Standing upon the seashore last week, waves crashing calf-high, I begin to notice that as strong and powerful as the crashing waves are, the under current, the under-tow, is far more so. After each wave the resulting under-tow carves away more and more sand beneath my feet. Most of the energy of the wave is beneath the surface. Just so, beneath our surface lives there are things going on, energy and powers at work, that we cannot see, but yet are very real. Some of these powers work for us and some work against us. Some are deep within ourselves, others are deeply rooted in society and the world about us. Like the rudder of a ship beneath the surface of the sea these energies and powers direct where we are going and what we are doing, often without our even knowing it.
As John 6 winds up with more talk about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus (Greek and Latin for the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua), we are told a large number of those following Jesus leave: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” [6:66]. It just makes no sense to them. And these are not opponents – not religious authorities or Roman officials – but people who have been with him, on board, until it has just become too much to bear. This modern day Yeshua, they say, is asking too much with all this talk of eating his body and drinking his blood.
There is no mistake that the life to which he calls them includes difficult demands for any of us who would be faithful. Even the twelve are not so sure, but do decide to stay. Note carefully, everyone is free to go. This is not a cult. There is no coercion. No manipulation. Just as the earlier Yeshua declares at Shechem, you can follow the old gods and idols of the past, or the Lord God of the Passover and Exodus: “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” [Joshua 24:15] To paraphrase the immortal words of the late Joe Strummer, “So you got to let me know, will you stay or will you go?”
The confusion is easy to understand. Those who leave the Jesus movement hear him talking about the body as if it is flesh without Spirit, while incarnation as the narrator of John understands it is embodied flesh with Spirit. The Bible understands that the world and all that is in it is more than just matter. For the Bible matter matters because it is all infused and enlivened with the Lord’s Spirit. This is why at each stage of creation the Lord declares, “It is good.”
Loye Bradley Ashton in Feasting On The Word for this season suggests that we tend to live out of the same confusion as those who leave thinking they are being asked to consume flesh without Spirit. Because of this confusion, we tend to consume “the world without appreciating how God has infused creation with the Spirit; thus we use and discard it in crude and materialist ways,” which includes the way we treat our environment and the way we treat each other. “The ethical imperative at the heart of John’s incarnational theology of the Eucharist is clear,” Ashton writes. “Will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material?”
Those who remain with Jesus are those who abide in him as he abides in them. You’re gonna have to serve somebody – the materialists, or those who serve the Spirit that has created and animates and enlivens the entire universe! Jesus calls us to serve the Spirit in all people and all of creation.
It’s clear, says Jesus, there will be a cost either way. St. Paul depicts it as a battle to the Ephesians. [Ephesians 6:10-20] We need to put on “the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
One notes that within this metaphor of cosmic battle, the faithful are to put on defensive gear: a belt, a breast plate, shoes, a shield and a helmet. The sword is both a defensive and offensive weapon. But note just how odd this armor really is: it consists of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. Not at all like the weapons of the Greek and Roman gods who wield thunder and lightning bolts and tsunami deluges of waves!
To combat the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, not to mention “all the flaming arrows of the evil one,” we are to take our stand alongside the crucified and risen one with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Spirit and Word of God. This is Joshua at Shechem all over again. In fact, when we look around us, and more importantly look beneath the surface of things, we will find that we are always at Shechem. We are always needing to answer Yeshua: will we stay or will we go? Who will we serve? The Evil One? Or, The Lord? With what do we sustain the body blows of this world to take our stand with the One who took a stand against the forces and authorities of evil to give us life – true life. Life in the emerging new eon of Tikkun Olam: repair and healing of this world. Here. And now.
Bob Dylan was jeered at and booed when in 1979 he debuted a group of songs leading off with Gotta Serve Somebody:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you have to serve somebody
You have to serve somebody
It may be the Devil, It may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
In the beginning of a two-year tour he had to stand strong in his faith against critics and audiences who did not want to hear what he had to say. His record company, Columbia Records, would not promote his albums. He and his band had to combat the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil, to simply make the same declaration that Joshua the successor of Moses and Joshua the son of Mary and Joseph had made millennia before him: You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It’s our choice. He calls us to abide in him and promises to abide in us. In these times, we too must stand strong in our faith and join with all those who say, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Which means treating the world and everyone and everything therein as incarnational rather than simply as material.