“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
As Catholics, when our Lord speaks about the food that He will give us that endures for eternal life, our minds should go directly to the Eucharist. However, we could be confused when we realize that He is telling us that we should work for this food that does not perish. How can we work for the Eucharist? Does He mean that we need to earn the right to receive the Eucharist?
No, of course not. The Eucharist is a free gift from the Lord that we could never earn and to which no one could ever have a right. Just as the manna that the Israelites received in the desert – the bread that descended with the dew every morning and kept them alive through 40 years of wandering in the desert – was a pure gift from God to a people who did not deserve it at all, who were constantly complaining and grumbling against the Lord and turning away from Him to the worship of idols – so too is our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity a pure gift to us. Just like we do not have to do anything to earn God’s love, we cannot do anything on our own that would make us worthy of receiving God Himself.
So why does our Lord say to “work for the food … that endures for eternal life”? If we cannot earn the Eucharist, how can we work for it? We can find an answer to this vexing question in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians today. Paul tells them, “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds,” but instead, “you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
Paul is talking to people who have recently received the Gospel. They have just come to believe in Christ, they have been baptized, and they have set out on the great adventure that is being Christ’s disciples. This has been a big change in their lives. They have left behind a sinful way of life in order to follow Christ. Paul is reminding them that this change cannot just be something that happens one time in their lives – it must be continual.
The Ephesians are being pulled away from their new life in Christ by what Paul calls “deceitful desires.” Even though they have made the choice to follow Christ, they still have bad habits and memories of past sins that pull them back into their old way of life. They also still have concupiscence – the tendency that all of us have toward sin, thanks to the lingering effects of original sin. Those sinful desires, though, are deceitful. Every temptation to sin is built on a lie. Our desires deceive us because they promise happiness even when we know that sin will only leave us empty and dissatisfied.
Instead of giving in to these deceitful desires, Paul encourages the Ephesians to, “put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” Against the lie of sin, God’s way of righteousness promises what will truly make us happy. Now, that often does not seem to be the case. God’s ways – the world would tell us – limit us and keep us from being happy. But that is another lie! The deceitful desires of the flesh are a trap laid by Satan to keep us from the greatest happiness that God promises us. And yet day after day we allow Satan to rob us of that true happiness with the deceitful desires of the flesh.
We could say the same thing about the Church, which is so often portrayed as having all these rules and restrictions on our happiness. But rather than being composed of grumpy old men who just want to make everyone else as miserable as they are – the world’s view of the Church – the Church is the Bride of Christ, whose centuries of wisdom and direct guidance from the Lord enable Her to propose what is truly good and life-giving, what has the power to make us that “new self” about which St. Paul writes.
So what does all of this have to do with the Eucharist? Every day we have a choice between the deceitful desires of the old self and the righteousness and holiness of the new self. Those choices are about who you want to be and where you want to spend eternity. The daily choice between sin and virtue – the old and the new – is the choice to work for the food that perishes – the deceitful desires of the world – or the food that endures for eternal life.
The effects of those choices crystalize at the moment at which we approach the Lord’s table in the Eucharist. Yes, we can never earn the right to receive Christ in Holy Communion. It is a free gift that He gives to us who are profoundly unworthy, as we confess right before receiving Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Despite our unworthiness that we confess we are still those bless-ed “who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” as the priest exclaims. But at the same time, even though we cannot earn the right to receive the Eucharist, we must still prepare ourselves for it. We must “work for the food that endures for eternal life” as our Lord exhorts us.
The Eucharist is the food that endures for eternal life because it is a foretaste of Heaven – paradise here on Earth. In the Eucharist we experience our eternal destiny, Heaven. So when we prepare to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, we ought to ask ourselves: “Am I working for the food that endures for eternal life, or for the food that perishes?” If we are working for the food that endures for eternal life, that means that we are living in a manner consistent with the gift that we are offered here in Holy Communion. It means being on the path to the same Heaven that we can already taste in Holy Communion.
So what does it mean to be on the path to Heaven? Most people seem to have the idea that it is “good people” who go to Heaven. But that would bring us back to the problem of trying to earn God’s love, which we know that we can never do. Rather, Heaven, just like the Eucharist, is a free gift that God wants to give us that we could never earn because it is so far beyond the order of our own human striving.
Heaven is a gift that God wants to give to those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. And why, we should ask, did our Lord shed His precious blood on the Cross? It was to forgive our sins. Those who are destined for Heaven are those who have received the forgiveness of their sins and are therefore united to His body here on earth in the Church.
More specifically, God has chosen to share this forgiveness of sins with us through the Sacraments – through Baptism, which washes away original sin in the fount of new birth, and in confession, which is the one means established by the Lord for forgiveness of serious sins committed after Baptism.
If we are on the path to Heaven, living in a state of grace (having confessed any and all grave sins committed since Baptism) then the Eucharist is food for our journey. The Catechism states that, “Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant's union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant (the one who receives Communion) and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church.”
However, if instead of working for the food that endures for eternal life, we are working for the food that perishes, continuing to live in a state of mortal sin because of not having received Christ’s forgiveness of our sins through Confession, then the Eucharist ceases to be a sign of God’s love for us and instead becomes a sign of contradiction between the gift that we receive and the life that we live away from the Lord’s table. In that case, someone works for the food that perishes, but then presumes to receive the food that endures for eternal life. This is made clear by a prayer that the priest says before he receives Holy Communion: “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.”
How could the Eucharist – this great gift of the food of eternal life– bring judgement and condemnation? This prayer, drawn from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, emphasizes precisely what our Lord teaches us today – that we must work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. We can never earn the privilege of receiving the Eucharist, but we must live in a manner that is coherent with the gift that our Lord desires to share with us.
Christ makes an incredible promise to us today: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Unlike the deceitful desires that pull us away from Him, Christ’s love in the Eucharist fills us with joy and peace beyond all telling. We can never earn this love – it is always a free gift from the God who died to bring us back to Him.
At the same time, we know that the greatest fruit of Christ’s love that He shares with us, the Eucharist – His true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – is something new, something that ought to correspond to a renewal in our minds and in our way of life. We cannot earn the Eucharist, but we can work for the food that endures for eternal life by living in a way that corresponds to the great gift that we receive.
Each day we face choices, choices that are frequently about where we will spend eternity and about whether we will experience eternity right now by approaching Christ in Holy Communion in a state of grace so that the supper of the Lamb might not be to us a source of judgment and condemnation but instead protection in mind and body and a healing remedy. Will we work for the food that perishes, or will we work for the food that endures for eternal life?
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII