Though tragically misguided, the lives and deaths of the late 1990’s cult, Heaven's Gate, were a clear testimony to one thing: the hunger of the human heart for something more, for the transcendent, for God. This Sunday's readings all speak to that hunger, and to the possibility and reality of our connecting with the God who is “out there,” extra-terrestrial, and at the same time present and evident in our ordinary lives.
Let's begin with the Second Reading (from Ephesians), which is so brief and densely packed that it could easily be overlooked. Up to this point in the letter, the author has been spelling out the practical implications of the worldwide unity of baptized Christians, who are “members one of another.” As in all the rest of the New Testament's moral exhortation, the message is simple: be who you are! For Paul—or the person summarizing his thought in his name—being the body of Christ has practical consequences: “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” Being members of one another in a unity called the body of Christ—this is to find oneself on the receiving end of divine forgiveness. Not to pass on that forgiveness is to violate a relationship initiated by God. That is familiar enough from the Gospel teaching of Jesus, as, for example, in his parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:21-25; see Mk 11:25). But our author follows that with a sentence impossible to understand apart from the realities of Good Friday and Easter: “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Second Reading).
This astounding way of talking presents of vision of faith that is meant to motivate all Christian behavior. We are familiar with traditional language about imitating Christ, which is daunting enough. But imitation of God? How does a mere creature relate to that mandate?
Just the way it says in the letter, by imitating the self-offering of Christ. In other words, the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross was not, as some have thought, the appeasement of an angry God; Jesus' self-offering is itself an outpouring of divine love—an offering to God which is also an offering from God. And the secret of living life in harmony with the love of God is to live a life of self-offering service. This is where belief in the divinity of Christ impacts our moral life.
It parallels exactly what Paul says when he urges the Philippians to serve another in a way that mirrors the “emptying-out” of the incarnation and death of Jesus (Phil 2:1-11), and when he exhorts the Corinthians to imitate the generosity of Jesus: “for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christian life is not just the imitation of a good man. It is the response to and imitation of divine love made flesh and expressed in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The readings from 2 Kings and John deal with this same theme of our very human lives as an adventure with the transcendent God. The prophet Elijah, in his dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal (confirmed by the ensuing fireworks and incinerated bulls), has just staked his life on his faith in Yahweh as the one creator of all. This arouses the ire of Jezebel, sponsor of those now-deceased prophets, who is bent on murdering Elijah. Elijah flees for his life by heading toward the sacred mountain Horeb (Sinai). Like his ancestor Moses, he is sustained by divinely given food and drink for forty days in his desert journey. This will end with God's communication in a “still, small voice,” which will send him back into political engagement with the anointing of Jehu as king. The quest for the transcendent God typically sends people back into the nitty gritty of involvement in life around them.
In the Gospel reading, when Jesus announces himself as “bread from heaven” to the seekers after signs, he is presenting himself as the divine food that will satisfy their deeper hunger, the hunger for a life involved with the transcendent God of all. Jesus is the revelation of the invisible Father, providing access to eternal life here and now. The final chapters of this Gospel will show how authentic living is nothing more, and nothing less, than laying down one's life in the service of others in the manner of Jesus' service with towel and basin.
Dennis Hamm, SJ