The lectionary has been following John 6 over the last four weeks and today’s gospel reading is the last phase of this long chapter. Commentaries usually point out that every story in this chapter deals with bread in some way. This is clearly why the author chose to link these stories together, one after another. But over the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by something different: not so much what Jesus says, but the reactions of the people that were listening.
Four Sundays ago, on July 25, we began with the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
Uh oh! Not a great denouement to that story. Then, on August 1 we first heard the teaching “I am the bread of life”, followed by an exchange where the crowd tries to work out what it all means but always just misses the point, not helped, it must be said, by a series of answers from Jesus that is, well, ‘less than straightforward’.
In the next instalment on August 8 Jesus repeats his claim to be the bread of life and adds that communing with him is a superior experience to the fabled manna from heaven in the Great Exodus.
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him … “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
To be fair, they had a point, his parents were locals. Then August 15 personalised the metaphor in an uncomfortable pseudo-cannabalistic way, which was clearly a step too far:
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
But wait, there’s more! Today’s gospel has Jesus hammering home the “eat my flesh” teaching using unnecessary verbs more similar to “scoff” than “politely ingest”, adding “drink my blood” for good measure – something quite beyond the pale for good Jews, and choosing the synagogue at Capernaum as his venue rather than, say, a paddock by the Lake.
Jesus is many things, but being concerned with good public relations is not one of them.
Many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” … As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.
To our ears now, this talk is probably not as shocking as it was in 1st century Palestine or for the early church, partly because we have moved beyond strict dietary practices linked the Jewish versions of ‘tapu’ and ‘noa’, and partly because we are so soaked in the eucharistic metaphor that we think we know that Jesus ‘didn’t mean it like that’. It’s a metaphor, innit? At the time though, this was clearly not easy stuff on any level – literally or metaphorically. Mystery
Yet John Chapter 6’s bread and blood passages are surely among the least of the difficult sayings of Jesus. What stops you in your tracks? What sayings of Jesus have you struggled with?
For many of us, it is theodicy, that is, trying to understand God in light of suffering and evil.
One of my favourite authors, Annie Dillard, thinking about a plane crash and what happened to the survivors, wrote this in her book “Holy The Firm”:
His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Christ, who spat on the ground, made a mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man’s eyes, and gave him sight, answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself – and not the subsequent cure – as “God’s works made manifest,” then we have, along with “Not as the world gives do I give unto you,” two meager (sic), baffling, and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to whit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?
– Holy The Firm. Annie Dillard in Holy The Firm. New York. Harper Collins. 1977
What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Do you know?
And what do you do with the parables of judgement, with the Kingdom of Heaven being compared to a King saying “You wicked and lazy servant … throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”?
How do you handle “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”, or “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God”, or “So the last shall be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen” or “You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it”?
And what about the Jesus story itself do you find most difficult to understand? What do you do with the apparent death-wish that saw Jesus propel himself towards Jerusalem in that fateful Passover, like a heart-seeking missile? What do you do with the weirdness of the post-resurrection stories? Or the virgin birth? How do you manage the New Testament insistence on Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, as if a fateful God somehow really needed somebody’s blood?
Or is it wider theological issues that cause you to pause? Wesley spent a lot of time writing and preaching against Calvin’s already two hundred-years old ideas about predestination. He clearly thought this was of actual importance in the real world he lived in, but few of us could write an essay on Calvinism versus Arminianism now, and still fewer of us care. Some people do continue to get very het up about doctrinal points of difference of course. The Anglican Church in this province has literally split over whether the Bible should be read to mean that gay people like me preaching in church is an abomination, or a blessing. You can cast your votes after the service.
‘Just not getting it’ isn’t unusual. Read one way, the Old Testament is an almost continuous story of ‘just not getting it’ by everyone from Adam and Abraham to the whole nation of Israel. And not always disastrously, as today’s story about the dedication of the First Temple makes clear:
Solomon says “But will God indeed dwell upon the earth? Even heaven, the highest heaven, cannot contain You, much less this temple I have built” … still, here it is, so could you just act as if you live in it anyway? Even at our best, it seems, we can miss the point.
As Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in her blog “The Corners” last week, “’This teaching is hard’ [is something] every disciple who was actually paying attention [would say].”
I’m sure there are as many responses to these moments of block and dissonance as there are people. What have yours been?
[In small groups discuss: what in your faith journey has made you take a significant pause because you simply couldn’t make sense of what was going on, and how you managed this.]
Sometimes I find myself simply ignoring these kinds of problem. As a psychiatrist, I note that denial is a much under-rated coping strategy and certainly much more commonly employed by all of us than we might hope. It is also a discipline in which the best of science is merely scratching the surface of what is really going on, yet decisions in my patients’ best interests have to be made anyway. So a kind of denial of ‘just not getting it’ is not a ridiculous way forward – keep on keeping on, and let the problems of incomprehension take care of themselves in due course. This is Solomon’s approach in a way: ‘Look God, I get that my Big Idea is unlikely to be a completely accurate way of understanding all this, but we’re doing our best here and really hope that you can bless our efforts anyway’. The writers of Kings and Chronicles are at pains to tell us that God did indeed bless those efforts. Sorting out our Really Big Questions would seem to be a life’s work – or longer – but we still have to get out of bed tomorrow and do something. A little bit of denial goes a long way.
By way of contrast, sometimes I have simply found myself in the desert, desolate and alone amidst the ruins of my previous comfortable, even joyous religious belief systems, with nothing but sand in my mouth and grit in my eyes. Those have been hard journeys, and long. I have eventually picked myself up and trudged up the next dune, and the next, on one occasion for some years until I realised the wilderness was finally giving way to the veldt.
On the other hand, faced with these kinds of difficulty, we can always pack our bags and leave when we realise that we really don’t get it at all, or worse, when what seems to be the Truth is impossible for us to accept. Some of the disciples in our John reading today did just that.
At other times, I have figured it out. Aha! Eureka! I am loved! I am on the right path after all! This is how it works!
Mostly, I think I’m a bit like Peter.
So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
When I have not known what on earth was going on, I can truthfully say that there has always been something I could still cling to. I am so grateful for those small, glistening diamonds. There’s been something I still believed, sometimes without being able to explain why, because I just knew it to be true, or more accurately, often because I felt it to be true:
‘God loves me’.
‘I am not alone – God is with me’.
And once, in a very unsettling moment that I doubt I will ever forget, ‘Be silent! God wills you to carry on.’ These things have got me through.
Whatever type of response I hit upon, my over-arching advice to myself is to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Do not give up, no matter how much hard work ‘carrying on’ actually is. Whatever my response to not understanding ‘what in the Sam Hill is going on here’; whether it is to pretend my incomprehension doesn’t matter, to be sorely tempted to walk away in anger, or to flirt with sitting down and embracing a sense of desolation, or to chew on it until I have it figured out, or to simply give the struggle up and collapse into the arms of God because there’s nowhere else to go; I can carry on. I can refuse to leave the path.
“The Cloude of Unknowyng” is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. I will leave you with one of its core pieces of advice:
For the first time you [lift your heart to God with stirrings of love], you will find only a darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing […] Whatever you do, this darkness and the cloud are between you and your God, and hold you back from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in the sweetness of love in your feelings. […] And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for him you love; for if you are ever to feel or see him … it must always be in this cloud and this darkness. […] with a devout and delightful stirring of love … struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.
— The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Translated by A. C. Spearing. London: Penguin. 2001.