* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, November 17, 2014

John 6: Fully Consuming Our Values (or how a Humanist interprets symbolic cannibalism)

As with the previous chapter, John 6 is arranged as a miracle story followed by theological commentary. It's possible to take shorter passages and comment on them as distinct ideas, but the text obviously connects the ideas of Jesus providing food for the masses and claiming to be "bread of life". While we strolled through the gospel of Mark, we took a look at some possible lessons from the story of the five thousand being fed. The version of the story in John doesn't diverge all that much from the story as it appeared in Mark, so we can perhaps just make a few comments about that miracle story and move on into this "bread of life" business.

Some have implied that the feeding of the five thousand suggests a creation miracle. This is one possibility, since there's nothing to require miracle stories to match practical reality. Certainly, the people in the story seem to think that it is an impressive trick, because the author has them pursuing Jesus to see more magic. One might wonder, though, what is the point of creating so much more than needed? Twelve baskets full of food is wastefully more than what was necessary to feed the people there. Either the character of Jesus is a poor judge of appetite, or the twelve baskets are symbolic rather than literal. As to what they symbolize, your guess is as good as anyone else's.

It is apparent from the story, however, that people are impressed enough with Jesus' ability to meet their physical needs that they want to coerce or force him into a position of leadership of their own design. Quite possibly they are revolutionaries, ready to find someone to lead them against Rome. Maybe they are less willing to work for their own well-being if there is someone for whom it is effortless. Strange that the crowds will travel great distances and inconvenience themselves in order for someone else to provide for them. Maybe we are simply meant to see these people as those who couldn't provide for themselves—people who were able to pursue Jesus around the countryside because they had no prospects for work that would provide for their basic needs. Or maybe they are just characters in a story that represent something. Maybe the reader is meant to identify with this wonderstruck crowd.

There's some indication that the Jesus character in the gospel of John is positioned as a "new Moses," a spiritual leader who is superior to Moses and who will lead the people of his generation into freedom. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Israelites are led by Moses out of Egypt and into a barren wilderness, where they eat manna (literally "what is it?"), which Moses tells them is the bread that the Lord has given them to eat. So this passage equating Jesus with a provider of food connects him to Moses covertly, but the author(s) of John make this connection explicit in the theological exposition that follows the miracle story.

Incidentally, we're more or less skimming past the bit about the Jesus character walking on water. There simply isn't much to the scene aside from a fanciful bit of Christian mythology. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate that Jesus is God, since in a Jewish context, God is the one who controls nature. This is an understandable assertion given the beliefs of Christians, but there just isn't much else to draw from it except that Christians find their supernaturally divine version of Jesus to be compelling.

After recounting the tale of miraculous provision of bread and fish for five thousand ill-prepared revolutionaries and Jesus’ escape from their seditionist desires by walking across the sea, the author of John expresses something about the identity of Jesus and the requirements of participating in the kingdom of heaven. We might gain some insight from this passage about our own identities and how we build a better world. True to an internal formula of the fourth gospel, the author conveys this teaching through discourses between Jesus and the hungry crowd, Jesus and the Jews, and Jesus and his disciples. The distinction in these verses centers around “bread that perishes” versus “true bread from heaven.” With the hungry crowd, the author establishes that there really is no comparison between Moses and Jesus, though both spiritual leaders provided sustenance. According to John’s author, Jesus turns the traditional concept of manna on its head. No longer is manna contextualized as heaven-sent, life-giving provision, but it is rather one more example of food that perishes. Everyone who ate of the manna in the wilderness died; by contrast, there is a spiritual bread which nourishes more deeply and abundantly.

Jesus is portrayed here as cunningly insightful with regard to the crowd’s intentions. As with other conversations in the gospel of John, Jesus expresses dismay that people continually want to be amazed with signs and miracles—more eager to have things done for them through supernatural means than they are to assume personal responsibility for their own spiritual maturity. Thus, “bread” in John 6 quickly becomes about much more than physical food; Jesus suggests that preoccupation with one’s appetite for material things will cease to have priority once one gets a taste of more substantive spiritual food. An unfortunate quality of the “bread of life” Jesus offers is that it is a bit more challenging than his listeners are willing to accept, and it is perhaps a challenge to the Jewish authorities that seek to define the spiritual lives of their flocks through precise legalism. While many believers find a reflection of the communion ritual or an assertion of the redemptive power of Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s more likely that the bread of life offered here is a way of being—a path of genuine, fearless love—that threatens to undermine societal structures of control and power.

This isn’t stated explicitly in the gospel, however; the gospel writer simply has Jesus proclaim that he is the bread of life. When the Jewish authorities start to get upset that Jesus claims to have come from heaven, he exacerbates their frustration by claiming that people need to eat his flesh as if it were bread. In fact, he claims that he offers nourishment for the entire world. Jesus even goes a step further and claims that people can only experience heaven if they eat his flesh and drink his blood. At this, even Jesus’ disciples blanch (which in and of itself is enough to suggest that this passage symbolizes something other than a communion ritual, with which an early Christian audience would presumably have been familiar). Beyond that, Jesus then clarifies that he is not talking about physical nourishment but about spiritual nourishment, noting that the spiritual way of life he promoted was something that many people simply could not stomach.

Miraculous provision of food and causing a stir at the temple is all very inspiring, but people even today seem less interested in a teaching that challenges them to live with greater integrity and intentionality. Some Christian thinkers have also seen this passage as dealing with something beyond an uncontroversial communion ceremony. Martin Luther considered this discourse to be a teaching about faith. “Belief in” Jesus is what is meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. At the time that Luther was writing on this passage, however, it was apparently unimportant to define what it meant to “believe in” Jesus. Luther doesn’t go into specifics.

While not likely, it’s possible that the gospel writer intended to convey that faith in Jesus is the one true way to an eternal spiritual life that begins at the moment of one’s death, having little to do with one’s actual earthly existence save the singular decision to believe and perhaps the drive to persuade others to make a similar singular decision in anticipation of earthly death. The portrayal of Jesus' commandments, however, suggests something beyond a mere decision to believe. There is a call to live differently, which may or may not have any connection with a belief in an afterlife. There are behavioral implications to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, and it is likely that the author of John had strong reasons for pointing this out to his own community.

So, we can read John 6 from a perspective that acknowledges Jesus as a model of expected behavior. In the story of the ancient Israelites, Yahweh (through Moses) had provided physical sustenance. Yet, physical sustenance does not provide life; it only delays death. Deep, meaningful, satisfying life must come from something deeper, more meaningful, and more satisfying than mere physical sustenance. Spiritual sustenance is gained through commitment to a way of being, represented here by Jesus’ life and actions. (We can also acknowledge different people who provide equally powerful examples of an inspiring way of being.)

You can’t experience abundant life in small doses, only attempting to exhibit deep love, compassion, and justice when it's convenient. Instead, you have to absorb deeply the very human identity of being loving, compassionate, and just in order to experience abundant life. In the terms of the author of John, you have to take in the very essence of the way of being Jesus represents. “Believing in” Jesus thus becomes synonymous with trusting that the way of life he promotes is possible and preferable. “Believing in” Jesus means recognizing that one must set aside all objections and fears, and consume his way of being into the deepest core of oneself. You don't have to believe that Jesus was a historical fact or that he was any more divine that anyone else in order to wholeheartedly imbibe a loving, compassionate, just way of being.

Incidentally, interpreting the passage this way also takes into consideration the author’s frustration with demands for miracles—actions that ordinary people can't perform. Expecting miracles causes people to rely on some external means of fixing their problems, an external provision of abundant life. What the Jesus character suggests is that there is some personal responsibility for abundant life, fueled internally by individual willingness to transform one’s way of being.

This is as difficult a teaching as cannibalism. Some people have managed to justify actually eating flesh and drinking blood. Fewer people have lived with fearless love as a primary guiding principle. This is an offensive suggestion for both those who have nothing and those who believe they have much to protect, as challenging a call to those people who are oppressed as to those people who benefit from the oppression of others. Living by a principle of universal and fearless love might be exactly what is intended by abundant life, and yet it seems to require more from an individual than it offers to that individual. This is why one must take in that identity completely—to figuratively consume everything about a loving, compassionate, just way of being—to believe in the possibility and desirability of that identity without reservation. Otherwise, our own doubts and fears will always stand in the way of abundant life.

We have to decide where we are in this story about us. Are you a member of the crowd waiting for someone else to be responsible for providing you with a deeply satisfying experience of life? Abundant life can't be given, it has to be lived out. Perhaps you're ready to recognize your own responsibility for living into an identity that reflects a best possible version of yourself. 

Are you in superficial agreement with guiding principles about being loving, compassionate, and just, but doubtful that you can live out those principles in the world? Our guiding principles are there to guide us. When we set them aside for what seem like more reasonable courses of action, we are letting fear get in the way of what we claim to believe. Perhaps you're ready to imbibe your principles more deeply—to take them in completely so that you draw on those values with confidence and conviction.

Are you finding it a challenge to live with integrity and intentionality by guiding principles that contribute to greater well-being in the world, because you seem to give a lot more universal and fearless love than you get in return? Sometimes we have to seek out relationships with other people who are as deeply committed to their guiding principles. And when we aren't getting what we want, it may be because we aren't asking for what we want. If it matters to you that your life reflects your deepest values, perhaps you're ready to seek out the kinds of people who will empower and encourage you in a meaningful way. These aren't always the people who have known us the longest. At the same time, no one can provide the kind of support and encouragement you most want if you don't let people know what you want and need.

A Little Experiment: Act the part. Our actions are fueled by our beliefs, and yet sometimes we have to act on our values even before we are completely confident in our ability to do so. This week, take responsibility for a behavior that reflects a best possible version of yourself, even if you think it won't go so well. If you know what a best possible version of yourself would do, then your behavior will build your confidence in that vision of who you can be.

Another Experiment: Imbibe deeply. If you've done the work in previous weeks of writing down your guiding principles, read over them every day and notice when you have opportunities to live them out. When we make decisions on auto-pilot, we are more likely to let our fear or anxiety guide us. When we are more intentional and thoughtful, our guiding principles can play a bigger part of our decision-making.

One More Experiment: Speak up. Have a conversation with someone you typically expect encouragement and empowerment from. Let that person know what you are trying to change in terms of living more intentionally and with greater integrity to your deepest values. Also, let that person know what you would like from them. They may be excited to be a part of your journey. They may say, no thanks. This can be very difficult to hear, but either way, you will know better what to expect from that relationship. 

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