Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
27 Jul 2021
Rev. Stephen Bevans, SVD

Reading 1: Exodus:16:2-4, 12-15
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54
Reading 2: Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Gospel: John 6:24-35


“The bread is one thing; the Bread is another”

“… be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” This line, from today’s second reading of Ephesians, is one key to understanding our readings today. Paul is talking about how our faith needs to transform us utterly, moving away from the “old self” of our “former way of life” to an embrace “new self” of life in Christ Jesus. Moses is talking about the same thing in his own context: forget the securities of Egypt, as meager as they were, and open up to what God can do for you now. Be fed not from your fleshpots — I imagine here a big pot of steaming stew — and homemade bread, and accept the bread that God will give you on your journey to freedom. Jesus is saying the same thing as well: “do not work for the food that perishes but the food that endures for eternal life,” the food that he will give to those who believe. Renew your minds. Put on a new self, a new way of looking at the world.

Our gospel passage today is the second of four passages that we are reading this July and August that take us through the long and powerful Chapter 6 of John’s gospel. We read the first passage last week (1-15), the story of the feeding of the vast crowd with only five barley loaves and two fish. Today we read the second passage about the bread of life (24-35), and next week we read a third passage in which Jesus becomes more explicit — the bread of life is his flesh, for the life of the world (41-51). The following Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Assumption of Mary, and so we skip a crucial section — verses 52-59. On the Sunday following, however, we conclude our reading of the chapter (60-69) with many of Jesus’ disciples returning to their former way of life (the old self!) because they can’t accept Jesus’ radical teaching. But Peter speaks for the rest: “You have the words of eternal life.”

What John narrates in this chapter is a process of coming to a deeper faith in Jesus — moving away from “fleshpots” and taking up the journey, renewing minds and taking up a new self. In the last line of his reflection last week in Give Us This Day, former Benedictine abbot Jerome Kodell puts it strikingly: “The bread is one thing; the Bread is another” (July 25, 267). Jesus is not just about feeding people with ordinary bread, we read today. People followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee to get more of that kind of “bread,” but Jesus tells them about another “Bread” — being nourished by a relationship with him, faith in God through him, and finding new life in him. Then, in the passage that we read the following week, Jesus speaks about the bread that is his flesh and becomes even more explicit in the passage that we don’t read the next week: unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will not have life in us. Christians will recognize here a reference to the Eucharist, but this idea is too much for many, and so they return to their old selves.

I have often thought that the words about the Eucharist are the climax of Chapter 6, but now I’m not so sure. In many ways, I have come to think that today’s gospel reading presents the heart of Jesus’ message in the chapter. What really nourishes us, gives us life, a “new self,” is Jesus himself. Encounter with Jesus — or better, the Risen Christ — is what the Eucharist offers us. It is a special presence, though, not because Christ is more present but because it is a sacrament of his real presence — we see and taste and feel the bread, drink, and feel the warmth of the wine. But the presence of Christ is also a presence that we encounter, as Vatican II tells us (Document on the Liturgy, 7), in several other ways as well: in the people around us at prayer or at Eucharist, in the presider or leader of prayer, in the Word that is proclaimed, in the people, we relate to every day. Pope Francis says Christ is present in the poor whom we serve — in them we touch the “suffering flesh of Christ.” I think this is what today’s gospel passage tells us, this is what putting on our “new selves” can reveal to us. There is bread, even the bread of the Eucharist, but then there is Bread — the Jesus whom we meet and are nourished by every day.

I’ve begun to think this way because of our experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, where many of us could only experience “spiritual communion.” But spiritual communion is not “only” spiritual communion. It’s the real thing. True, it is not sacramental, but it is just as real a presence as sharing the Eucharistic bread and cup. Listen to what Jesus tells us today: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

As we — at least in the United States, and hopefully in the rest of the world soon — open up more and more and are able to return again to in-person Eucharistic celebrations, let’s not allow the point of today’s gospel reading go by, and let’s allow it to renew our Eucharistic practice. Jesus, the Risen Christ, is the bread of life. Let’s be nourished by that bread as we gather and pray together, as we encounter it in those who lead us in prayer, in the word we proclaim, and in the “liturgy after the liturgy” as Orthodox Christians say — in our daily service to our sisters and brothers, near and far. There is bread; but there is Bread — in many forms. Recognizing this calls us to renew our minds.

Rev. Stephen Bevans, SVD
Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD Professor of Mission and Culture, Emeritus