Constantly tripping over Jesus

Gospel: John 6:56-71

56Those who eat (τρώγων -  gnaw) my flesh and drink my blood abide (μένει – remain) in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (τρώγων) me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, (ἔφαγον - the ordinary non gnawing eating) and they died. But the one who eats (τρώγων) 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 (ὁ λόγος) is difficult; who can accept (hear) 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 (ὰ ῥήματα) 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 (παραδώσων – hand over)  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.’ 70Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ 71He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

Constantly tripping over Jesus... and limping back.

In this post I am seeking to understand myself. I trust you find something here, too

The lectionary reading leaves off the last two verses of Chapter 6 despite them clearly being a part of the passage.

70Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ 71He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

The Greek word for betray means to hand over, but as Karoline Lewis points out, in John's Gospel, Judas does not hand Jesus over!

Remember, there is no handing over of Jesus in John. Jesus hands himself over at his arrest because that’s what the Good Shepherd does (10:17-18). Betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real.

John 18:5 says, "Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them." The betrayal, the handing over, and it's the same word as John 6, is not about active handing over— going up and kissing him, for example, to identify him; (cf Mark 14:55) it is about standing with the forces from the chief priests rather than trusting Jesus and walking with him.

Whoever eats the bread from heaven, the bread which is Jesus' sarx (flesh) will live forever, says Jesus. When people are finding it hard to hear this (it's translated as accept this) Jesus asks, "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (6:63) In other words, the real scandal around flesh is not that Jesus is the real manna/bread from heaven instead of Moses' manna/bread.  The real scandal is that Jesus— flesh— will ascend to heaven. And not only that— heaven is where he was before! God the Word comes to us in flesh! The NRSV hides a devastating pun:  the Gospel which begins with "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," now says in verse sixty, about all this flesh, "This Word (ὁ λόγος) is difficult, who can hear it?" (This is deliberate; verse 68 uses a different word for the words of eternal life.)

A reader wondered if I was overstating the significance of the word flesh, as opposed to body, in my sermon last week. After all, he said, "the Word became flesh and lived among us." But I think the issue is the other way around: what we are offered is God in flesh. What we are offered is God in ordinary, frail, scandalous, disgusting flesh. It is this that people could not hear. And it is this which Judas eventually could not trust; he too, stopped walking around with Jesus, and went and stood with others.

Susan Hylen says

“abiding” with Jesus is difficult. Staying with Jesus and learning from him is a long process. For many, a quick fix would be more attractive. The crowd was initially attracted to Jesus when they saw him as a Moses figure -- one who could work miracles and provide political victories. As they continue with him, they learn that Jesus is not offering an easy victory but the long road of discipleship.

Abiding is important;

the word for abide, meno, occurs 40 times in John and in almost every chapter. Abiding in Jesus is synonymous with living, really living; what we call "truly living" John calls "eternal life." It refers not so much to quantity as to quality. (Jaime Clark-Soles)

But as much as we would like a "quick fix," this is not the heart of our problem. We are capable of arduously long attention— decades— to gain something we want. The deeper problem is that the long discipleship Jesus offers us is about learning to abide in a God who comes to us in flesh, and who offers us true life in flesh. In its time "in the context of eating, the term “flesh” [was] different to the term “meat.” It [implied] something that has not been properly butchered or prepared for human consumption." (Nathan Nettleton) Something disgusts us about such a God; it is too much like us. We soap and perfume ourselves against the fleshly reminders of our death. And perhaps we are afraid a God in flesh will turn out to be like us, for we know we have no life to offer anyone; rather, we  take life.

Lewis says, in another article,

At the heart of the betrayal of Judas is his own disbelief. He does not believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Word made flesh, the very presence of God right in front of him. It can’t be. That’s not the God he has known. That’s not the God he really wants or can accept. This is difficult, even offensive. He didn’t sign up for this God. And as soon as we construe God in ways that God must conform to our standards, there is no choice but to fault God for betraying us....

The word Jesus uses for the disciple who leave, and for Judas, translated as offend, is skandalizei. (σκανδαλίζει) 6:61.

Rene Girard says

The words that designate mimetic rivalry and its consequences are the noun skandalon and the verb skandalizein. Like the Hebrew word that it translates, "scandal" means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into it the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us. Those who are scandalized put all the more ardor in injuring themselves against it because they were injured there before.

The Greek word skandalizein comes from a verb that means "to limp." What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow. (Scandal Must Come, Chapter One of I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning. You can read parts of this chapter here).

I have struggled to understand this, but realise that for the last few weeks, I have been living it out— scandalised. I have a rival; although I had to learn to see that's what he is. He is far enough distant in day to day life to be out of sight and out of mind, for the most part. But there has been a function scheduled, to which I had to go, where there would be no hiding from him. I have been churning over this meeting at which I expected him to be present. I have seemed powerless to avoid this churning, to stop it; either to put a lid on it, or to drain it. I could see the dynamics of envy, of rivalry, of projection— all that, but I could not contain it.

This is a good man, who has always been kind to me. He has an air of calm, of generosity, and of goodness. He seems self-assured, and he is handsome. He is well accepted and looked up to, and with good reason— he has served the church well; all the things I long to be, and to do. And yet he has been in these last weeks a rock lying in my path: a paradoxical obstacle that has been almost impossible to avoid. There is much about his theology which repels me, and yet the attraction simply grew. Scandalised by what I have heard— and seen— I put all the more ardour in injuring myself because I was injured there before. This stuff kept me awake; normally I'm the sort of person who has trouble waking up!

You can see how simple it is to use Girard's words as my own. I have been limping. "What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow." What has been happening is that all my shadow (using Jung, now) has reared up, and broken out; all my desire for status and acceptance and power and certainty.

In the event, he was gracious and kind. I was greeted with warmth and generosity; he remembered our first meeting, 40 years ago, with gratitude and pleasure, and spoke to me companionably and with grace. We are both old enough to have trouble remembering names; at first, he could remember only that event, so far was he from being the rival and enemy I was creating in my mind! Inside, a little part of me began to weep.

It struck me this morning that, by contrast, I often work with a person who has done me real harm. A person around whom I am always appropriately cautious, but who, for the most part, bothers me not at all. The difference is that this person is not someone of whom I am envious. I do not want what they have.

And, equally important, I do not require that they should be a person who affirms me. I do not want them to give me the affirmation I craved from my rival, and from that part of the church in which he sits. Girard says "When we are devoted to adoring our neighbor, this adoration can easily turn to hatred because we seek desperately to adore ourselves, and we fall." (Ibid) I wanted to be like him so I could be somebody.

I think the problem for Judas was that he wanted Jesus' affirmation. He had met grace, and tasted Spirit in Jesus, just I did in meeting my old mentor 40 years ago, and in times since. Judas wanted what Jesus "had," that life giving godliness which people found in Jesus, and he wanted the affirmation— Girard calls it adoration— of the person he adored. The affirmation was given to him, but he could not accept— could not trust— what he was given. It was as Lewis (Ibid) says: You are not the God I really want... What you offer me is difficult, even offensive. I didn’t sign up for this God. She concludes, "And as soon as we construe God in ways that God must conform to our standards, there is no choice but to fault God for betraying us...." Judas felt Jesus had let him down. The long ordinary life of discipleship was not really what he wanted.

What does Jesus offer us in John?

He offers us the opportunity to abide in him— to remain in him.

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— who really gnaws on— this bread will live for ever.’ (John 6)

We want life in heaven that goes on forever. And first, before that, we want to win. We want the trappings of power— nothing so gross as being Prime Minister, just the comfort of being unbothered, admired, and generally more privileged than the rest of the street— Digging a little deeper: we want to be in control of our own destiny. We want God to fulfil us on our terms, not God's. Instead, we are asked to swallow the flesh, to chew on the gristle of a God who is not what we want. Not safe in heaven, not removed from the mess of the world, not omnipotent, but a God who is in flesh— messy, bloody, weak, and faithful. A God who says life is to be found here, in that weakness, in that closeness to death, that comes from loving our neighbour just as we love ourselves (Girard). And who would do that; we know our neighbour is like us, not to be trusted, flesh and blood and muck. We are caught in this horrific circle of desiring and adoring that which terrorises us.

Girard offers me another insight here. I said Judas wanted affirmation. The word Girard uses is adoration. Too often our longing for affirmation is just that: a desire to be adored, to be our own God. We are in competition with God and with the One God sends. We long for and desire the things of God because we want to be God. We keep coming back, I keep limping back, tripping over, limping away, returning... because God offends me. God gives me everything, life eternal, real life, but I want more. I want that which I am not.

I was reminded of the old chorus this morning,

I go to the rock for my salvation
I go to the stone that the builders rejected
I run to the mountain and the mountain stands by me (Dotti Rambo)

And remembered, somewhere, standing close beside my father, adoring him, knowing I was loved and, I suspect in some inchoate, hazy way, knowing I was adored! I was safe.

I think God adores us, too. And here I have an image of fathers and sons. I would love to include below here words that are not so beholden to male privilege, if you can share them in the comment box. It's only when we try to be our Father, to outdo our Father, and when we want more than we can have, that the relationship between father and son departs on the long journey toward reconciliation. I understand this from being both a son and father; we scandalise each other and trip over each other until we find a way not to compete. God waits for us to realise that

neither the Father nor the Son desires greedily, egotistically. God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he sends his rain on the just and on the unjust." God gives to us without counting, without marking the least difference between us. He lets the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. If we imitate the detached generosity of God, then the trap of mimetic rivalries will never close over us. This is why Jesus says also, "Ask, and it will be given to you . . . ." (Girard)

We will be free of the need to compete, to prove ourselves, and to stay safe. Life will simply be gift.

Andrew Prior (2018)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
A Cafe of the Gate of Salvation (2012)
Gristle (2015) incl podcast.



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