First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 13

William Loader

Pentecost 13: 23 August John 6:56-69

Once again this Sunday’s reading begins with the final verses of last Sunday’s reading: 6:56-58. It refreshes our hearers’ minds (assuming they were there last Sunday!) about statements which might offend. Certainly the claim that people should eat Jesus’ flesh and brink his blood is grossly off putting when taken literally. Beginning the reading in this way almost dictates that the ‘hard saying’ referred to in 6:60 must be this statement. It may be, but when we read John 6 as a whole we would also recall the grumbling about Jesus’ claim to have descended from heaven. That is probably just as much in mind. The basic conflict is about how to read or hear what Jesus is saying. A physical, literal reading misses the point altogether, as did Nicodemus and as do so many others in John.

6:61-62 suggest that an even more preposterous idea is that Jesus as Son of Man is ascending to where he was before. Here John is playing on the double meaning of the crucifixion. At a literal, physical level it is shame and horror, especially for his followers. But to the eyes of faith his crucifixion is his glorification, his return to the glory he shared with the Father before the world began (see 17:5). Elsewhere John uses the word which means, ‘to lift up’ or ‘to exalt’. When he is ‘lifted up’ on the cross, he is, to the eyes of faith, being ‘exalted’ to glory (see 3:13-15; 12:32).

When 6:63 declares that ‘the Spirit gives life; the flesh is unprofitable’, it is saying that a literal, physical understanding misses the point about Jesus. Only from the perspective of faith, informed by the Spirit, do we see Jesus’ true meaning. These are the same categories used in the conversation with Nicodemus. Only people born of the Spirit understand the things of the Spirit. 6:64-65 then reiterates why some do not see: they are not ‘given’ by the Father. See the discussion of this explanation the Sunday before last when we considered its appearance in 6:40-51. It is not as though humankind consists of those born of the Spirit and those not, those ‘given’ and those not ‘given’. Rather, the challenge is to allow oneself to be reborn, to become one of the ‘given’ ones.

Whereas in 6:40-51 the conflict appeared to be between Jesus (and his followers) and other Jews (‘the Jews’) who did not believe, here the division is among Jesus’ own followers. Many of Jesus’ own followers found these claims about Jesus ‘over the top’. John may be reconstructing the history of Jesus’ ministry, but he might just as well be reflecting the history of Christian communities of which he knows. Some Christians felt the claims made by John about Jesus went too far. They certainly go a lot further than what we find in the other gospels, although from a historical perspective we can sense strong commonality. We find hints at such divisions among Jesus’ followers also in 8:30-31 and certainly later, in 1 John, where ‘the boot is on the other foot’, so to speak, because it is those who have left the community who have been making the more outrageous claims.

In 6:64 and then in 6:70-71, not included in the Lectionary selection, John alludes to Judas. Judas becomes a model of those believers who do not go along with these higher claims. This is rather severe. The issue underlying both John 6 and John 8 appears to be the claim that Jesus, in effect, replaces what they believed Torah always had been: the source of life. When the two are contrasted, as they are in John, with one, the Law, becoming the merely the foreshadowing of and testimony to the other, Jesus, people who try to hold both are forced into a dilemma. John’s gospel shows that the writer is aware that Christians also held mediating positions. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘secret disciples’.

We are not asked to take sides in the debate underlying these texts, but to affirm what they affirm. The affirmation is clear: in the words of Peter: ‘To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that you are the Holy One of God’ (6:68-69). Fear of losing their tradition is, I suspect, what held other disciples back from joining this confession. Fear is frequently a factor in such resistance. It needs to be heard. John suggests it was also an overemphasis on literalness. Pieces of the jigsaw that do not fit together at all at that level of perception may at another. To some degree it is about how religious language works. It is not that our faith should remain abstract, but there is strength in recognising that much religious language is extended metaphor and that behind it may lie a meta-language, a grammar of meaning which can generate a diversity of statements, but at its core makes a single claim. John’s religious language is certainly like this. Its single core claim is about life in relation to God. Jesus is the major image or icon in whom we see God’s light and life.

The claim of the fourth gospel is that Israel’s religious heritage is not to be abandoned but to be owned as metaphor which bears witness to the truth. The claim is controversial. John does much the same with anecdotes about Jesus’ ministry as he does with the Old Testament. In his hands they are all but left behind as they are transformed signs or symbols of divine life. This is what has happened with the feeding of the 5000. It may offer a fruitful avenue for handling our diverse religious heritage today.

Epistle: Pentecost 13: 23 August Ephesians 6:10-20