Most of us, I think, consider Jesus’ ministry with the common people to have been a great success, and it was the religious leaders that Jesus upset so much that they found a way to kill him. His works of healing attracted large crowds. Others were drawn to his teaching. But in our Gospel text today, John says that many of his disciples came to a point where they found Jesus’ teaching offensive. And John says, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Many (not a few, not some, but many) of his disciples stopped being disciples. Many of his followers, stopped following. We are not told why they were offended, other than saying, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it.” John doesn’t tell us why they found it difficult. Maybe they were offended because of what Jesus was asking them to do.
This passage in John 6 is a very difficult passage to wrap our minds around. Now, I know this is a sermon and not a class in New Testament Introduction, but I think it’s important you know a couple of things about the Gospel of John. Anyone who reads all the Gospels carefully should observe that the Jesus portrayed in John is different than the Jesus portrayed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to the consensus of mainline biblical scholarship in John we are not reading the actual words or teachings of Jesus, but rather, what John and his church believed about Jesus. We are reading the teachings of John and his church about Jesus. The claims Jesus makes in John’s Gospel he does not make in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus doesn’t speak the same way in John’s Gospel as he does in the Synoptic Gospels. All four Gospels in our Bible are primarily proclamations, not historical reports, and what is characteristic of all the Gospels in general, is even more characteristic of John’s Gospel in particular. John and his church project their Christianity, their Christian theology and spirituality into the words and teachings of Jesus. Biblical scholars emphasize (and this is important) that in doing that – projecting their interpretations and beliefs into the life and words of Jesus – John and his church were not being deceitful or untruthful in any way. That’s how they proclaimed what they had come to believe and experience. We shouldn’t read our standards of historicity back into these ancient Christian writings. They were proclaiming a life-changing message about what they believed, and this is how they communicated their message.
Biblical texts like our passage today are to be read metaphorically, not literally. That’s really true of the whole Bible, but it’s especially true of John’s Gospel. All religious language is metaphorical language and symbolical language. When John has Jesus talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is obviously speaking metaphorically and symbolically.
So what is John talking about here when he speaks about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Some interpreters hear an echo of the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, but I seriously doubt that’s the emphasis here. What John is talking about, I think, is assimilating the life of Jesus. Eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus is a metaphorical way and symbolical way of talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained, nourished, and empowered by Jesus’ life and teachings. To eat and drink in the life of Jesus is to eat and drink in the love, grace, and truth of God that Jesus incarnated in flesh and blood, that he embodied – fleshed out – in his earthly life.
It’s interesting to note that John uses the word “flesh” in at least three different ways in the sixth chapter of John. Earlier in this chapter Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” In that context “flesh” represents the total life of Jesus given for the world, a self-giving of his life in the cause of God and for the good of others that ends in death. He died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. That’s one way John uses the word “flesh.” A second way John uses the word flesh is in the way I just described. When he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is talking about Christian discipleship – about being sustained and nourished by his life and words. Still another way, a third way John uses the word flesh is when he says (attributing this to Jesus of course) that the spirit gives life, but the flesh is useless. The first two ways John uses the word “flesh” are positive, but this use of the word is clearly negative. Here he uses the word much like Paul does when Paul writes about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit promotes grace, truth, and love; while the flesh promotes just the opposite. In this negative sense, the flesh is an anti-life force that is present in our world and in our lives that opposes God’s love, grace, and truth. And we see this negative, anti-life force very much at work in our national culture and life setting today don’t we?
That’s my lesson in biblical interpretation for this Sunday. But since this is a sermon, let me now pose a more practical question. What is it that causes us to become offended and turn away? Dr. Fred Craddock was for a brief time dean at Phillips Seminary. While acting as dean a woman from the community came to see him. She asked him to come out to the parking lot. This made him a little nervous, but he went. She opened the back door of her automobile, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the
, but had been
in a bad car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as
a school teacher to take care of him. At this point almost all of their
resources were exhausted. She opened the door and said, “I would like for you
to heal him.” Can you imagine? What would you say? Fred said, “Well, I can pray
for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing.” She
got behind the wheel and said to him, “Then what in the world do you do?” And
she drove off. She took offense and left. Why did she take offense? Clearly she
had some different assumptions and expectations than Dr. Craddock on what a
minister should be doing. Just like many of you probably have different
assumptions and expectations about what a minister should be doing? University
I suspect that those who walked away from Jesus, walked away because their discipleship to Jesus was not working out the way they assumed and expected it would. I’m guessing Jesus was not fulfilling their expectations. John tells us that earlier in this chapter many of these followers wanted to make Jesus their king, but Jesus would not conform to their wishes. He refused to fulfill their expectations. Jesus didn’t come to be king. As he tells his disciples in Mark and Matthew, he came not to be served like a king, but to serve as the Servant of God, and to give his life in service for the healing and liberation of many. It’s easy to see why they are so offended and walk away.
In 1977 when I walked in to Dr. Coker’s New Testament Introduction class at Campbellsville College carrying my New Scofield Reference Bible, with not only an infallible text, but with infallible notes as well, Dr. Coker wasn’t impressed. He didn’t concede to all my certitudes and absolutes. He wanted me to toss out my Scofield Bible and think for myself, and it was just too difficult to do. I was offended and I walked away.
But then, as I have talked about before, at a crossroads in my life, a window opened in my mind and I began to realize that all my certitudes about what the Bible says were actually my assumptions and biases that I brought to the Bible. Here’s the way it works for all of us. We are either born or converted into our faith. We are either raised in a particular religious tradition or we are converted into that tradition. Either way, we get indoctrinated, socialized, and enculturated into our particular Christian tradition.
We are taught what the Bible says, we are told what the Bible teaches, even before we actually read the Bible ourselves. So, when we do start reading the Bible, we are already conditioned to read and interpret the Bible in a certain way. The Bible will say whatever you want it to say. The Bible will teach whatever you want it to teach. We all read and interpret the Bible from a particular point of view – that is our bias. It’s unavoidable. You will find what you want to find in the Bible. The real question sisters and brothers, is not what the Bible teaches. The real question, the most important question is: What do you want the Bible to teach? Because the Bible will teach what you want it to teach.
Now, the big challenge we face is that most of us are completely blind to our assumptions and our biases. Those who claim to have no biases are living in the thickest kind of darkness of all. We all read the Bible and interpret our faith according to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires. The key to spiritual growth is becoming aware of this. That’s the first step – awareness. The second step, is intentionality – being intentional about the assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires we have. You can read, make sense, interpret, and apply the Bible with a bias for exclusion or inclusion, for grace or punishment, for welcome or rejection, for exceptionalism or universalism, for judgement as correction or judgment as retribution, and on and on and on. You can find all of these opposites in the Bible. And what you see in the Bible, how you understand it, and how you appropriate it will depend on the agenda you bring to this process complete with all your assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires.
Why is it that we are so blind (I am preaching to myself as well as you) to our assumptions, biases, expectations, and desires that impact so much of what we think, what we believe, and what we do? Why are we so blind to the things that cause us to be so easily offended? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it ego? As I reflect on my own journey I think it has been mostly about my ego and being overly invested in my image or my reputation or my sense of competence. So when I thought those things were being called into question, it was easy for me to feel offended. That’s my journey. It may be completely different for you or someone else. Who really knows why we do what we do.
Have you ever been looking for something and looked in a closet or drawer and couldn’t find it. Then later, you go back to that same closet or drawer and there it is. And you think, Why could I not see that before? How did I overlook this? How did I miss this? oWho knows? I say that all the time about any number of things, especially those things that relate to my faith journey. Why we become offended is not nearly as important as acknowledging that we are offended and then learning and growing from the offense. And as we grow, we become more aware of why we become offended. I regret that I was offended by Dr. Coker and walked away. I wish I had been aware of my biases and assumptions that led me to be so certain that I had the answers, that I had the truth – that I was right and he was wrong. But what would be far worse, sisters and brothers, is that after all these years, I would still be in the same place – being offended by those who question my beliefs. What would be far worse is after all this time I would still be unaware of my assumptions and biases.
Now, back to Dr. Fred Craddock and the woman who wanted him to heal her brother. Remember the story I shared earlier. She definitely had certain expectations based on a bias about what ministers should be doing. And when Fred could not meet those expectations, she was offended and left. Well, Fred was offended too. But he had a different response. The woman asked Fred when he could not fulfill her desires and meet her expectations, “Then what in the world do you do?” Obviously, Fred knew that his responsibility was not to heal her brother. Of course he knew that. But he let the question get inside his ego. He went back into his office and he couldn’t get the question out of his mind, “What in the world do you do?” He didn’t turn his offense toward the woman at all. He turned it inward and questioned his own motivations and expectations and calling as a minister.
When I became offended at Dr. Coker for challenging my beliefs, my assumptions, and my biases about the Bible, God, and all things holy, what if I had turned my attention inward and began to look more deeply into my own soul. Instead of viewing Dr. Coker as the problem, what if I had looked inward and asked, “Why do I believe what I believe?” “Why am I so frustrated and angry and offended that Dr. Coker has challenged my beliefs?” Had I turned my offense inward maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long for me to become aware of the role my ego was playing in my certitudes. I saw Dr. Coker as the problem, when in reality, it was my ego that was the problem. I couldn’t see how defensive my ego was, and I couldn’t see how biased I was. And there are times that is still true. My ego still gets me in trouble. I’m not sure we ever completely overcome our blindness, but there are levels and degrees of blindness and enlightenment.
I’m not sure any of us really become so God-like and divested of ego that we don’t get offended. So the question is: What are we going to do about it? If I react in a negative way maybe I need to ask forgiveness. Or maybe I need to be forgiving. And what I certainly need to do when I am offended is to look carefully at my own biases and expectations and be more aware. And then, I need to be intentional about learning and growing from the experience.
God, help each of us to look deeply into our souls to see why it is that we become so easily offended when our beliefs and our biases and our expectations are challenged. Help us see those areas in our life where we need to grow. Help us to be intentional about the biases and expectations we have – of ourselves and of others. Give us the will to change our biases and expectations so that they inspire us and empower us to become more gracious, more generous, more loving, more Christ-like persons.