12 Aug 2018
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
It was time for recess, so the kids went outside to play. But four of the kids, instead of going to play kickball, went over to an old tree stump by the baseball field. And when they got there, they each took a pen and “carved” their initials into the top of the stump. They’d obviously planned it out beforehand, because then they each raised their right hand and said an oath of friendship to one another.
And from that day on they called each other “the Stumpers.” And as they grew up, they always remembered the stump and their promise of friendship to another. And the very first Christians did something similar—not around an old stump. But they did take an oath—of a sort, a pledge to one another and to Christ. And they even had a name for their group; they were “followers of the Way.” We hear about that often in the Acts of the Apostles: those who “belonged to the Way.”
And “the Way” was, of course, Jesus, who called himself, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But “the Way” was also an oath. It was a promise to be one with their fellow Christians; it was a pledge to live in a certain way; guided by certain standards, values, and beliefs. And we hear some of those today from Saint Paul.
First off, he calls them “brothers and sisters.” Now, it’s not just a pleasant greeting—it’s part of the experience of being “a follower of the Way.” Kind of like the kids at the stump: “brothers and sisters of the stump”—except here it’s “brothers and sisters of the Way,” “brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling” must not be part of the community. “Be kind to one another, compassionate;...be imitators of God...and live in love.” That’s all part of the “oath” they swore to one another, and Saint Paul was just reminding them of that. And, of course, each of us belongs to “the Way” as well.
We have our rituals, just like the Stumpers. We have our “rules,” and we have our set of standards, values, and beliefs. We have an identity that’s centered on Jesus Christ; it’s why we call ourselves “Christians.” And we take an oath to be a brother or sister to every other Christian, in every place; that’s why we call ourselves “Catholic”—we’re part of a big group of Christians friends called the Catholic Church, the “universal” Church, the “all-encompassing” Church.
And if you’re wondering exactly when you took that oath...it was at Baptism. It was reaffirmed at Confirmation. And it’s renewed every time we receive the Eucharist. And just think of the Creed—what could be a more perfect oath but when we each say, “I believe...” Each of us—because of our belief in Jesus and our faith in what he claims to be true—each of us is still today a member of “the Way.”
But, as we know, sometimes (oftentimes) “the Way” is a hard road to follow. It’s part of what the Prophet Elijah experienced. We heard that “he prayed for death, saying: ‘This is enough, O Lord!:’” I cannot take it anymore. “Lord, I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but these people are just driving me nuts!” “Lord, I know I’m supposed to pray in times of temptation, but sometimes temptation gets the better of me.” “Lord, I try to be Christian to others, but they just laugh at me, or they tell me to get lost.”
Sometimes (oftentimes) “the Way” is a hard road to follow—and God knows that. I mean, just think of the Crucifixion; God knows “the Way” isn’t always a pleasant journey. And that’s why he gives us food along the way. It’s like when you watch a marathon; the runners don’t just go from start to finish without anything to sustain themselves. They’re always eating and drinking. They set up little stations all along the way to make sure the runners can stay strong.
And God does that, too. He sets up little stations along the way to make sure we can stay strong as “followers of the Way.” And there are lots of stations he sets up to feed us. Things like: devotional prayers, music and art, downtime so we can just be quiet with him. He sets up the Church community as a way to feed us and sustain us. And at the heart of this community of “followers of the Way” is the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is very...special. It’s food, but it’s not just any food; it’s God himself. When people are dying and they ask for “the last rites,” we go to them and give them the Eucharist. And that’s because they’re asking for Jesus; they want Jesus to be with on “the Way.” And what better person to ask for than Jesus, who is “the Way, (the Truth, and the Life”). In fact, when we give the Eucharist to someone who’s dying, it’s called “viaticum,” a Latin word which means, “I am with you on the way.”
The Eucharist is very special; it’s the “bread of life,” “food for the journey”—God himself. Some of you may have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings. He was a Roman Catholic, and his stories often reflect his faith and beliefs. And one item in particular reflects his approach to the Eucharist; it was a bread he called “lembas.”
Lembas bread was made into thin cakes; it’s nourishing and it stays fresh for a very long time. And it was taken as food on very long journeys. It’s why lembas is also called “waybread,” or “bread for the Way.” But, as with the Eucharist, lembas is very...special. Only the Elves can make it, and exactly how it’s made is a closely guarded secret. The lembas bread is bitter to any evil creature, so they avoid at all costs. And, only rarely is lembas bread given to a non-Elf. It’s not your ordinary food.
And that’s how we can approach this miracle we call the Eucharist. It’s not like any other food. We don’t give it out to just anybody passing by. It’s reserved for those who are “followers of the Way.” And that’s not just child’s play, or a “rule of the kid’s clubhouse.” The specialness of the Eucharist has been part of “the Way” (the Church) since...forever.
Saint Justin Martyr said in the year 155 AD, “This food we call ‘eucharist,’ and no one may share it unless he or she: believes that our teaching is true, has been cleansed in the bath of forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and lives as Christ taught. For we do not receive these things as if they were ordinary food and drink” [Apologia I 66,1-2]. The Eucharist has always been for those who are “followers of the Way.” It’s a privilege and a humbly honor to be called to eat and drink here at the altar of God.
But, you know, as much as the Eucharist is for us “followers of the Way,” we also want others to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” in the Eucharist. And that’s what the Lord wants, too. Receiving the Eucharist doesn’t end with us; it doesn’t stop here. The Church doesn’t have a big “no vacancy” sign out front. We want others to join us, to be “followers of the Way.” Whether or not others accept the invitation is their own decision. But we still offer the invitation to come see what our way of life is all about.
And, sometimes, the best invitation is to just be an authentic “follower of the Way” ourselves; to live the values we profess, to put into practice what we believe, and to take full advantage of all the food and nourishment God gives us, especially the Eucharist, the Bread of Life—the center of our life.