Sunday, August 22, 2021
This teaching is difficult. How can anyone accept it?”
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
“This teaching is difficult. How can anyone accept it?” Wow what a great question. It is a great question because a lot of the teachings in the bible are difficult, challenging. In fact, this gospel passage clearly states, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” So on this beautiful Sunday morning where I’d rather make a joke about the armor of God PJs that you can get online that are based on today’s epistle, we need to confront these tough teachings.
The problem of tough teachings and challenging bible passages has been on my mind for a long time but was really brought to a head during my time at the Biblical Storyteller’s conference that I attended virtually last weekend. There were workshops on tough passages and telling stories in tough times.
At the storyteller’s festival we had some wonderful, creative and thought provoking liturgies. We confronted some difficult subjects all under the direction of a talented Lutheran pastor who is about 40. I asked this millennial if these services were ones he did at his parish and he said, “Are you kidding, I can’t get away with this type of difficult material in my parish. They would not put up with it.”
Walter Brueggemann in a presentation he gave about the Psalms on Cape Cod several years ago, when I was a curate, was making the point of how the psalms are filled with calls for social justice, care for the poor and fairness. One person asked him why we don’t hear this from pulpits and he pointedly answered, “Because if your minister really preached the word of God you would fire him or her.” When you stop and think about it by our standards as a church planter Jesus failed. He didn’t have very many members after three years. In fact in today’s passage he lost almost all but the 12!
So what makes for these tough teachings?
The Gospel of John can be a very difficult gospel to understand. First of all Jesus is speaking about the mystical union of what we now call the Trinity. This is one of the huge mysteries of theology.
An I wonder question that I have is did Jesus really say all of this? This extended teaching is only in John. In fact, I wrestle with how much of what John claims Jesus said, is really his community’s teaching about who Jesus and Christ are. The final discourse, the long teaching on Maundy Thursday at John’s last supper goes on for four full chapters and does not show up in any of the other gospels. I believe as do other commentators that this is a presentation of John’s theology of Christ and his in dwelling with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The clue comes in several commentaries that mention that John is writing for two audiences and at two levels. He’s telling the story of Jesus, but he is also writing to his community some 80+ years later. The gospel of John is theologically much deeper and more developed than the other gospels because the theology of the nature of Jesus and the Cosmic Christ has had a great deal more time to develop. We also have in John the development of the relationship of the Father and the Son in a way that is unique to his gospel.
John’s community was also entering into a time where there several heresies beginning to develop. Well, they were heresies once we had the creeds developed and that took 300 + years. But what this meant is that there were competing and conflicting thoughts on the nature of Jesus and who he was as well as what he was.
Docetism was starting and this was the belief that Jesus was never human. There was no incarnation. Jesus only appeared human so we could see him and understand him. One modern branch of Christianity that embraces that is Christian Science. They do not celebrate Christmas because they believe that Jesus was never human.
With that background, let’s look at the passages for the past several weeks. John is trying to combat the Docetic heresy with his bread of life passage. Jesus has come down from heaven in physical form and sacrificed is body and blood for us in a very physical way. By the time of John’s gospel the Eucharist as we know it had become a more widely accepted.
The bread of life metaphor is trying to draw people into a relationship with Jesus that is like what Christ has with Father. The eucharist is how we share in the life of Christ. This is why it becomes a Christocentric interpretation of the manna story of Moses. God gives the ancient Israelites manna during the exodus, but the Eucharist is not only physical food but spiritual food. The spiritual body and blood feed our souls, the eternal part of us. Now exactly how you understand that may vary from person to person in the Episcopal Church. We do not insist on just one specific theology of the eucharist.
Rachel Held Evans in her video on communion said, “In church’s who have Eucharist and have a deep understanding that this is more than just symbolic, we are fed every week when we come to the rail.” We come, kneel, and put our hands out in a very humble gesture to receive the body and blood and we do it in remembrance of what Jesus did for us by becoming human to show us how to be human. By dying on the cross to change our understanding of God that had gotten so warped at the time of Jesus. To take into us this outpouring of God’s love for us.
That is why our time apart with virtual services was so difficult and for those who still cannot attend continues to be difficult. This is why the vestry and I are working so hard to make sure that we stay with in person services and ask you to be careful. You cannot replace coming forward to receive the bread and wine in that very physical way and we do not want to lose that again.
The Eucharist is an essential part of what being a member of this church is about. This is the message that John is teaching us over these several weeks. We become part of the mystery when we take that bread and that wine and put that into our bodies. We become part of the Christ mystery this way.
I can’t explain how any better than John tried to do, but I do know that John and his community embraced the mystery and I invite you to embrace the mystery. Don’t worry about trying to explain it. Far greater minds than ours have tried. But come and be fed!