Even More Bread!
Week of Sunday August 9
Gospel: John 6:35,41-51
35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.'
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.' 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, "I have come down from heaven"?' 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, "And they shall all be taught by God." Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.'
Today I am in a spiritually discharged mood. I spent all of yesterday, and most of the evening, on a web programming problem, and got nowhere. So today, the problem remains unsolved, and I am a little depressed, and as a result, feel a bit depressed about the Faith. I am flat. I hear the complaints of the world, and all its cynicism. I am smarting at some cheap jibes made about Christians.
Two things hit me about this reading when I am in a spiritually discharged mood. The constant reference to the Jews in John, grates. Secondly, the notion of eternal life, and being raised up on the last day, seems more unlikely than usual. To hear what the Gospel may say to me, I have to clear these issues. I have to recharge.
What about the Jews? Hatred of Jews has been a blot upon civilization. The church has been complicit, and active in this, and texts like the gospel of John have been used in justification. How do we deal with this?
Firstly, we might accept John is a man of his time. It was a time when Christians and the Synagogues were not on good terms with each other. In his response, perhaps John teaches us how not to respond to our enemies! This not easy. In a segment of Good News Week recently, someone explained that as well as being a monkey, the word "primate" refers to a functionary in the church. Kitty Flanagan said, "Oh, like pedophile is another name for a catholic priest!"
There's no excusing pedophiles, but her response left me very angry. What a slander of some of my priest friends, who do an enormous amount of good in society. If I can get that angry in the comfort of my lounge room, we can see the hostility in John is fairly restrained.
Second, we may note, with John Petty
Jesus had been speaking to the crowd, but now his hearers are identified as ioudaioi--"Judeans." Most translations render ioudaioi as "Jews," but ioudaioi is not known to have been translated as "Jews" until after the Bar Kochba revolt of AD 135, well after the writing of the fourth gospel.
The fourth gospel is not an argument between Christians and Jews. The author of the fourth gospel was a Jew. All of the disciples were Jews. The first Christians were Jews. Rather, the fourth gospel is an argument within Judaism, an argument between those with a "Judean" worldview who are opposed to Jesus, and those with a "Galilean" worldview which has been formed by Jesus.
This sort of observation is probably behind those translations of John which refer to the Jewish religious authorities, rather than the Jews. I think Judeans is a rather better translation; the people talking with Jesus are not just "the heavies," they're people like you and me. That's the point; we can have a "Judean worldview," and entirely miss the point of what Jesus is saying.
Bill Loader deals with the same issue. In the wider context of anti-semitism, or any kind of racism, Bill's text is worth detailed consideration. He uses the image of a "watertight system." Often Christians want to take sections of scripture as the whole, and even unalterable, answer to an issue.
Bill says this about John's understanding of why some people respond to Jesus and some don't:
There are huge problems with [John's] explanations if we read them as indicating a watertight system according to which some are destined to respond and some not. The problems are not only that it makes any judgement upon those not enabled to respond unjust, but also, more historically, because such a system would be in contradiction to other parts of the gospel. For the same gospel which uses this language of those who are "given" or "drawn" by the Father, also assumes that anyone can believe and then proceeds to identify those who choose to believe as the ones who then join the ranks of those who are "given" and "drawn". This is not the language of watertight systems.
John 3:16 is a case in point; "in order that whosoever...." Bill then provides a way to approach the language of John:
It is easier to understand such language if we examine the positive statements. Those who respond positively are special. Part of the language of being special is to say that they are chosen, given, especially drawn. It is doxological language. We see similar language used in romance when people declare that the other is the only possible partner ("you were meant for me"), whereas the chances are that they could have a successful marriage with a number of people. We understand the way such affirmations work. They are not accurate descriptions, but celebratory statements. What they are doing is more important than what they are literally saying.
In a sense, he is talking about a major difference between the discursive, story and poetry based nature of scripture, and the forensic, experimentally based factual language of science. We know not to read fiction or watch TV drama as though it is science... (although one wonders about those who go on those Da Vinci Code tours of Europe!) But, somehow, Christians often forget the distinctions between literature types when they read the bible.
A specific issue surrounding those who accept or do not accept the gospel was the response of Jewish people. Christians claimed this Jesus was a fulfillment of Jewish hopes, but most of Judaism rejected him. And so John used the same "watertight" explanation as he used for anyone who rejected Jesus.
It is dangerous language. John uses it often. The most striking use is on the lips of Jesus in John 8, where Jesus declares of "the Jews" that they are the devil's children (6:37-47). The writer of 1 John uses it when coming to terms with fellow Christians who have abandoned his community (2:17-18). Loosed from its context such an approach opens the door to sectarianism and, in the case of the gospel, antisemitism. Even within its context such language is not unproblematic and requires careful and critical exposition. It is easy to bedevil those who disagree with us, effectively declaring them hopeless cases and writing them off. The good news in the gospel is that this is precisely not God's approach to humankind, but the presence of such language in biblical texts has been the warrant for some of Christianity's worst abuses and they are usually to be found in one form or other in every Christian community where the issue is not dealt with. (Loader)
So, I will seek to read John looking for the language of love, not exclusion. I will seek to understand what aprevious Prime Minister, in his refusal to say sorry, missed. "... you don't have to be guilty of that history in order to be responsible for it."
I am a Christian. It is my responsibility to live beyond sectarianism, and to be sorry, and to do better.
So what about life that never ends? Eternal life. John Petty's commentary this week treats the issue well.
"Life eternal"--zoene aionion--means not only living forever, but also living in God's new reality right now. This life eternal comes through "faithing," and through participation in the eucharist (6:54).
It is a simple fact that many people of Jesus time understood there was a resurrection of some kind; i.e. life after death, or life without end. It has always been a strong theme within the Christian traditions. In a world with an often arbitrarily cut short life, and little justice for the poor, life after death seemed a natural idea. It's only for us, with scientific insights into how much our conspicuousness depends on our physical brain's health and existence, that the idea becomes really problematic. It's only in our time that a consideration that never ending life might not be a reality, has really ever been needed! When Paul said, if we treat his statement as forensic and not scriptural, if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied, our situation had not been imagined.
But John says this aionion is now, not a just a thing of the future. It is a quality of life he is talking about. We're not talking good old Aussie material quality of life, either. We're talking a much deeper understanding of life.
It's here that the distinction between "belief" as we understand the word today, and as it occurs in John, is hugely important. Belief in John is not about the acceptance of propositions being forensically, scientifically, verifiably true. I believe in God, and I believe this stone will drop if I let it go, are not two equivalent statements about belief, although they sound like that in our time.
Where the word belief is translated in John it is the Greek word pistuein. It means, as Petty says, "a radical trust, an orientation of one's entire self, not merely a head-trip of "believing" the right things." Another way is to say that belief as used by John, also mean means practice. As it says in James 2:18, I by my works will show you my faith. Faith, or belief, means putting our money where our mouth is. Faith, or belief, means trusting the words of Jesus enough to live them out.
The promise of John's gospel, at its heart, is that when we do this, we will experience that other deeper quality of life.
Whether that quality of life persists in some way beyond my death, I do not know. I will be glad if it does! But it seems already I have experienced a passion and a depth that I can call "eternal" in the sense John uses it. For that I am grateful. What he says is true.
48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.'
It is in this context of a different quality of life, that John has Jesus call himself the bread of life. He is eucharist. He is I am- the name of God. He is the bread that is beyond ordinary bread that we eat, and which goes stale and mouldy, like in the story of the manna.
John goes over and over these themes of I am, and of bread contrasted to manna. It's the heart of his gospel. . I could say, "When we get this...." but really it is, "When we do this... we will experience that other deeper quality of life." That is his gospel.
Petty has a wonderful translation of John: Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. The one coming to me might surely not hunger and the one faithing into me will never thirst." It is faithing into Jesus that is the thing. Living the life, faithing into Jesus. That brings us into the eternal.
There seem to be two main ways to approach the Bible. Let me summarise these in a deliberately unsubtle way. One says the Bible is revelation in the sense that God wrote it. The other approach sees the Bible as a human response to the history of God's revelation to people. Both these approaches have many nuances, and perhaps they grade into each other. I do them scant justice in my description, apart from showing their essential difference as baldly as I can. But these two approaches also have significant implications in their differences.
Few people would believe God dictated the Bible word for word. However, in some sense the Bible is revelation approach identifies the words of the book as words of God. There may be errors in translation, or emphases that reflect the individual authors, and cultural artefacts, but this book is in some sense, God's word.
With this approach, after the reading in church, people literally mean it when they say "This is the Word of the Lord."
The other approach affirms that God has spoken to people. Those people have responded, including by writing down their understandings of what God has revealed. Other people have reflected upon their words, which we call theology and prayer. It's clear that a lot of theology, aka editing, has happened in some of the texts, before they reached the form we now call "Bible."
With this this approach, after the reading in church, some congregations say, "In this is the Word of the Lord," and they mean it.
Bearing in mind that I am talking baldly, without subtlety, let's look at the implications of the two approaches for this week's reading. In the first case, where God wrote it, John need make no apology for the way he speaks of the Jews. It is Word of God he is giving us. If there is any fault in our attitude toward Jewish people throughout history, it is only in our interpretation and application of that word.
In the second approach, if we are to take John's invitation from Jesus seriously, the bible is not just history of revelation. It becomes a vehicle of revelation to us as we seek to understand it, and struggle with it.
In this case, we may see the word of the Lord in "negative" ways. That is, "I will not respond as John did."
This may seem like we are judging scripture, deciding which to accept and which to ignore. In fact, the other approach does exactly the same; all interpretation takes authority over the text. The very fact of reading and deciding on a meaning, is to take authority over. This is a reality to which the various fundamentalisms of the world remain curiously blind.
We cannot escape this fact of interpretation. In reading scripture, our only options, again speaking baldly, are to decide to be arbitrary in our assigning meaning, or to decide to discover as accurately as possible the original meaning of the author, and how that applies to our time.
What the God wrote it approach does, is assign authority for all times to an author alive at a certain time, and then tends , usually, to assign authority to a particular interpretation of that author. Those who seek God's revelation in struggling with our history, also risk assigning too much authority to an interpretation, especially the fashions of the time.
For me, however, the second approach offers a greater freedom. With this second approach, there has been more of life in all its fullness (John 10:10) .
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!