Week of Sunday August 23 - Pentecost 13
Gospel: John 6:56-69
56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.65And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
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Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ (John 6:68 -69)
These words always seem full of pathos. In my mind, Peter speaks with a kind of fatalism, "To whom else can we go
John is writing some sixty years after Jesus' death. His community is being slandered with charges of cannibalism, or something like it. People who may have been attracted by other stories of Jesus are deeply offended: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" (John 6:60)
But rather than soften the offense, rather than explain things reasonably, and in measured tones— writing an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth— John seems to maximise the offense: "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
For Jewish ears there is a pun here which is disgusting. To drink human blood is to drink life. Blood is reserved only for the altar. To drink it is indeed to have life within oneself, but in the most sacrilegious fashion possible. It is to pretend to be like God. (See last week)
John's gospel is absolutely exclusive at this point. There is no apology: "Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever—" there is a great promise here— but if you do not eat "you have no life in you." Even in the shadow of the Empire— he crosses the sea of Tiberias— Jesus can turn our perceptions of scarcity and suffering into a plenty which has twelve full baskets left over. He is a fulfilment of all Israel's hopes for the last day. John affirms this with his story of the feeding. Yet John will not let us see him, will not let us eat and drink the communion, without the offense of flesh being eaten and blood being drunk. We cannot have manna— the food from heaven— without the offense of flesh being chewed and blood being drunk, or we will die.
Would we understand the words more easily if we were members of John's community? Would the literary style of this gospel be less difficult, less of a mystery, if we were his contemporaries? I suspect we would be more offended by his words about eating and drinking, as we would not be insulated by time and distance from Jewish sensibilities about the significance of drinking blood. And I suspect we would find the text no less difficult. It seems to expect us to be deserting him. It almost invites us: "Do you also wish to go away?" (6:67) If John were one of those actors who perform the gospel on stage, he would look out at us, the audience, and ask the question of verse 67 of us… and pause and wait… before answering for Peter.
There is no sympathy for those who are offended. "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" In other words: if you are offended, you have not begun to see what is going on here!
We can imagine argument and debate between members of John's community and others about the truth of things, and the nature of life. For John's community there is one answer only. "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." (John 6:63) Take it or leave it, there is a way of seeing reality that is real. You either see like this— and no-one [can see] me unless drawn by the Father who sent me— or you don't. (John 6:44)
You either have life in you, or you don't. The gospel is unrepentant in its exclusive in or out, life or death, claims. In Matthew the sinners burn in the end, but in John, even though the son does not come to condemn the world, those who do not believe are condemned already. As a gospel, John often offends and angers me.
But then… life offends me. There's a place in the Hills where you can see the whole enterprise of humanity from the ports and factories to the boutiques of Rundle Mall. And sometimes, sitting up there at the end of winter, I am entirely estranged. I can see no point to any of it. It is absurd, without reason or purpose. It is hevel— a striving after the wind— for what purpose? It is— we are— a blot on the landscape, destroying the very world which has nurtured us. And by the time we realise how fleeting we are, we realise we are beginning to die, and must let go of that we have finally learned to love.
But the wild beauty of the hills is even more alien. I belong down in the mess on the plains. To whom else can I go?
Ecclesiastes is true:
... the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (3:19-20)
Ecclesiastes is also gentle:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccles 9:7-10)
But Ecclesiastes gives me no answer. To Ecclesiastes I say, "Why?" In the world of Ecclesiastes I would go through the motions of life half dead. And would one day climb back into the Hills and let the cold kill me because of the sheer pointlessness of life.
There is only one place I am alive. It's with people. It is especially in the act of The Communion. There is something in the doing that is beyond the fatalism of Ecclesiastes. In Communion we are really alive. There is no explaining this. There is only a giving of self to the rite. A swallowing of the food that is a being swallowed— for communion can only be done "properly" when the last words are true:
… that we may become for you,
loving and caring in the world
until your kingdom comes.
We have to give ourselves to be consumed like a Christ. You either see this, or you don't.
"Is this not a bitter gospel? Do you call it good news to place yourself on the edge of exhaustion, almost seeking to be consumed?"
This would be a fair question on your part. I can only say it is the life which I must live. I seem unable to see the world in any other way, especially in the grey days at the end of winter.
But I will ask you this, in return: "What is the crux of life? When all the niceties and subtleties are removed, what is its basic truth? What does it mean?"
I will not pretend to judge your answer. It is your life, and your answer to carry. But John will judge your answer, as he judges mine: Unless our answer is in some way a chewing-swallowing of the whole life and being of Jesus, body and blood, there is no life in you... or in me.
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