crowds with the loaves and fishes everyone was included. And when Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper everyone was included. No exceptions.
Alas, it didn’t last. By the Middle Ages many believers received Communion only yearly or less. By the early and middle 20th Century in the United States it was commonly believed that you couldn’t receive Communion at Sunday mass unless you had gone to confession on Saturday night (and ate or drank nothing from midnight until mass). These restrictions were never official Catholic doctrine but they were believed to serve reverence for the Eucharist and most of us followed it.
But reserving Eucharist to only those who qualify runs against what we read here. Economics teaches us that a commodity increases in value when there is more demand than supply. If Eucharist is finite than only those who best deserve it should be granted it. Those who oppose abortion and birth control, who send their children to Catholic school, who’s child has chosen religious life, etc. They get to cut to first in line and are guaranteed a place in the Kingdom.
I don’t think this is true, and neither does Pope Francis. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) published in 2013 he said this about the Eucharist: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
For too long we’ve dangled the Eucharist in front of good people and manipulated them to do what we want. We’ve darkly hinted the false idea that there is only so much of it and we (mostly the clergy) get to decide who deserves to receive. We’ve made elaborate rules to restrict who can receive. Couples in the 1960s cowered and prayed nobody would notice that they didn’t receive, knowing that they used artificial birth control. A friend of mine taught in a high school seminary in the 1970s and noticed that every morning at 6 a.m. daily mass half a dozen seminarians didn’t receiving Communion until they set up a confession line at 5:45 a.m. allowing them to confess to the sin of masturbation which would allow them to receive Communion.
Let’s stop doing that. I was ordained a Catholic priest on May 14, 1994, a day that I will never forget. During Communion I was faced with someone who I knew wasn’t Catholic. To her credit she got in line because everyone else ahead of her did, and she just did what they did. I knew she wasn’t Catholic and according to the rules I wasn’t supposed to give her Communion. But I did anyway for one reason: If I faced God the next day and was called to justify my action I decided I would rather tell God that I was more generous with the Eucharist than not generous enough. I didn’t think my giving Communion to her would devalue it, but instead it would celebrate the abundance of manna in Exodus, loaves in John, and Eucharist in my life.
I hope I’m right, but I think I am. Let’s be generous.