What can separate us from the love of Christ?
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. August 1, 2020
Dear friends, Welcome! Those of you who have been following the pre-recorded Sunday Masses since March have been able to see Fr. Lloyd and me as we preside at Eucharist, but it is good to see your faces (well, at least your eyes!) and for us to be able to pray together, hear the word of God together, and at long last, receive communion together!
We come together for Mass in order to be nourished – at the twin tables of God’s Word in Scripture, and the table of the Bread of Life which is the Eucharist. Because it appears in all four Gospels, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes – and the Bread of Life discourse that follows it in the Gospel of John – is a frequent homily topic in these summer months.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we learn that great crowds followed Jesus to a deserted place where he had withdrawn – presumably to get away from them! You can almost hear him thinking, “Oh no, them again!” Full of compassion, because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”, Jesus healed their sick and taught them at length. At the end of the day, the disciples remind Jesus that it’s getting late, and that it’s time to send the crowds home for dinner. Then Jesus says something unexpected – and disturbing: "They need not go away. You give them something to eat."
Put yourselves in the position of the disciples. What is going through their minds? “He can’t be serious. We only have five small loaves and two fish. That’s barely enough for us, let alone everyone else.” But Jesus is adamant: take what you have, bring it to me, offer it, and then share it. Trust in me to do the rest.
What Jesus said to his disciples all those years ago, he says to us today. For we also look around us, around our world, and we see so much hunger, and never enough food; so many needs, and so few resources to meet them. So many hungers in our world - for food and shelter, for love and friendship, for consolation and healing, for justice and equality! And lurking just beneath all of these, a hunger for God, for transcendence, for a meaning and purpose to our lives. The needs seem infinite, completely beyond us - and yet Jesus invites each of us to bring all that we have, and use it to nourish others.
Jesus tells us that what we have to share, small and insignificant though it may seem, does make a difference. And that when we entrust it to God, things which seem impossible begin to happen. This is what it means to not only receive the Eucharist, but to celebrate it: in order to truly “become what we receive,” Christ’s Body, we too need to offer ourselves to be taken, blessed, broken, and shared.
Each of the readings for this Sunday help us to understand this reality from a different angle. If we have responsibility for others – as a parent, or teacher, or work supervisor, or ministry leader – we probably relate most readily with the apostles: the pressure of not knowing what to do with this huge crowd, the sense that what we have to offer seems totally inadequate, the temptation to just run away, or to rely only on my own resources, chopping that bread and fish so fine it all turns to mush. When I am tempted to rely only on myself, Jesus says: “Bring it to me. You can’t do this all by yourself. Let me in.”
However, if we read this Gospel through the lens of our first reading, Isaiah’s invitation to “come to the water”, then we experience it from the point of view of those coming to be fed. We hear God say to us: “let everyone who thirsts come to the water. Let those who are hungry come and be satisfied.” I encounter a God who desires to nourish me, who cares for my every need, who answers my deepest human desires – of body and mind, of heart and soul. God calls all of us to this depth of relationship. This is echoed in the words of the Psalmist, who tells of a God “who opens his hands to feed us, who answers all our needs, who is slow to anger and rich in mercy, who is just in all his ways and kind in all his deeds.”
Then, we have that amazing second reading. Because the lectionary organizes these readings sequentially rather than thematically (chosen specifically to go with the Gospel, as is the Old Testament reading), homilists often ignore them, finding it easier to speak about the Gospel and tie in the first reading. But it's impossible to let a reading like today's go by without highlighting it. For the last six or seven weeks, we have been hearing excerpts from St. Paul's letter to the Romans. And just as a great film or novel builds to a powerful climax, as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony bursts forth into the great chorus of the "Ode to Joy", St. Paul builds his reflection on what it means to be led by the Spirit of God, to embrace what it is to be a son or daughter of God, to a soaring rhetorical question: “What can separate us from the love of Christ?"
And just in case we couldn't come up with any answers of our own, Paul comes up with about sixteen possibilities: hardships, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, perils, the sword; death, life, angels, rulers, the present, the past, the future, earthly powers, heights and depths. Every possible obstacle to God's grace, every conceivable human and spiritual struggle is identified. It all builds to a rousing conclusion: "Nothing – no-thing – rien – niente – nada! can separate us from the love of Christ!”" Today, Paul might add, “not even a global pandemic, nor Covid-19!”
We face many struggles in our walk of faith, many obstacles as we journey through life. As we have endured through this pandemic together, we have experienced new ones: isolation, fear, uncertainty, racism, age-ism, illness, unemployment, addiction, insecurity, grief, neglect, betrayal, confusion. St. Paul assures us that no matter what pain or struggle - in our lives, in our nation, in our world - the power of Christ, in his life, death and Resurrection, can and will triumph overall. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. Even my own refusal to accept God's love cannot change that basic fact. God just can't and won’t give up on us. Nothing can take that away from us. What is in my power is whether or not I choose to welcome that love, to embrace it, to live out of it, to share it.
Once we realize this, a huge burden is lifted from our shoulders. We don't have to earn God's love. God doesn't love us, feed us, care for us because he owes us, because of anything we have done. God loves us for who we are; God loves us because God is who He is. In Jesus, God's love became tangible, visible in a new and total way. He shows us the way. He feeds us not because we deserve it, but because he loves us. That makes all the difference in the world!
This helps us to see today's Gospel in a new light. Most of us, faced with the task of feeding five thousand people, would probably panic. All we would see is the impossibility of the task, all the potential obstacles. Believe me, as the deconfinement committee went through all the challenges of the gradual reopening of the Church for Mass, taking into account all of the health and social distance limitations, we sometimes felt that way!
The temptation is to lose hope; we throw up our arms and give up, or we develop ulcers. Instead, let us look at Jesus. He refuses to be drawn into fear and anxiety. Jesus takes what is given him, gives thanks to God for it, enlists the help of his friends, shares it out generously. And there was more than enough to go around.
So must it be with us. As we come before the Lord today, let us give thanks for all that he has given us - even on those days when it doesn't seem like enough. Let us confide our fears and anxieties to him, knowing that he is our sure support and our strength. Let us offer him not only all that we have, but everything we are. Let us be willing to share not only the goods we possess, but the goodness which God has planted deep within us. And having shared generously of our gifts, let us now trust in God's power to multiply our efforts as we share in his task of healing and feeding the world.
You open your hand to feed us, Lord; you answer all our needs!