"This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" - John 6:60
For five weeks now we have dwelt within the sixth chapter of the fourth gospel, an extended meditation on bread, manna, spirit and life. Those of us in the preaching trade wonder why it is the lectionary insists on our taking in the entire chapter week after week, ever challenged to find something new, something fresh, something relevant to proclaim. Yet, here in the waning verses of the chapter we hear even the disciples admit that the teaching on bread is difficult; who can accept it? Jesus replies to their frustration, our frustration, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:61-63
One has to admire this about Jesus, even if you don’t choose to follow him: whenever he senses we are beginning to “get it” he turns it up one more notch – he finds some new way to challenge our already challenged hearts and minds with the next “what if.” After nearly 60 verses on the essential efficacy of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he goes on to say that “the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It turns out there is more to eternal life than Eucharist.
Archbishop William Temple in his seminal look at the fourth gospel, Readings In John’s Gospel, teases out the essence of what is being said here. Why not, after all, talk about receiving the Sprit in the first place? Why all this extended metaphor on bread – on body and blood – if after all is said and done, the flesh “is useless”? Temple’s argument suggests it is as if the compilers of John could foresee our own time when the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com are crammed with facile books on the “spiritual life,” and urgings to simply contemplate the beauties of nature, as fine as that may be, instead of accepting the ascended Spirit and Life of the crucified one through eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
But, says Temple, we are not only to receive him in some general way, and recollect the scenes from his life which we already prefer to remember, but we must “receive him in the fullness of his self-sacrifice, that we may be united with him in the self-emptying of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8).” That is, we can easily fall into the delusion that mere taking by mouth the consecrated bread and wine is in itself to receive eternal life. The flesh and blood, even of the Son of Man, is not all of it. The flesh and blood of the Ascended One, though, are plainly not just matter, for the Ascended One is not seated somewhere far-off, but rather is here in the midst of all human suffering, for He has suffered Himself.
To give in to mere materialism, then, is not our calling, but rather to become Spirit and Life, his Spirit and his life, a life of self-sacrifice and self-emptying. The temptation, however, is always there to depend solely on our selves rather than out of the radical dependence of manna season as exemplified in the wilderness and the early church. Manna season, typified by everyone getting enough, no one gets too much, and, as in the Book of Acts, all resources are allocated for the good of the whole community. This is the Biblical world view.
The Bible goes to great pains to make clear what happens when one holds back resources that are meant for the good of the whole community. In the book of Joshua when a battle is lost the special prosecutor determines it is because one man, Achan, has held back in his tent some of the booty of a previous battle for himself; material that was meant to sustain the whole community. In chapter 2 of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira withhold the profits of selling their property from the early Christian community and, as they are found out they drop dead when they admit to the Sin of Achan. No wonder the disciples regard this teaching on bread as so difficult!
Today we call this Sin of Achan and Ananias and Sapphira the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a sad little woman who imagined a lonely life of isolation, one individual pitted against all others, competing for the stuff of the world, stuffing one’s tent for one’s own self-interest. It is a kind of radical materialism. You can read all about it in her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. Rand magically transforms the western canon when she turns the Sin of Achan, Ananias and Sapphira into a Virtue with a capital “V”. Some believe this to be “the American Dream.” Oddly, she seemed to have believed this kind of radical materialism would somehow combat the materialism of Totalitarian Communism.
The Objectivism of Self-Sufficiency is in direct conflict with a Biblical World view of collective dependency on what the Lord seeks to provide on a daily basis. Even Jesus, when asked how to pray, suggested that we pray for “daily bread.” Jesus imagined a return to Manna Season and radical dependence on God’s daily bread. Jesus lived among us as an example of self-giving and self-sacrifice.
Contrast Ayn Rand’s vision, one which is proclaimed loudly by some members of congress to this day, with the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, valedictorian of his class, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary to study to become a priest and disciple of Jesus. As a seminarian he went south to join in the Civil Rights movement. He and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) went to Fort Deposit, Alabama to protest some stores that only allowed white customers, were arrested and placed in a jail in nearby Haynesville. A few days later they were freed without bail, but left in the streets of Haynesville without transport back to Fort Deposit. As Daniels and some others, including a 17 year-old African American girl, Ruby Sales, went to buy a Coke at a nearby store. A man with a shotgun took aim at Ruby, Daniels pushed her aside and took the blast himself which left him dead and saved her life. She has gone on to live a long live as a civil rights activist. Spirit and Life, self-sacrifice and self-giving. Johnathan Myrick Daniels gave his life on August 20th, 1965, fifty years ago this week, and just eight years after Atlas Shrugged.
Two worldviews: Objectivism vs The Gospel of Spirit and Life. The relevance of all of this needs no explanation. Just ponder the news every day. We live in the sixth chapter of John for more than one month every third year because it would be too easy to forget just what it is Jesus is talking about. This teaching is difficult. It takes time for us to take it in. We live in a world that is driven by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, a world driven mad by markets and visions of self-sufficiency.
Maybe a world that has lost touch with the kind of collective spirit imagined in the Bible drives people to extreme acts of violence. Maybe self-sufficiency is not all it is cracked up to be. Maybe a world that has walked away from Manna Season has crushed our spirit. Has it ever occurred to us that in our drive for self-sufficiency we actually create evildoers? It is worth thinking about as we ponder what we need as a vision moving forward from what looks more like Mass-Murder and Violence Season than Manna Season.
Temple concludes that the purpose of this long and sometimes strange discourse on bread is meant to remind us of our total spiritual dependence on Christ, to guard against any sense of materialism or magic in the Eucharist which is our main means of effecting our spiritual dependence on Christ, and to secure that our dependence on Christ is inseparable from his redeeming sacrifice and life of self-giving and self-emptying. No wonder it is so bewildering. It is patently counter-cultural. And yet, it is the life of the Biblical worldview of some 3,000 years, oft maligned, but infrequently adopted and lived. God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. When will we be moved to return home? Amen.