19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Many of you have read Matthew Kelley’s book the Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. Often when I recommend the book to people I will warn them that the message found in the initial pages might be a bit depressing. It is the section which noted the statistics on the apparently small percentage of Catholics are very engaged in the life of the Church. I give a similar warning when I recommend that people read Shirley Waddel’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Early on she noted the small percentage of Catholics (and others) who identify themselves as having a personal relationship with God. It is the kind of relationship that calls for and directs one to become an intentional disciple. An intentional disciple is one who is clear of their personal choice, their decision, to be a true follower of Jesus Christ. And such discipleship necessarily includes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Perhaps I am naive in my surprise that many people do not identify themselves as having a personal relationship with God, with Jesus. It isn’t that they don’t believe. It is that they don’t claim to experience a relationship with God. When I think back to my childhood I recall thinking of God and praying to God as real personal experiences. As I grew up there was less of a sense of that, at least much of the time. I simply chalked that up to all the distractions of growing up. As a young adult I did have what I describe as a distinct religious experience which was, at the heart, an overwhelming confirmation of the reality and presence of God in a personal way. Like all relationships, I am not always as attentive and participatory in the relationship as I should be. But when I speak to Jesus, when I speak to God, I have no doubt I am speaking to someone who hears me and is interested in me and speaks back to me, albeit in subtle and indirect ways. Most especially when I celebrate the Mass I am conscious that I am speaking directly to the God who while dwelling in our hearts is beyond as well, dwelling in heaven, reaching out and watching and listening, welcoming our praise.
In the Gospel today we have another segment of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse from St. John’s Gospel. Today’s verses zero in on the relationship with Jesus that His listeners were called to embrace. Having fed the multitude and promised a new spiritual daily bread that would feed people onto eternal life Jesus finally identified Himself as that Bread of Life. In today’s passage Jesus asserted His divinity as one who came down from heaven and the one united to the Father in drawing people to Himself so that they could be raised unto eternal life. And belief, belief in Him, is identified as the cause of one’s ability to enter into that eternal life.
The personal presence of Jesus and the opportunity for relationship was not a question for those who experienced Jesus in the flesh when He walked upon the earth. The apostles and those who heard the discourse we have been reading saw Jesus with their eyes and heard Him with their ears. They could as readily reach out and touch Him. The challenge for them was to realize, to believe that the person with whom they interacted was God in human flesh. The challenge for us is to recognize that the God, the divine Jesus we believe in is one with whom we interact, with whom we can and should have a personal relationship. Indeed it is different. It does require faith that when we speak He really hears, and He sees us and loves us throughout our days and nights. We have to reach beyond a Jesus who lived at a particular time in history, beyond the Jesus who is source of teaching and redemption, reach beyond a concept, or power, or force and open ourselves to personal encounter that calls for engagement of something deeper than our senses.
What does it take to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, a personal relationship with God? It is like all other relationships, it takes interest, time and effort with the addition of faith. Like any relationship we should try to get to know God better through reading His word and those who write about Him. We should spend time communicating with Him as we do in our daily prayer. It is prayer that speaks to God and takes the time to settle the mind and soul so as to hear Him speak to our heart. It is a prayer that should simply ask: “Lord, help me to know you better.” We should do things with Jesus, with God. That’s what we do today, we join Jesus in His great offering to the Father. And as we go through our day we should welcome Jesus as our co-worker when we try to be a little more patient with others, when we know that we should reach out to someone with generosity and care.
As I noted there is a certain challenge in that we cannot see, hear and touch God in the way that we can with one another. But God does recognize our sensual needs. That is why He gave us the sacraments. In each sacrament through a combination of words, actions and material substance the divine Jesus Christ interacts with us. He shares His life with us for some specific enrichment. The sacraments are not mere symbols of Jesus reaching out to us, they are the very act of His reaching out.
As we will explore next week, in the Eucharist Jesus not only interacts with us, to feed us with His Body and Blood, He becomes present in a way that lingers so that we turn to Him in prayerful adoration, here in our church night and day. What an awesome privilege it is to be with Him today. “Thank you Jesus.”