“All day long” as the first reading tells us, the disciples “did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Christ, Jesus.” How did that come about? Today’s Gospel is John’s version of the multiplication of the loaves of bread, and it serves as a prelude to Jesus’ discourse on His being the bread of life (which will be the focus of the Gospel readings for the next week). It’s worth recalling that John’s version of the Last Supper does not contain the institution narrative that we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Instead, John focuses more on other meal contexts, particularly this one, as the model of Eucharist. In John, this marvelous event is presented not so much as a miracle but as an instance, a foretaste, of what sharing Jesus’ life means. When Jesus says that He gives us His flesh to eat, we need to understand that “flesh” here is Semitic form for “life”. Jesus gives us His life. That’s what empowered the disciples to teach and proclaim, nonstop.
That job which they did in first century Palestine was not a one-time event. The Church is continually being formed, shaped, and built, and it is the job of every Christian today – because we are disciples – to teach and proclaim, as did the first disciples. We are empowered to do so precisely by Jesus’ sharing His life with us.
A recent Pew survey reported that one-third of individuals raised Catholic in the U.S. had left the Church and joined Protestant denominations. The overwhelmingly largest reason for this out-migration was not doctrinal disagreements, but the quality of the Sunday service. They found it unsatisfying and unfulfilling. This is a sobering finding for two reasons. First, liturgy needs to be uplifting and inspiring. The U.S. Bishop’s Commission on the Liturgy had many years ago stressed that liturgy had to be “a humanly attractive experience”. There should be no doubt about that. Still, this Pew statistic is troubling also in that it suggests that, for perhaps too many of us, we come to liturgy as passive recipients, hoping to get something to meet our personal needs.
Contrast that approach with that of Peter and the other disciples in today’s first reading. They had a message to bring to their world. So do we. They had a church to build. So do we. Where we have failed – all of us, clergy and laity alike – is not so much in the consumer mind set we bring to celebration, but in not realizing that the vocation of Christians is not simply to be holy, but to be enthusiastic carriers of a message. Jesus’ life, shared in Baptism and Eucharist, empowers us to do that, just as it empowered the first Christians.
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