John 6: 56
So reads the opening phrase of the gospel lesson assigned by our Revised Common Lectionary for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. For us post-modern folk as well as for the turn-of-the-first-century audience for whom this was written, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (Jn. 6:60)"
The Greek word translated here as "difficult" is skleros. According to Zerwick's Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament (1993), it can mean "hard to take" or "unacceptable." According to the German Bible Society's Greek Dictionary (and you know how smart those German guys are!), the word can also mean harsh or terrible. Basically, John's characters are telling Jesus that this flesh-eating, blood-drinking thing is offensive to them.
Granted, it sounds a little creepy to most of us, too. So how do we interpret this text? I can always take the academic coward's way our by pointing out that, according to the really smart fellas of the Jesus Seminar (and I don't know why there weren't any women in their little club), Jesus probably never said anything at all like this. John's gospel was composed almost seventy years after the time of Jesus and seems to be prone to a little improvisation.
So, I hear you ask, if Jesus didn't say it, why is it in the Bible? Good question. Here's my best guess: By the time John was writing his gospel, everyone in the Christian community knew about the sacrament we call Holy Communion. But only those who were really in fellowship with the Christian community actively participated. Remember: at this time Christianity was officially an outlaw religion in the Roman Empire. Those who committed themselves to the faith risked being ostracized from their society, and, possibly, risked imprisonment or death. The ones who actively received the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament were the ones who had made a life-altering choice to be followers of Jesus.
The Judeans depicted in the sixth chapter of John take "bread" and "flesh" very literally. John's Jesus, however, uses the meal commemorating his physical sacrifice on the cross as a reflection of spiritual food. Jesus has provided a nourishment for this little group that no one else could. He's given them love for each other, faith in eternity, and courage. Those who who receive this spiritual food abide in Jesus and he abides in them.
John loves this word, "abide." It means, literally, "to pitch a tent with." That is, those who abide with Jesus are as intimate with his teachings, suffering, and resurrection as they are with the people who live under their roof. They live in the constant presence of Jesus, and everything they do is informed by sacrificial love (both God's sacrifice and our own willingness to give to each other), and the empty tomb promise of eternal life. Which, come to think of it, are not bad things to live with!
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I kind of like the fact that the RCL has paired this gospel lesson with a reading from Joshua 24 in which Joshua, the successor to Moses who has led the people of Israel in victorious conquest of the Promised Land, confronts the nation and asks them to "choose this day whom you will serve (Josh 24:15)." He then rattles off a list of local tribal gods (folks in that time had not yet figured out that there is only One God). Both of these lessons sound a call for commitment. Personally, I often think the difference between those who claim to be "spiritual" but not "religious" is a simple unwillingness to commit.
But if we are not committed, not willing to abide with the God of sacrifice and resurrection, to what god do we commit ourselves? In what deity do we abide? In John's text, Simon Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go?"
There are tons of tribal gods upon which we can rest our allegiance, but which has the words of eternal life? Do we abide in...
...our wealth and security? Great, until the economy tanks or we fall ill.
....our government or our free market? Please..!
...our job? Wonderful, until we're laid off or we retire.
....our intelligence? Until we make that stupid decision or until Alzheimer's strikes!
...our local sports teams? Not in Philly this year!
...the goodness of human nature? Only until a maniac opens fire in a movie theater in Colorado or a junkie in New Jersey decapitates her two-year-old child.
No. An old country/gospel song puts it like this:
Living below in this old sinful world
Hardly a comfort can afford,
Striving alone to face temptation so...
Where could I go but to the Lord?
Where could I go? Oh, where could I go?
Seeking the refuge for my soul.
Needing a friend to save me in the end,
Where could I go but to the Lord?
Lord, to whom shall we go?
Thanks for stopping by, my friends.