John 6:35, 41-51 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, August 9, 2015
“The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.” (John 6:41)
Call me a grumbler.
It’s as if the Jesus in John’s Gospel referred to me when criticizing the Jews and their questions.
They grumbled about him claiming to “come from heaven.”
They grumbled because he was the “bread of life.” (Indeed, in the verses following today’s Gospel reading, the “Jewish opposition”—as John labeled them—grumbled about eating Jesus’ flesh. Fools! Didn’t those no-nothings know anything about metaphors?)
The opposition grumbled about him being anything other than Joseph and Mary’s son, a country bumpkin from a backwater town in a backwater region of the Roman Empire who became a rabble-rouser, a hero to a few and an irritant to most.
While the Jewish opposition’s grumbles aren’t really my grumbles, I do grumble: about the elusive and enigmatic Jesus; about how some—including, frankly, me—act as if they possess secret knowledge on God’s thoughts.
When I left the last church I was serving, I visited other places of worship. I recall attending the Unitarian Universalist congregation. From prior interfaith gatherings, I already knew folks who worshipped there. They were and are great people. I admire how they include Buddhist and Muslim and Hindu beliefs in their worship themes. I’m grateful they welcome the “spiritual but not religious” types. I respect how they encourage members to honor each person’s individual path.
And yet I couldn’t worship there. I missed grumbling about Jesus.
I must be as honest as possible here. As I’ve aged, I like the Gospel of John less and less. Yes, yes, it contains a handful of the greatest passages ever written on faith, on what it means to be Christ-like. But John’s author grimly deemed the Jews as “opposition.” I suspect even a casual reader would agree the fourth Gospel lumped Jews into one category: anti-Jesus people.
John seemed so sure about Jesus. And so sure about the “opposition.”
For me, though, Jesus is enigmatic. That belief is my weakness and my strength. I occasionally wish I could see Jesus as the only way to understand God, as the only one with the key to true faith. But I don’t. I’ve learned too much of what is hopeful and holy from other faith traditions. I’ve known too many that boast about being Christian . . . but callously lie, cheat, and belittle others. I’ve read and studied and prayed about the Biblical memories of Jesus and am convinced we only have a hint of the historic human, of Joseph and Mary’s son. I’ve read and studies and prayed and conclude we only have fleeting glimpses of what it means to call Jesus “the Christ.” In the season of Easter, it perplexes me that every Gospel has a different account of events. Why couldn’t they get their stories straight, for God’s sake?
I am on a narrow, rocky path and Jesus—always striding forward—forever seems to ghost around the next bend. There he is! Oops, he’s gone and I scramble to catch up . . . but never can.
And I can never truly describe, let alone name, God. Oh yes, as with just now, I’ll call God . . . God. But all inadequate, faithful names—Jehovah, Almighty, Creator, and a divine batch of other titles—fall short of the glory of _______. In John, faith is wrapped in a nice package of those who believe about Jesus and God in the right way and the rest that grumble.
I must be as honest as possible here. One of the top (and nagging) reasons I distrust John is the absence of a single parable in its twenty-one chapters. Why didn’t John’s author have Jesus swap stories with the grumbling disciples or the grumbling crowds?
The easy answer? There’s no need for more parables because the other Gospels included lots of Jesus’ swell stories.
Easy doesn’t work for me.
I am suspicious of a Gospel that ignores Jesus as a teller of tales. The lack of a wandering son or wicked tenants or an above-average Samaritan or obnoxious wedding guests or a woman sweeping the floor to find one thin dime is troubling. Why do I think John ignored any version of the familiar parables, or added one unique to the fourth Gospel? Because every story Jesus told—including those from the excluded Gospel of Thomas—can be interpreted and re-interpreted, newly heard and shared in different ways.
John only wanted one way. His way?
And yet, for all my grumbling, I am glad for that.
Do I dislike, distrust, and despair about the Gospel of John?
Yes, sometimes. However. In the (sadly) late Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, he wrote . . .
The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus.” Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.
Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.
If I admit to grumbling, let me also acknowledge being shallow. John is mostly the gift I don’t want. It frequently doesn’t suit my purposes. And that’s one of the honest and troubling truths about faith . . . a living faith is the peculiar balance of comfort and discomfort, of seeking stability and yet always taking risks.
I am on that rocky, narrow path of faith. Jesus has picked up his pace and plunges up the next hill.
I stumble. I grumble. I choose to follow.