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The early church had very significant and very
serious problems with the identity of Jesus. In fact, it took
hundreds of years to come to agreement on the relationship of Jesus to
God and to the Holy Spirit.
So you can imagine what it was like for those OUTSIDE Christianity to make sense of what the Christians believed. They would look to the writings of the early followers of Christ and come up with all kinds of interpretations.
If some Christians thought that Jesus was human, but not divine, which the Arians believed; and some Christians thought that Jesus was divine, but not human, a tendency labeled Docetism; while still others argued that he was both, what were non-Christians to conclude?
Well, Christians pretty much figured it out, and spelled it out, in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the Council of Nicea in the year 325, almost three hundred years after the death of Jesus. But Christians were still stuck, as we are stuck, with the words of scripture.
And in the fifty-sixth verse of the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John we read, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." Is it really any wonder that some opponents of Christianity might accuse us of cannibalism?
What must it have meant to them to hear a religious leader call upon his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Even today there is a hymn in the Episcopalian church which joyously proclaims, "Eat my flesh, drink my blood." So we have to WORK with this.
We have to make sense of it beyond the literal, earthly meanings of the words. Indeed, all of scripture demands that we dig beyond the earthly meanings.
"Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me."
Now, it has been argued that Christianity has borrowed extensively from other religions and even the occult. And some of those who argue that, will pull the conclusion in this verse--"Whoever eats me"-- out of context and claim that we're some kind of vampire cult. Well, I have no problem with the arguments regarding Christianity's relationship to other religions. I flat admit it. But I would contend that Christianity has gone far beyond those relationships.
And before you get lost in the conclusion to that verse, look to the premises which preceded it: "God sent me and I live because of God." Therefore, we find our true life not in the isolated person of Jesus, but in the one who sent him.
But furthermore, understand that all of this can be interpreted as a giant parable! Listen: "This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
And the Jews know quite well what he is talking about when he speaks of "that which your ancestors ate"; it is burned into their memories of the stories of the exodus.
And he is drawing a distinction: there is bread which we may eat, but still die; and there is bread which we may eat, and live forever. And even though the material manna came from heaven, it was STILL material manna. So when Jesus speaks of his flesh as bread from heaven, he MUST be talking on a spiritual level. Because ONLY that which is spiritual can gain us a spiritual eternal life.
And "Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum."
Now, I have to admit that I don't know how the rabbis teach in the synagogues. And even if I knew how they do it now, that probably wouldn't tell me how they did it two thousand years ago. It may have been much different.
I know that there are extensive rabbinical writings on interpretation of scripture, and even extensive interpretations of the interpretations. But it would seem that Jesus has gone beyond all of this.
Jesus is, in fact, telling his listeners that HE is part of the interpretation. This is roughly the equivalent of ME trying to tell you that I am the Messiah, and this is the second coming. And fat chance you're going to believe that.
"When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"
No kidding! Can you blame them? Now, he isn't telling them that he's the Messiah. And even if he did, they wouldn't accept it, because this isn't the kind of messiah most of them are looking for!
But in fact, it might have been easier to sell them on that than it was to sell them on his relationship to God and the promise of eternal life. And if WE didn't know Jesus, and this was the first thing we had heard from him, would WE accept it?
Now, I'm not exactly sure at what point in Jesus' ministry this happened. Nor am I sure who is listening to these words. When the gospel writer speaks of "disciples," I am sure he is speaking of more than the twelve; and I suspect that some--maybe many--don't know all that much about Jesus.
So, in response to that question, "...Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you?"
Sometimes the Bible can be VERY difficult to read, because we impose our own cultural interpretations on the words. If I were to say something to you, and then ask if I had offended you, it would almost always be interpreted as a tacit apology.
So is that what Jesus is doing? In the original Greek text, the root of this word was something like "scandalize." But that doesn't help us much either. And yet, I definitely do NOT think that Jesus is apologizing for anything. In fact, a more contemporary interpretation for the question, "Does this offend you?" might read, "Do you have a PROBLEM with that?"
Listen to what Jesus follows with: "Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?"
It's almost as if to say, "You ain't seen nuthin' yet." And it is PROPHECY! But is Jesus TRYING to offend his listeners? Is he TRYING to upset them? Or is he just aware that they WILL have difficulty making sense of him?
When I read this passage, I am reminded of a nagging question in my own mind: "Where does one BEGIN with the gospel message for those who haven't heard it?" Those of us who have been Christians for years may take much for granted--maybe too much. And we may have difficulty understanding what it could be like to be offended by a difficult teaching.
So after Jesus raises these questions, he tells his listeners, "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
And suddenly, this whole earthly notion of "eating my flesh" evaporates. It is gone! And Jesus is quite pointedly directing his listeners to a higher, spiritual level.
The eating of flesh and the drinking of blood was just a means to a higher level of understanding, not an end in itself.
I think it's really too bad that Christianity has become so divided over the celebration of the Eucharist. We use words like consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and we speak of the so-called "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament of communion. And unlike the United Methodist church, where we invite all to the Lord's table, some denominations deny such participation because others might have a "different understanding" of the sacrament.
I wonder if Jesus really cares about the intellectual gymnastics we perform in interpreting the bread and the wine as his body and blood.
And then he tells his listeners, after seeming to draw a conclusion to his remarks, "But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him."
This may be hind-sight, second-guessing speculation on the part of the gospel writer. Of course, there were some who did not believe. That is obvious from their response in the earlier part of the passage. But did Jesus necessarily know WHO they were from the FIRST? And how did Jesus' betrayal happen to slip into this passage? How does Judas fit into all of this? Or is the writer taking some liberties?
But to follow up on Jesus statement, "...among you there are some who do not believe," "...he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
Now that IS a difficult teaching. Because Jesus seems to be saying just the opposite in the sixth verse of the fourteenth chapter of the gospel according to John: "No one comes to the Father except through me."
So how do we resolve this? Well, what I find most pervasive in John's gospel is Jesus total reliance on God the Father. Listen to the high priestly prayer of the seventeenth chapter, specifically the sixth verse, but reinforced throughout the chapter: "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world."
So what is the result of this teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum?
"Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."
It was just too much. Do you suppose this bothered Jesus? I'm reminded of one of the problems of the institutional church, the church as a local congregational organization. We pastors are always worried about keeping everybody happy, because if we don't, some of you may get upset and walk out the door and never come back.
But more experienced, more mature--maybe I should say more theologically mature--pastors would claim that that doesn't really matter. That our task, first and foremost, is to be a servant of Jesus Christ, and if that means that some folks walk out the door, so be it.
And other pastors have told me that if a congregation is enthusiastically in the service of Jesus Christ, for every disgruntled member that walks out the back door, there are a multitude waiting to get in the front door.
"So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Now, consider what the writer has already said: "Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe." So if he knew, why is he asking the twelve? Well, whether he knew or not, this is a true test of the twelve. They are placed in a position where they must commit themselves. But Jesus is not phrasing this in an either-or question; he's phrasing it negatively. Almost as if he's giving them the opportunity to bow out gracefully with the rest of the departing herd. "Do you ALSO wish to go away?"
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
And it almost sounds like Peter is saying, "We don't have any choice." But on the positive side, what he is really saying is, "ONLY you have the words of eternal life." And Christians who truly believe don't really have any choice. Once we know who Christ is, and come to believe in him, where else CAN we go?
Which is exactly the conclusion Peter comes to. "We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
And once we reach that understanding, there is no one else to whom we can go. Once we come to believe and know who Jesus is, the teaching is no longer difficult, and we can accept it.
"It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” The words that Jesus had spoken, to the disciples and to us, were and are spirit and life.
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