How will we answer Jesus’ prayer? (fifth in a series on John chapter 6)

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: August 23, 2009
Josh 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21; Eph 5:25-32; John 6:60-69

When you pray, does God answer your prayers? When you ask for something in prayer, do you get an answer? Do you get what you want? Let’s try it out, right now. “Dear Lord, please give me: a Lexus; a convertible; cherry red; 288 horsepower; in my driveway, tomorrow; with no taxes to pay on it, and a full tank of gas. Amen.” So, what do you think? Will the Lexus be in the driveway tomorrow? Or will there be some kind of note from God explaining why it isn’t? Or will I have an empty driveway and a lot of silence?

Or maybe it won’t actually be silence, but God will be saying something to me that I might not be hearing? Maybe there’s really a dialogue going on? Let’s switch the image. You’re driving around this afternoon and you stop at a McDonald’s drive-through. “ Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?” “Yes, I would like a Big Mac; a supersize fries—” “ Sir, we don’t have supersize anymore, not since that ‘Supersize Me’ movie came out.” “Oh, right. Okay, then, a large fries; a large Coke; and an apple pie. And how much will that cost?” “ Sir, we have a special offer today that you might be interested in. I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. This special offer is free; but, in the spirit of full disclosure, if you accept it, I will change your whole life, forever. Would you like our bread of life offer today, sir?” To which you might say, “Who are you?? You don’t sound like a normal McDonald’s clerk. And, um, I think I’ll just stick with the Big Mac, thanks.”

Now, obviously I’m playing around with my prayer examples. How often are we asking for something as luxurious and unnecessary as a red Lexus convertible? Or as trivial as a Big Mac? Well, sometimes. But often it is, “Lord, protect my child from all that threatens him. Lord, heal my mother from her terminal illness. Lord, help me find a job. Lord, free me from loneliness and pain.” And sometimes we receive what we ask for. But sometimes we don’t, and maybe it seems that all we get is silence. But what if we’re just not hearing the other side of the conversation, coming through the drive-through speaker? What if we’re asking for one thing, and being offered something else—something incredible?

Let’s push it further. What if the Lord responds to our prayer with a prayer of his own, directed to us? Do we hear his prayer? Do we answer it?

Today is our fifth and final Sunday in the Gospel of John chapter 6, and we find Jesus and his disciples facing off. And though it’s not obvious at first, they are facing off about unanswered prayer. It might not look like it, because they are standing in the same place and looking right at each other and speaking directly to each other. But requests being made, and whether they get answered, and by whom, is definitely at issue here.

You recall that, four weeks ago, at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, from only five barley loaves and two fish; and they all ate and had their fill. And the Gospel tells us that this was a sign: that, in addition to being the miracle that it was, it also pointed to something greater. The crowd thought they knew what that sign was: that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would feed them many times in this miraculous way, and that he would overthrow the Romans occupying their land. They had prayed for the Messiah to come for years—for centuries! And this was a worthy prayer, for it asked God to fulfill his own promises and to once again save his People with mighty deeds. The crowd wanted this so much that, the next day they got into boats and crossed the sea to find Jesus, and implicitly to ask him: please do these Messianic deeds for us.

But Jesus implicitly says: “No; I have something even better for you.” Yes, he would feed them miraculously, but it would be different: it would lead to eternal life; and what he would give them to eat would be himself. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he told them. And he explained that he would give his own flesh and blood, as true food and … true drink; and that they would remain in him, and he in them. What he was offering was eternal life, and a wholly new relationship between God and his People—such that St. Paul in our second reading compares it to the intimate union between husband and wife. The crowd has presented their prayer to Jesus, and in response he has made a prayer to them.

Does this seem odd? But if we consider what Jesus taught about prayer, we see that this same thing happens: his own prayer comes first. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught [Matt 6:31-33], “Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ … Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” And if we turn to the Our Father [the “Lord’s Prayer”], which we will pray in a few minutes, we notice that of its seven petitions, before we reach the four that are for our own needs, the first three are a matter of hearing Jesus’ prayer and making it our own. (1) Hallowed be thy name—”May your name and your self be held as holy”—in me and in others. (2) Thy kingdom come—in me and in others. (3) Thy will be done—in me and in others. And then we proceed on to the other four petitions for our own needs.

So the crowd in the gospel has presented their prayer to Jesus, and so have we; and in response he has made a prayer to them and us. Will they say yes to Jesus’ prayer? Will we accept his offer? Will they and we enter into this new, amazing covenant relationship with Christ?

It is like the choice that we heard about in the first reading: the People of Israel had arrived in the Promised Land, and begun taking possession of it, and Joshua at the end of his life presented them with a choice. He recited, on and on, in verses that today’s reading omits, all the great things the Lord had done for them. And he says to them, “Decide today whom you will serve.” And they said yes: “We … will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” And that day they renewed their covenant with the Lord.

And now, more than 1000 years later, their descendants are standing face-to-face with the Lord incarnate, Jesus Christ. And he is offering a New Covenant in his own blood, which is so much better than the old covenant. Will they accept? Will they say yes to Jesus’ prayer?

We read: Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening—and take note that it is not “the crowd” in question. No, it is Jesus’ own disciples, those who had been following him, who had heard his teaching and seen his deeds, including the miraculous feeding the day before and his walking on water during the night. Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Not hard to understand; though they could not fully comprehend what Jesus meant about feeding them with himself, they understood enough. No, this saying is hard to accept; demanding; distressing. It isn’t what they have prayed for. It doesn’t fit the space they have made in their lives. For some, it is just too much. And so, the Scripture says, as a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. But not all of them.

What is going on here? Jesus speaks of “the flesh” and “the Spirit”—as a pair of opposing terms that we see elsewhere in the Gospel of John. We should not be confused by the fact that, just a few verses earlier, he has spoken of giving his flesh as true food for the life of the world. He is now using the same word, “flesh,” in a very different way. Here, “the flesh” is a name for the earthly, worldly system that we all know too well. It is all about giving and taking; it only cares about what it can touch, and only believes in what it can see. Of course, “the flesh” calls itself “the real world,” “real life”; it denies that there is anything above itself. The flesh is all about the exchange of the drive-through. It says things like: “I only want your body, not your heart”; “I only want your money, not your soul”; “Give me the Big Mac I ordered, and then get out of my life.”

And all of Jesus’ disciples, and all of us, start out in “the flesh.” As a result of the original sin committed by our first parents, we are born with a separation and a disharmony between us and God, between us and other people, even within our own self. It is strong enough that we don’t know what we need most—not even when Jesus offers it to us. But the Father pours grace into our imprisoned hearts so that we can be drawn out of this, so that we can actually hear what Jesus is saying, and begin to respond to it.

Can you hear the tone in Jesus’ voice as he turns to the Twelve and asks, “Do you also want to leave?” But they are responding to this grace. And Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Somehow, Peter and the others have discovered that they want more than miraculous feedings and military victories and red Lexus convertibles and Big Macs. In Jesus they have seen a truth that they have seen in no one else; they have seen a goodness that they have seen in no one else; they have seen a strength, and a beauty, and a love that they have seen in no one else. They don’t know exactly what he will give; and they don’t know exactly what he will ask. But they know that the way forward is with him, wherever he may lead. And so, like the Virgin Mary, they will say, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Like Jesus himself, they will say, “Thy will be done.”

And what about us? We have made our prayers to God; and some of what we have asked for has been given, and some has not. But have we heard Christ’s prayer to us? Will we answer his prayer? Do you also want to leave? Or, like Peter, will you say, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

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Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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