Gospel: John 6:56-71
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.’ 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.
You can listen to this here.
There is a really odd thing happening in the reading this week. At one moment we have Jesus urging people to " eat—to gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood [because then you will] abide in me… whoever eats me will live because of me…"
He has been talking about his flesh... but then he says, almost in the next breath, "63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless."
What's going on here? The way John thinks is so foreign to us that it's tempting to just skip over it and preach from Ephesians. But he's saying something quite crucial, so how can we preach it? I've had a try below.
It's an Australian sermon, so for folks elsewhere, it will help to know that a tradie is a trades-person. And to know that Bill Shorten is the Leader of the Opposition, often laughed as a bit of a lame duck, who is currently enjoying the spectacle of the Government falling over each other to destroy themselves— a "new" Prime Minister was been elected as I wrote this sermon. I'll let you use the internet to understand Steven Bradbury and that august Australian journal The Betoota Advocate.
Anyway, the sermon for John 6:56-71
As I pushed up the pin to lock the hall doors on Wednesday, I noticed that there is a stain in the ceiling. Let's imagine that we look at it after church this morning, and we decide it's a new stain.
That means only one thing.
We can argue and discuss about where things might be broken, or when it happened— all that— but that stain means there is a hole in the roof, somewhere.
If there is a stain in the ceiling, there is a hole in the roof. There is a leak.
I want to say— and you can talk to me about this over lunch— that when a congregation has enemies, when a congregation has us and them somewhere in its thinking, whether it's about us and them within us, or us and them where the them are outside, then there is a leak. And no matter how we look at it, no matter how we argue it, or try to describe it, that leak always leads back to violence against other people. The great leak in the human roof, what we call original sin, always has to do with violence. (Violence is the sign of that sin.)
So if the stains I saw are new, we'll have to get a tradie up in the ceiling.
After a while he comes down from above us, and says, "Yep there's a hole alright, we'll have to fix it."
"Darn," says Grenfell. "How much?" (Grenfell does our books.)
"Nothing," says the Tradie who has come done from Above. "It's free. You can fix this. You folk are the hole. If you start loving each other, the hole will be healed."
"What— No, you fix it. It's your job. We'll pay you. That's what tradies are for."
"I am the Tradie who has come down from Heaven. I'm bringing you the good news about how to fix your roof for all time— and the good news is that you can do this with me. Stop hating and start loving. Stop the us-and-them; include everyone who comes, and you will be healed, and the hole will be closed."
So you can imagine one of us saying, "How can you have come down from God? I mean... you’re a tradie; you've got tatts and your shirt's dirty. God is not like that; God is holy. God wouldn't come to us as a tradie."
And the Tradie says, "I have shown you where the hole is in your lives. Unless you can swallow this whole... unless you can hear God in this, you will not have life in you. Your life will leak out through the hole in your lives, and the hole in your lives is violence, and lack of love."
And so the people say, "But we are loving. We are good people. We are faithful to God. We keep the traditions."
And the Tradie says, "Look at the stain in the ceiling. When there is a stain in the ceiling, you have a hole in the roof. When you have enemies and us and them, it doesn't matter how much you say you love, there is a hole in your life as a church, and it always leads back to violence. The hole can only be fixed if you live with love towards everybody and include everybody."
Now you can hear— I hope— how similar this argument is to the one between Jesus and the die-hard religious conservatives of his day, except... you'll have noticed in the reading that the argument has shifted from Jesus and those folk, to an argument between Jesus and his disciples: this is in the church. This is Jesus talking to us.
So what Jesus does at this point is try a different tack with his disciples, to... open their understanding. He says, "What you folk think is that the body— flesh— is somehow not worthy of God. You think, 'How could God come to us as a Tradie? How can Tradie shows what God is like?' You think there is something more holy, more spiritual— "
And he says, "Sorry, but you've got this wrong. You've missed the point. That always-wanting-something-other-than-what-God-has-given-us is actually not spiritual thinking at all. It's earthly thinking, limited, closed, stuck in the past. The things of the past are useless. They're just dead meat on the barbie, mate.
"Heavenly thinking, true spirit that gives life, sees how love lifts human life up and heals it. Love makes our human life here on earth holy. It doesn't take us out of life, it makes ordinary human life in the flesh... holy and healed."
And they look at this slightly grubby Tradie with a few cobwebs and a bit of insulation fluff in his hair, and they say, "How can these things be?" (cf John 3:9)
And the Tradie says, "I've got this mate who is on the transplant list. He's only 42, and one of his vital organs has just given up."
And he says, "You all pray for healing and for a miracle— and that's good; I mean, who wouldn't— we should— but if the miracle you want doesn't come, then you look for a scapegoat, for someone to blame. You say my mate doesn't have enough faith. Or you say someone in the picture has not repented of their sin. You say you are being loving and spiritual, but you blame, you exclude, and the stain on your ceiling spreads and grows. You are living the things of the past, living in the ways of the past that, it turns out, give no life at all."
"If you really understood the things of the spirit, you would be his friend. You would visit and look after his family. You would sit with him as he dies... weep with him, as he comes to terms with what is happening. You would grieve with him, stay with him, and walk with him. And you would see the healing.
That's life. That's where the power of God is, in the flesh.... even if my mate dies."
And at that point, many of Jesus' disciples, it says, "turned back and no longer went about with him." And this is where something terrible happens.
To see this though, we need to do a quick Greek lesson, and little lesson about translation.
Translation from one language to another does not ever happen word for word, one by one. Translation is subtle. It has meanings that are really hard to get across in just a few words.
I have a friend from India. He has a PhD. He is a published author— and a good one. But it took me a dozen sentences to begin... to translate this one sentence from the Betoota Advocate, last week: Bill Shorten Begins Studying Videos Of Steven Bradbury’s 2002 Olympic Gold Medal Win.
And although I've explained this to Dhamu, he and I both know, he can't really feel the depth of Australiana that's in that headline.
What's happening in the text is something like this. We are my friend from India, trying to understand a deep word play in another language and culture... another way of thinking. And like the Betoota Advocate, it's not at all subtle, but it's still really hard for us to grasp because we're from a different culture.
So here is the sentence where it all begins to happen: many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. That's the English of the NRSV. The key words are ἀπῆλθον ⸃ εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω (app-ale-thon ice ta oppiso) which can be translated as turned back... you can hear echoes of opposite in that word ὀπίσω. But ὀπίσω has a sense of the past, so it can be translated— I owe this to Rev John Petty— the sentence can be translated as:
many of his disciples went back into the things of the past... and no longer were going about with him.
Now you'll notice that the attention then shifts to the twelve who remain, who understand that Jesus has the words of eternal life, the ones who understand that what the Tradie sent down from Heaven has said is true— and Jesus says, " 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."
And we know how that "went down." Judas brought the forces from the chief priests to the garden and handed Jesus over, that's the literal meaning of the word betray, by kissing him in greeting— right?
Well... not quite right... because, in John's gospel, you see, Judas brings them to the garden, but he does not hand Jesus over— he does not kiss him. Jesus hands himself over. (cf John 10:17-18) This is what it says in John Chapter 18: (cf Karoline Lewis)
2Now Judas, who [who handed him over], also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ 5They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who [handed him over], was standing with them. 6When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground. 7Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he.
Now the first thing to see in this picture is Judas. Judas was no longer ... going about with Jesus. It says he was standing with them, with the people from the chief priests. Can you see that John is telling us that betrayal, that handing over, is not going about with Jesus, but standing with someone else?
And here is the second thing:
Three times, in this picture, Jesus says, I am he. In the Greek, this is Ἐγώ εἰμι (Ego I – me.) But it's also a pun. In Greek, Jesus is saying I am he, but he is also saying I Am, which is a quote from the story of Exodus where Moses asks for God's name and God says "I Am."
So Jesus is saying to the crowd in the garden, "I Am." Which is to say, "Here, in me, in this flesh, you are seeing God."
And what do the crowd do? It says, "... they stepped back and fell to the ground."
And do you know what? They stepped back, in the Greek, is the exact same words of John 6, where we started: they went back into the things of the past. (ἀπῆλθον ⸃ εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω)
Going back into the things of the past is what betrays Jesus.
To betray Jesus is not to walk with him, but to go back into the things of the past; it means to live the way we always have, in our violence. It is useless; no matter how hard we try, we will not have real true eternal life in us. The stain of violence will spread over us no matter what we do.
But if we walk with him, if we eat the meal of love, if we include all people, if we strive to live without enemies, we will be healed— it will begin. We will enter the truest, deepest life that Jesus calls life eternal. Amen.
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!
John 10:17-18: 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
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