It’s dangerous to lock biblical interpretation in stone. Like the Constitution or fine art, the bible speaks differently to different contexts and generations. “Honor thy father and mother,” looks a lot different in the age of Medicare and long-term care insurance than it did in the Ancient near-east. Likewise, over the years we have trusted the Spirit to lead us to radically different interpretations of many passages. But what happens when the bible offers its own interpretation?
In this Sunday’s reading from John, the author adds a few editorial notes. John is known for this. I suppose his more abstract and well-developed theological approach needed more internal commentary, but sometimes I wonder whether it gets in the way. In this passage, Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” But then John adds, “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’” That might be true…perhaps Jesus was talking explicitly about the faithless among him and about Judas. But is that all he meant?
What about those among us now who don’t believe? Perhaps our greatest struggle is to let go of the material (“the flesh is useless”) and embrace the spiritual (“the spirit gives life”). If we freeze a passage only into its original context, it becomes a relic of history. Yes, it’s true that Jesus had some followers who deserted him. The end of this passage notes that some who had been with him turned aside because of this difficult teaching on the bread of life. But it’s more than that.
We also struggle with those same issues. Jesus is still speaking to us. As if he were still on the earth, he knows that there are some among us who can’t get past this spirit-flesh, bread-of-life thing. In one way or another, it’ still a stumbling block for those who wish to follow him. For us, that might not be the literal bread and wine of Communion. Instead, it might be the call of discipleship that requires us to relinquish our emphasis on the material. Or maybe it’s the reality of the bodily resurrection. Or perhaps is the belief in the scientifically inexplicable miraculous. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s something.
As I think about the gospel this Sunday, I’m looking for ways to free this passage from the past—from what it might have meant to its original audience—and translate it into the present.