I want to begin by pointing out three things that are extremely important to keep in mind when reading and interpreting the Gospel of John. First, this Gospel talks a lot about believing, but John’s understanding of believing is not the understanding that is reflected in the way many people use the term today. In John’s Gospel, believing redemptively, believing that leads to what John calls eternal life or simply life, always includes the elements of trust and faithfulness. To believe in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines or theology about Jesus. It involves trusting in and being faithful to Jesus in the way he incarnates the grace and truth of God as the living Word or Wisdom of God.
Second, whenever John talks about receiving or appropriating eternal life, never is he talking only about life in the future, life after physical death. Rather, he is always talking about the life of God that is available and accessible and to be entered into and experienced now. For John, God’s life – eternal life – is experienced in the eternal now. Whatever this life might look like in the future after we die, it will be in some sense be a continuation and development of what begins now. Eternal life is now before it is later. New Testament scholars call this realized eschatology.
Third, if you read John’s Gospel literally you are most certainly going to misread and misappropriate this Gospel. This Gospel is meant to be read spiritually, symbolically, and metaphorically. Really, this is true of all sacred texts, but especially John. The text itself tell us this in a number of different ways.
Out text today begins with John’s Jesus saying that he is the living bread and whoever eats this bread will experience life now and forever. He then identifies the bread as his flesh which he gives for the life of the world.
The crowd doesn’t get it. The crowd could well represent many of John’s readers. They say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They are thinking literally. Not good.
In response John’s Jesus paints an even more graphic picture. He says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life [now] and I will raise them up on the last day.”
On one level (sacred texts have levels of meaning) John’s church is making a connection to what we call Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. That, however, I’m sure is not the primary connection or meaning intended.
There is a clear parallel between this statement and one previously made in verse 40 where we read: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life [now]; and I will raise them up on the last day.” These two statements are similar. Seeing and trusting are parallel to eating and drinking.
A connection has already been made in this passage between the bread that Jesus is and the bread or manna that sustained Israel in the desert. As in the Lord’s prayer where we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” the bread is symbolic. It is symbolic of that which sustains and nourishes our spiritual existence. Bread was staple food in that culture.
In many ancient cultures and particularly the Hebrews, blood was thought to have special power. It was thought to contain the life force of the body and soul. For the Hebrews, the life force of soul and body, of human life was in the blood.
So, in this passage, when John’s Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is talking about seeing, knowing, experiencing, trusting, appropriating, assimilating the basic stuff, the foundational stuff that can sustain and support a spiritual life. This is the stuff that will grow and nurture an evolving spiritual life.
And what is this stuff? Well, it’s the stuff Jesus embodies in his flesh as the living Word, as the living revelation of God. We can go back to the prologue, the introduction in 1:1-18, which gives us the key to interpreting this Gospel. The prologue is the key to interpreting this Gospel. There we read, “The Word/Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son [or unique son], full of grace and truth.”
The foundational stuff, the basic stuff that will ignite and fuel and feed a spiritual life (what John’s Gospel calls eternal life) is the stuff Jesus embodied, it is the stuff Jesus incarnated in his flesh, it’s the stuff he fleshed out, namely, the grace and truth of God – the love of God, the compassion of God, and the wisdom of God.
This is what we are invited to eat and drink sisters and brothers. This is what we need to see with spiritual eyes and trust in and be faithful to, namely, the love of God, the wisdom of God, the grace and truth of God that Jesus manifested in his words and deeds, and in his actions and conversations.
This is about a growing, evolving, dynamic spiritual relationship – where we mirror the life of God that Jesus mirrored. This is about a divine-human interaction – that is messy, unpredictable, sometimes comforting, but often challenging and provocative. It’s never a straight line. If you try to chart this it would have to be with a line that goes up and down. It’s usually three steps forward and two steps back. There are starts and stops. There’s progression and regression.
In 2014 I participated in a conference at Georgetown College called, “Re-imagining Faith for America and the World. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. The title of her presentation was, “Experimental Faith.” She began by noting that she learned how to be a minister in a university setting at a university church. She said,
Some people see university churches as anomalies, relics of an earlier time, institutions that sit uneasily with the university’s dedication to research and experimentation. But university churches are full of people who are eager to experiment with faith. Some of those people have been engaged in such experimentation their whole lives. But there are also some with no experience of religious faith at all who come to investigate its possibilities; some who have had painful early experiences with religion and are looking for a place to try to cultivate a new kind of religious life; some looking for a religious community in which no questions are off limits; some who aren’t sure what they think of religion but want to offer themselves in service; some who struggle with the whole idea of God but nevertheless long to learn to pray. For these people, the church embodies the university’s dedication to research and experimentation. Just as classrooms give us the opportunity to find out what we might learn through the lens of history or anthropology or mathematics, churches offer opportunities to find out what we might learn through faith, through service, through community, through prayer.
I love her depiction of the church as a safe place to question and seek. “Churches,” she says, “offers opportunities to find out what we might learn through faith, through service, through community, through prayer.”
At the university church where she participated she was mentored by an Episcopal priest named Bernie Brown. He allowed her to apprentice herself to him. She followed him in and out of dorm rooms, soup kitchens, chaplain’s meetings, always watching and learning.
On Sundays, she assisted Bernie in the celebration of the Eucharist (what we call the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion). After a few weeks, when she seemed to get the hang of things, Bernie asked her to take her turn as the celebrant.
Here is how Dr. Paulsell described the conversation,
I loved what Bernie did at the altar on Sundays—I thought it was beautiful and mysterious—but I had grown up with a very different ritual of communion. In my church, the Lord’s Supper was a meal shared around a table. What Bernie was doing looked more like a sacrifice at an altar. Good graduate student that I was, I knew how important it was to give an intellectually honest account of my beliefs and practices. I wanted to be consistent. I thanked Bernie for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.”
“Oh,” Bernie said—“we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do it in order to find out what it means.”
Think about that response for moment. Paulsell says,
I learned a lot of things in graduate school, but nothing more important or transformative than this: that faith was not a linear movement from right thinking to right action. He taught me that we don’t have to wait until we have everything figured out before we join one another around the table, or the altar. He taught me that it is possible to act our way—pray our way, sing our way--into new ways of thinking. And he taught me that some things can’t be learned until we try them out, experiment with them, turn them over in the light of our experience. Open your arms at the altar, he taught me, and your mind might also open. Open your arms and your mind, and you might change.
She goes on to say that she is always learning and relearning, and there will always be more to learn. She says, “So I keep going back, sometimes as a celebrant, sometimes as a parishioner, always as a seeker, always hoping to catch another glimpse of what it means.”
Always a seeker, she says, always hoping to catch another glimpse of what it means – of what it means to appropriate the bread of life.
Too many Christians today think being a Christian is about believing things with our heads – with our minds – the way we believe some event of history. If that were true then the mentally challenged would be excluded from faith wouldn’t they?
It’s much more about believing things with our hearts. It’s much more about trusting in and being faithful to the things Jesus embodied – the things Jesus promoted and emphasized and lived out through flesh and blood – like: “love one another so that the world will know that you are my disciples. Like: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is why he tells them to abide in him, so they will learn how to love like him. That’s the really important stuff. That’s the flesh and blood of real life, that’s the bread from heaven, and that’s what Jesus so beautifully mirrors – God’s investment and commitment to relationship. And that’s what we are called to live out with each other.
Our good God, may we not be afraid to question, doubt, seek, and explore the claims and possibilities of faith. May our faith be ever growing, evolving, becoming, expanding in ways that make us channels through which your love and grace can flow. Amen.