The true poetry of satisfaction
Week of Sunday August 2
Gospel: John 6:23-35
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the lake saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?' 26Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.' 28Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?' 29Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.' 30So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat." ' 32Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.' 34They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.'
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.
Never hungry or thirsty : the True poetry of satisfaction
When I first read the Gospel of Matthew it left me stunned. It laid a claim on my life which I could not ignore. I began reading Mark, the next book, with the aid of Robert Crotty's little Fontana commentary. I loved it, found the Uniting Church bookshop, and bought an armful of books.
Among them was another Fontana commentary, on the Gospel of John. I was disappointed. John was another kind of Gospel altogether, and I could make no sense of it.
For a young science student, Matthew and Mark seemed similar enough to twentieth century biography, and had accessible enough literary devices and puzzles, to intrigue me and offer a foothold. John was about much deeper way of knowing. I could find no way in to what he was saying. (I later had to unlearn a lot of what I thought I had found in Matthew and Mark!)
Intellectually, John seemed contradictory. I was like Nicodemus, and the woman at the well, and the people coming from Tiberias. I did not "get it." James McGrath quotes someone as saying
There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don't.
Somewhere, something in us gets a deeper appreciation of language and knowing. It comes somewhat invisibly, like the wind.
It is a richer, more allusive way of knowing. The layers I pointed up in last week's First Impressions, can be described, and analysed, and appreciated intellectually... but there is more. John is heart language pointing to heart language. It's the kind of truth where you sing the hymn, or linger over the lines of a poem, and know their truth, but have a hard time putting that truth into other words.
This knowing still needs to face the critique and questions of scientific, more definable knowledge. That knowledge protects us from "floating off with the fairies." But this knowing also describes aspects of reality outside the range of mere scientific investigation. The two ways balance and inform each other.
Karen Armstrong says
Language has limits that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. "It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers", Steiner explains, "that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.
The scientific side of me wants to rebel at all this. "It's words... playing... romanticism... lack of intestinal fortitude faced with the world's reality..." but this other kind of knowledge is real.
As suspicious and cynical as I am, I cannot deny the strong sense of knowing at this other level, or in this other way. To deny it as being unreal, because I cannot fit it into certain replicable categories of science, or what Armstrong calls Logos, is to deny something of myself. I accept that I know you, and like you, or not, in ways outside the well defined but narrow parameters scientific experiment, or rigorously defined terms. Because I cannot apply them to our friendship, or the love of my wife, but must apply a less scientifically rigorous assessment of the veracity or our relationships , does not mean I deny the love and friendships.
Just so, I do not deny the truths of the gospel, for they, claim John, come from relationship. I am.... the bread of life, he has Jesus say. The sustenance of this ridiculous, impossible statement: Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty, come from relationship.
John, it seems to me, is an invitation: Last Sunday at Greenacres we worked out way through story of the feeding and walking on the water (John 6:1-21). We showed the rich allusions to the Old Testament traditions that he weaves into his story; traditions of Moses, Elijah and Elisha. We saw the political commentary in the references to Tiberias, going past the set reading, and looking at some of the verses for this week.
We saw people go looking for Jesus, but using boats which came from Tiberias, a newish town founded by the Roman vassal king, Herod Antipas. Are these boats a symbol for the way of empire, we wondered? Do they mirror people's shallow misunderstanding of Jesus signs?
We saw them call him "Rabbi," John's shorthand for those who have not really seen who he is.
We understood very clearly what Jesus said: 'Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.'
This week, we would see the irony. "What must we do to perform the works of God?" They sound so reasonable, so keen for the answer. But when he answers, they ask for a sign!!! What just happened?
And they denigrate what they have just seen. "Our ancestors ate manna..." what's so special about supplying bread. Bill Loader points out the similarity between the crowds and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4.
The crowds then respond to Jesus' claim just as the Samaritan woman had done when told about the gift of the water of life. She said, ‘Sir, give me this water'. They say, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.' Neither she nor they at this point understand its true meaning. Jesus then makes his famous declaration which draws together both stories: ‘I am the bread of life. Anyone coming to me shall not hunger; anyone believing in me shall never thirst.' (6:35).
John is answering the lament of the Rolling Stones. I can't get no satisfaction... John is saying we can get satisfaction, it's in the relationship with this Jesus.
All this remains head knowledge that fails any scientific testing, and indeed, it looks ridiculous, unless we go deeper. John's rich repetitive writing, the layers of allusion, slippery shifting images, are all part of his invitation. He is trying to seduce us into relationship with this elusive reality he is describing. He's not talking about acceptance of a set of propositions. He's not talking about doing the right thing, like discipleship out of a book. He's talking about a kind of releasing of the mind and soul from our logical bondage, and daring to relate to the divine as we relate to each other. He invites us to trust God, as we trust each other.
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!