The background to our first Scripture reading for this Sunday (1 Kings 19:4-8), is that it takes place after the prophet Elijah has demonstrated to the Israelites that God, not Baal, is the true God. But since the prophets of Baal were killed, the queen Jezebel seeks revenge, and Elijah flees for his life. Because he has not won over the people like he thought, Elijah considers himself a failure, and asks God to take his life, and falls asleep. But God chooses not to take his life, and instead sends an angel to tell Elijah to get up and eat. Elijah does just that, but lays down again. This time the angel says, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.” Elijah gets up and eats, and “strengthened by that food,” starts out on a journey to “the mountain of God, Horeb.”
To reflect on food giving strength for the journey is a good way, I think, to look at our Gospel reading from John (6:41-51). As we continue listening to the “Bread of Life” discourse, Jesus keeps referring to Himself as “the bread of life.” He says: “Your ancestors ate 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; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Jesus is referring to the sacrifice He will make for our salvation. Later on, the references will be more Eucharistic, but right now, Jesus is trying to get the people to understand who He is for them.
This sacrifice of Jesus demonstrates the incredible love and mercy and grace of God poured out for us. In giving of Himself, Jesus is the food that strengthens us. But strengthens us for what?
I think we find an answer in our second reading (Ephesians 4:30 – 5:2). St. Paul writes: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. 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.” It seems that today “fury,” “shouting and reviling” are seen as signs of strength and fortitude. But are they really? It seems to me that it takes inner strength to be forgiving in a non-forgiving world. Not to say there might not be a place for anger. This is something I read in some Twelve Step literature: “Often, we can only do that [not perpetually being victims] by giving ourselves permission to vent anger as an affirmation of self-worth, and not a contradiction of all we have been taught about being tolerant, forgiving and peace-loving. It is possible to hate the deed but to forgive the doer. We have the right to … be angry at people for their aggressive, hurtful acts, while being ready to forgive them as people who need love as much as we do.”
The sacrifice and love of Jesus strengthens us for the journey towards justice, reconciliation, and peace. Sometimes it seems like too long of a journey, but like Elijah, may we turn from despair, and strengthened by God’s love in Jesus Christ, continue the journey towards the kingdom.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.