Les Disciples d'Emmaus, Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651), 1622;  Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

Fr Neil’s homily for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 1 August 2021

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.¹

This is the incredible answer Christ gives to the question, “What must we do, to be doing the work of God?” The answer is most peculiar: it is not the first thing that might spring to mind when thinking of the works of God that we ought to be doing. One might think of feeding the poor, looking after the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, caring for the homeless, the aged, the unborn or even to evangelise the world, yet the answer was none of these.

It is not that any of these activities around the social gospel or the missionary activities of the Church are unimportant, because elsewhere in the gospels we find Christ extolling the necessary virtues of these activities for his disciples.

The fact that Christ gives this unexpected answer to the question should make us sit up and listen. Christ does not waste words and all that he says is significant. If however we miss what he has to say here, we might unintentionally go astray and also mislead others.

What Christ is saying is that the work of God begins not with activity, but with belief in the one whom God has sent. Christ is clearly saying that belief in him is fundamental above anything else. Christ begins by telling his listeners not to confine their desires to earthly things alone because it will never satisfy their deepest needs. Our Lord rather tells them to ‘work for the food that endures to eternal life.’²

These events took place directly after his feeding of the five thousand, and Christ is clearly linking and alluding to the manna that the people of God received in the Exodus wanderings, seen as bread from heaven. Christ goes on to tell them that he is the new Moses, the prophet who was to come and that it is he who gives the true bread from heaven. He said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”³

Eusebius reflects; ‘He (Christ) would be born nowhere else but in the place at Bethlehem…Bethlehem is translated “House of Bread”, bearing our Saviour the true Word of God, and nourisher of spiritual souls, which he himself shows saying, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’⁴

Therefore in response to the implied question about what ‘work of God’ they can do to merit the true manna from heaven, Christ tells them that eternal life which quenches our inner hunger and thirst is not earned. We cannot say “look at what I’ve done, I deserve my reward now.” This heavenly food is supernatural, and unattainable by human actions alone. It is a gift that comes from God and is unmerited grace. Here, the gospel and St Paul align when he asserts “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”⁵ We should also note the inseparable link between faith in Christ and the celebration of the sacrament of the mass. Belief in Christ is to receive him as the ‘bread of life’. Nowhere is that made more real than in mass.

Therefore what we believe informs our actions.⁶ Think of Saint Paul — when he was Saul — and how he thought that he was doing the work of God in punishing those who were the followers of the Way, the first Christians. He was dramatically confronted with Christ on the Damascus Road. That encounter revealed that rather than doing the work of God, he was fighting against God’s will. Paul found himself in this situation because he had not believed that Christ was the one who came down from heaven and was the fulfilment and enfleshing of all the law and the prophets. Christ is the Word that was with God and was God. He is the Word that became flesh and dwelt amongst us. He is the same Word that is proclaimed in the scriptures and is received body, soul and divinity in the sacrament of the mass.

This is what we are to believe: that Christ is the bread of life. This belief reveals itself in how we act around the celebration of the mass and provide us with the framework for knowing how to love our neighbour and our enemy. Without this belief we might, with all sincerity, fall into the false compassion that is so prevalent at the moment, for example seeing abortion and euthanasia as the right and loving thing to do. If we do not believe that there is a person in the womb then it is likely to reveal that we do not believe the life of Christ is present in the sacrament.

Without this belief we have nothing with which to critically examine the preconceived assumptions we have received from our wider society. How widely within the Church is it seen as being normal and natural for people to live together before they marry? Yet the Church teaches that this is fornication, a deadly sin. That is to say nothing about the wide spread use of artificial contraception within Catholic marriages. This is not to condemn anyone but to highlight that a proper belief in Christ calls everything to conversion and conformity to the divine will God.

As St Paul says, ‘the truth is in Jesus. Put off the old man…be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man’.⁷

We have to get beyond the infantile view that sees the divine will as a set of arbitrary rules imposed by a disapproving killjoy Victorian father-figure. The precepts of God are manifested in Christ and always call us to life, revealing the love of the Father for his lost children. Like any loving parent, God warns us of the ways that lead to our and others’ hurt.

If we are honest, our families are littered with the trauma and consequences of the actions of those who have not allowed their lives to be conformed to life in Christ. Clear acts of selfishness or hiding behind loveless rules to manipulate and control have broken families and affected them across a number of generations. Only Christ can free us from this tyranny of sin and death. Our first step to freedom and salvation as the children of God is to understand that, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”¹

¹ John 6:29
² John 6:27
³ John 6:35
Eusebius Pamphilii Demonstratio Evangelica VII.2
⁵ Ephesians 2:8–9
⁶ “Lex credendi, lex vivendi”
⁷ Ephesians 4:22–24

The editorial title is from John 14:1.