John 6:35, 41-51 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost â€“ for Sunday, August 9, 2015
â€œThe Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, â€œI am the bread of life that came down from heaven.â€ (John 6:41)
Call me a grumbler.
Itâ€™s as if the Jesus in Johnâ€™s Gospel referred to me when criticizing the Jews and their questions.
They grumbled about him claiming to â€œcome from heaven.â€
They grumbled because he was the â€œbread of life.â€ (Indeed, in the verses following todayâ€™s Gospel reading, the â€œJewish oppositionâ€â€”as John labeled themâ€”grumbled about eating Jesusâ€™ flesh. Fools! Didnâ€™t those no-nothings know anything about metaphors?)
The opposition grumbled about him being anything other than Joseph and Maryâ€™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 oppositionâ€™s grumbles arenâ€™t really my grumbles, I do grumble: about the elusive and enigmatic Jesus; about how someâ€”including, frankly, meâ€”act as if they possess secret knowledge on Godâ€™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. Iâ€™m grateful they welcome the â€œspiritual but not religiousâ€ types. I respect how they encourage members to honor each personâ€™s individual path.
And yet I couldnâ€™t worship there. I missed grumbling about Jesus.
I must be as honest as possible here. As Iâ€™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 Johnâ€™s author grimly deemed the Jews as â€œopposition.â€ 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 â€œopposition.â€
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 donâ€™t. Iâ€™ve learned too much of what is hopeful and holy from other faith traditions. Iâ€™ve known too many that boast about being Christian . . . but callously lie, cheat, and belittle others. Iâ€™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 Maryâ€™s son. Iâ€™ve read and studies and prayed and conclude we only have fleeting glimpses of what it means to call Jesus â€œthe Christ.â€ In the season of Easter, it perplexes me that every Gospel has a different account of events. Why couldnâ€™t they get their stories straight, for Godâ€™s sake?
I am on a narrow, rocky path and Jesusâ€”always striding forwardâ€”forever seems to ghost around the next bend. There he is! Oops, heâ€™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, Iâ€™ll call God . . . God. But all inadequate, faithful namesâ€”Jehovah, Almighty, Creator, and a divine batch of other titlesâ€”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 didnâ€™t Johnâ€™s author have Jesus swap stories with the grumbling disciples or the grumbling crowds?
The easy answer? Thereâ€™s no need for more parables because the other Gospels included lots of Jesusâ€™ swell stories.
Easy doesnâ€™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 toldâ€”including those from the excluded Gospel of Thomasâ€”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 Borgâ€™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 â€” 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 â€œJesus.â€ Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.
Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection â€” 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 donâ€™t want. It frequently doesnâ€™t suit my purposes. And thatâ€™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.