Thursday in the Third Week of Easter: Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40, John 6:44-51.
Today’s readings describe the action by which we find salvation in Jesus Christ, and it starts by being first drawn by the Father. St. John gives us Jesus’s description of this action in the Discourse of the Bread from Heaven, and the Acts of the Apostles provides a concrete example in the Ethiopian eunuch master of the treasury.
Let’s start with the gospel. This is the end of the Discourse of the Bread from Heaven in John that we have been reading all week. Let’s recall that this discussion with the crowds begins with a provocation by them. They ask Jesus for a sign so that they can believe that He is the Chosen One from God. They say, “What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness …” as a way to bring up Moses’s greatness in comparison. This gives Jesus the impetus for discussing bread from heaven. He reminds them that it was not Moses, but God the Father who provided the manna, and that the bread God provides in the form of his Son is bread that does more than just fill your belly: this bread provides everlasting life.
At His words, the crowds grumble, murmur, whisper, express discontent (the Greek word used is egongyzon). In the verse prior to the ones we hear today, they say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus does not take offense. We’ve already seen Him deal with this same type of disbelief in His hometown of Nazareth (see the reflection A Prophet in His Own Land). His response simply turns their questioning back on themselves. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” In other words, if you’re really wondering about the truth of what I’m telling you, search first for the Father in yourself. In the next verse, He quotes Isaiah 54:13: “They shall all be taught by God,” and in so doing demonstrates that His coming — and their acceptance of it — has been set up throughout the history of their people. If they had listened to the prophets and more importantly the Father, they would have no question in their hearts about what he’s saying. There would be no egongyzon.
I love the phrase Jesus uses to describe how the Father works: He draws us. For the Jews, God had been working for millennia through the prophets, the judges, the kings, and the multitude of signs and wonders He gave them. His many covenants with the Jewish patriarchs were meant to draw the Jewish nation to Him, in heart and mind. By quoting the prophets, Jesus is reminding them of God’s active role in drawing them to Him.
But God draws all of humanity, at all points in history. This is evident most plainly in the beauty that we encounter in the world. Whether the sublime beauty of a rainbow or mountain range or the artistic beauty of a painting or cathedral, beauty itself is the creative gift of God in the world. We have a gut-like reaction to something outside of us. Whatever the beautiful thing is, it is fundamentally outside of us and fills us with a sense of wonder and appreciation for something other. Beauty is an antidote for self-absorption, one of the steps required as we encounter holiness. As we embrace and encounter beauty, we inevitably open ourselves up, specifically in the direction of wonder and appreciation, and these are attributes of the “awe” of God and the “fear” of God. Beauty is a mode by which God pulls and draws us to Him.
I don’t think that beauty is the only way God draws us to Him (as the medieval scholastics amply laid out, goodness and truth are equally “transcendent” qualities found in God and in creation that draw us to Him), but I particularly like it. What’s so interesting about beauty, what’s so Catholic about it, is that it operates concretely in the world but at the same time clearly points to something that’s difficult to describe … for lack of a better word, something spiritual. The Catholic faith, like beauty, is firmly grounded in the world (it does not see the body as evil) yet equally embraces the spirit and the indescribable (i.e., God). If the core description of beauty is that something earthly and created exists in a way that points to something transcendent and spiritual, then Jesus Christ is the ultimate beauty, precisely because this body-pointing-to-heaven movement is made so transparent.
In today’s reading, Jesus clarifies that not only is being drawn to God a prerequisite to coming to Him, but in fact an inevitability: “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” This action of first being drawn to the Father and then finding your way to Christ is illustrated in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This reading is a lovely portrayal of how God is the mover of all things, especially when one is open to receiving Him and doing His will. In this chapter from Acts, we discover that the apostle Philip was a mighty evangelist for Christ. First, he performs exorcisms, healings, and baptisms in Samaria, where he gathers a great following. Then, “the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip,” and commanded him to take a road south from Jerusalem, which he does at once. Note a few things here: Philip does not argue with the urgings of the Lord (via an angel) but is happy to go where he is sent. Second, this is the state of the Apostolic Church after Pentecost: one in body, mind, and spirit with the Lord, actively being led by the Spirit. This is the reign of God on earth, and the incredible spread of His Church is the fruit.
Philip is encouraged to approach an Ethiopian eunuch from the court of the Queen of Ethiopia. We learn some key facts about him: he has access to the entire wealth of the kingdom, being in charge of her treasury; he is curious and adventurous in the world, traveling to Jerusalem to see the holy city and worship; and he is learned enough to have procured scrolls containing the prophecies of Isaiah. In short, here is a man who has been drawn to the Father. He seeks out the truth and goodness of the holy city of which the entire region knows, he is drawn to further study Jewish holy texts even though he is an outsider to Judaism. Where will the Father take this man now that he has been drawn?
Philip eagerly obeys the Spirit and “ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet.” This man has even learned to read and speak Hebrew! Philip asks if he understands what is being prophesied and the man wisely says he needs a teacher, so he invites Philip into the chariot with him. Being drawn to the Father, he is not suspicious of this solo Jew wandering in the desert but opens himself up, inviting interaction, displaying courage and honesty. The passage is none other than Isaiah’s prophecy of the Savior’s Death:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.
And here we perceive an even deeper drawing in of Philip, in addition to the Ethiopian man. God speaks through Isaiah directly to Philip: Who will tell of his posterity? And again through the Ethiopian man: “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?” God’s work is never complete, but constantly in action, spilling out His message of love and salvation over and over, through the liturgy, through the mouths of the faithful, and to the ears of the faithful and uninitiated alike.
It’s a fantastic recounting that “Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this Scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.” Certainly, it could have simply said, “Philip proclaimed Jesus to him.” But it is important to note that this was a recounting of salvation history that the Word of God proclaimed through prophets for millennia, culminating in Christ. And it is an important note that the Word of God is an active force (through the Spirit) even now because Philip is just a vessel, a man who opens his mouth, while the true agent of the action is the implied Word of God, the divinity that spills forth from Philip. Where does the “drawing in” action of God lead humanity? Directly to Jesus Christ, as He says in the gospel reading, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”
And the eunuch, bless his soul, receives the Word of God and believes with an immediacy that would make the skeptical Jews who actually met Jesus blush: “the eunuch said, ‘Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?'” Wow! That’s some effective catechism, Philip! And Philip baptizes him with water, signaling the repentance of the man’s sins and willingness to enter into a new reality with Christ. Some of the best bits of this joyful story happen after this baptism: “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away [to Azotus on the Mediterranean coast], and the eunuch saw him no more, but continued on his way rejoicing.” The Spirit, ever active during the establishment of the Church, whisks Philip away to the cool coast for more evangelical work. The eunuch, likely suitably amazed, continues on his way, “rejoicing.” How fantastic that his heart is filled with joy at this encounter and baptism — God responded to his being “drawn in” by providing an overwhelming and overflowing grace. And let us not forget that this is the master of the treasury in Ethiopia, symbolic of the conversion of Gentile power to the true source of power in the world.
This is the activity of God: to provide for us through a gradual unfolding of Himself that culminates in the form of his Son in the flesh, an inexhaustible mystery, an inexhaustible font of grace and blessing, a gateway back to the Father, the source of the liturgy that always continues to provide for us until the end of time. Note that this is not a willy-nilly grace or a mercurial God! He shows us over and over how this was carefully planned, heralded in the days of the prophets and the Jewish patriarchs, carefully seeded in the virgin womb of the perfect Mother as he entered history in the fragile form of a baby. All of this was planned and pre-ordained as a way to prepare humanity to accept the gift of Christ that transforms the world. Now imagine being that gift, the Christ, and trying to explain to the “stiff-necked” Chosen People the import of your ministry.
Back to our gospel reading, Christ attempts to meet them on their level and put things in terms of the manna-from-Moses history they first brought up, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” To me (and probably you), this seems clear as day. But we have the hindsight of the initiated, those who have inherited millennia of Christology that began when Christ explained to his apostles in the upper room and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” (Lk 24:45-49) and to the disciples going to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). As a small side note, I strongly disagree with theologians who claim that a highly-developed Christology such as we find in the gospel of St. John was developed later, in the century following Christ’s death — these passages from Luke and similar ones in the other gospels show us that Christ Himself gave the apostles this understanding of His importance to the world. But the Jews who heard his words in today’s gospel had no benefit of the Resurrection and Christ’s teaching thereafter. The “living bread come down from heaven,” what does this mean when you’re a man standing in front of us?
So Jesus makes it explicit: “whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.” In tomorrow’s reading, we’ll hear how the astounded Jews questioned him about this eat-my-flesh statement and how He doubles down and explains “my Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink.” We’ll also hear how “many of his disciples” leave him because of this “hard” teaching. In today’s reading, he firmly establishes two facts: 1) the living bread come down from heaven grants eternal life, and 2) this bread has a fundamentally sacrificial quality where his very flesh will be sacrificed for the life of the world. Thus, there is a transactional quality to his fleshly sacrifice, like the sin offerings that the Jews had been performing for God for millennia. The difference is that this sacrificial offering will provide eternal life while the former ones done with lambs only remitted the sins of the people for a moment of purification.
Jesus is providing a teaching about the nature of our Triune God. Each Person of the Trinity perpetually offers the gift of Himself to the other Persons in the Trinity. This outpouring of self in love is the very definition of the Trinity. God draws us to the Son. The Son, in turn, offers Himself back to God. When Jesus says “the bread that I will give,” His gift is to God first, “for the life of the world,” and then also for us as we sacramentally recall and enact this once-and-forever sacrifice in our Mass. My point is that Jesus must teach us about His relationship with the Father while telling us about our own salvation. The sequence of saving action He shares with us is this: first, the Father draws us to Him, second, a natural and inevitable result of being drawn to the Father is to believe in Jesus Christ, His Son, and third, we enter into the divine relationship of love between the Father and the Son through the liturgy when we sacramentally Eat his Flesh and Drink his Blood. We can ponder elsewhere how this devouring of the bread from heaven is a transformational act for our bodies and our souls, a way to physically bring Christ to our bodies while accepting the Spirit into our souls, all in adoration and awe of the Father. But here, let’s ponder that each of these stages of entering into the reign of God demands our free will, choice, and acceptance of the gifts being offered to us. It is our choice to be drawn to God and not resist it. It’s our choice to believe in the Son as we understand that all of the Father’s work in the world points to the Son (just as the Ethiopian eunuch believes). And it is our choice to enter into the liturgy, to join the one, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church.
Blessed are we to learn of God’s plan, to have access to the divine relationship of love here and now, and in entering this divine relationship, to transform the world around us with love!