Monday, August 17, 2015
Mapping John 6
Twice in the last month, as we have made our way painstakingly through John 6 in our lectionary. I have found myself approaching Sunday's sermon with no clear sense of direction. Thankfully, I'm not preaching this Sunday. (If I were, I'd probably preach on Ephesians 6, which is a powerful passage.) In those moments when I was stuck, however, I finally found direction when I went back and read the whole chapter. This seems like another good week to do just that--reread all of John 6.
It's amazing to see how this conversation begins with the feeding of the 5,000 and continues through the whole Bread of Life discourse with its many layers. Really, it's one long story--too long to read all at once in Sunday worship but intrinsically whole to the point that it shouldn't be broken up in the preacher's mind. We need to see the big picture even when we're preaching on a small part. As I reread the whole chapter, I see a theme that leads us to Sunday's reading (John 6:56-59) as a way (thankfully) to wrap up the whole discourse.
Notice again these specific verses from John 6:
v. 4: "Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand."
v. 22: "On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone."
v. 42: "So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.'"
v. 52: "The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'"
v. 60: " When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to ?it'"
Although the whole story unfolds in a clear progression--first the feeding, then the explanation of the feeding, then the invitation to seek the food that lasts, then the identification of Jesus as that food, then the connection of Jesus' own flesh and blood with that food, and finally the confirmation of that fact--the audience whom John identifies changes throughout. We have "the Jews" and "the crowd" and "his disciples." How they each hear his message is an important focus of this chapter.
From the beginning--even before the feeding of the 5,000--John lets us know that the Passover was near. In fact, to describe it as "at hand" suggests that it wasn't only around the corner but was right upon them--to the point where preparations would have already begun. That implies that the whole exchange--from baskets of leftover bread and fish to the command to eat Jesus' flesh and blood--is unfolding in that context. The reader (and preacher) should ask throughout, "How is this story held in tension with the Passover tradition? How is it informed by the Passover narrative? How might it supplant that story?"
In the exchanges that follow, Jesus pushes the limits. Each time, he gets further and further away from what the traditional Jewish hearer would find comfortable. "Wait, you're telling us that you can feed us better than Moses fed our ancestors? Wait, you're telling us that you are the food that gives life to the world? Wait, you're telling us that you've come down from heaven? Wait, you're telling us that we must eat your flesh and blood?" The portrayed audience at each step is important.
Initially, "the crowd" pursues Jesus and his disciples because they want more bread. They are an innocuous, bumbling group that doesn't really know what it's looking for. But, as the conversation becomes more theologically challenging, the interlocutors opposed to Jesus are identified as "the Jews." We must stop and realize that for John, "the Jews" doesn't mean all Jewish people but a very specific group of religiously, socially, politically powerful people in 1st-century Palestine. They are different from "the crowd." Throughout all of John's gospel account, they are the group that is opposed to Jesus. John likes to use the term "the Jews"--probably because of the anti-Semitic fervor that ran rife in the church in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries--but we should hear that as something closer to "the Jewish authorities" or "Jesus' Jewish opponents." They are the ones who push back on Jesus' radical statements--and of course they do! Given the controversial things he is saying, someone needs to push back.
And then we come to this Sunday's reading. Instead of "the crowd" or "the Jews," John brings this debate much, much closer to home and tells us that "many of his disciples" had some issues with what he had said. Even his closest comrades said to him, "This is a hard saying." And that's where we find ourselves in the story. Jesus' teaching isn't just a challenge for those who are opposed to his message. It is challenging even for his most devoted followers. And, if we aren't perplexed and unnerved by his teaching, we're missing it.
What is Jesus' answer to them? What is his answer to us? Yes, it is a tough teaching. No, I'm not backing down from it. But you have other ways to see confirmation of its truth: "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" Actually, we did see that. Well, we didn't, but his followers did. They saw a confirmation that Jesus is heaven-sent. And, if he really has come down from heaven to give life to the world, even the most bizarre message is gospel truth for us to hear.
This Sunday, keep the whole story in mind. Take a moment to remind us where we've been in the Bread of Life narrative. Lead us to the heightened controversy of last week. Allow us to ask the same question as the disciples--a quiet inquiry among friends. And then remind us that we aren't let off the hook. It is a tough thing to hear, but we hear it from the one who came down from heaven indeed to give life to the world.