What has the Olympics got to do with today’s Readings? Well quite a lot actually, if you think how often we have heard about the food that Olympic athletes must eat. But in order to make that link complete, we first have to recognise that Christians are also called to be athletes but in a rather different race ; a race towards eternal life, not just for themselves but for all who are open to God.
People sometimes say to me, and maybe to you, “Oh I wish I had your faith”, as if being a Christian makes life easier! I hope we all know that it is quite the opposite. To be a Christian is to be like an athlete, yes there is joy and fulfilment, but not without exercise and training, as we strive to respond to God’s love in every way that we can. Sometimes I look round at Mass and wonder if some of you actually realise this? Of course I can’t tell by what you look like, because being a spiritual athlete does not necessarily show on the surface; so all I can do is remind you again. You will get nothing from Mass, and from your Christian life, unless you are prepared to be like an athlete in training. If you just see it like a spectator then you need to change, to make a new commitment to Almighty God. And lest you think I am making this up, listen to St Paul from the Bible :- “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
So having established that we Christians are called to be spiritual athletes for God, we can now see more clearly our need, like all great athletes, for a regular supply of the right kind of food. We get a hint of this in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) where Elijah is fed by God in order to make his Marathon like journey to meet God on the mountain. Yes, God can both be within us feeding and supporting us in the race, but also is beyond us, the goal, the winning post to which we are racing.
It is interesting also to note that the food an Olympic athlete eats – the amazing amount of protein they are encouraged to consume for example – would do them no good if they were not constantly stretching themselves physically. If we ate the way they do, we would begin to kill ourselves. It is the same with us on our spiritual race. Here comes St Paul again :- “Everyone ought to examine themselvesbefore they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. (1 Cor 11:28-29)
Now perhaps we can understand more clearly what Jesus is offering us in our Gospel today (John 6:41-51), and why he thinks it is so important. Listen again to what he says “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever”. And then he becomes even more explicit “The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world”. We will hear next Sunday how difficult his hearers find this. We Catholics rather take it for granted that we receive Jesus in the bread from heaven at Mass ; that the bread becomes Jesus to feed us spiritually on our Christian journey. Let’s remind ourselves today never to take this for granted; but like athletes to really use what he gives us in this great race that is life lived in and for God. Say to him today, “Lord I ask you to help me realise the amazing way you feed me, and to live up to my calling as a Christian”
But there is one remarkable thing about this food from God, and that is that even if we do not receive it physically, if we are here at Mass he still feeds us. So those who for one reason or another cannot receive Communion physically, can still make what we call a “spiritual Communion” which is just as nourishing for the journey to God.
Can I finish by reminding you of another image that St Paul uses to demonstrate this truth : that our Christian life is not just a race but also a battle. So he writes “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly;I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Cor 9:26) Now what has this to do with food? Well one of the most successful military leaders from the past was Napoleon Bonaparte, and one of the reasons we British eventually defeated him was that we put into practice some of his ideas. Good strategy of course, but also his famous saying “An army marches on its stomach” In other words we cannot run a race or fight a battle for God unless we are properly fed and that is why Jesus emphasises its importance in John’s Gospel Chapter 6 that we are reading at Sunday Mass at the moment. Let’s do it!