I have a hard time with this Gospel: John’s Gospel. While I know and understand that this is a favourite and maybe even for some, most important – I have at best, a complicated relationship with it.
And perhaps this particular story from John’s gospel is a good example of why.
I imagine that for those unfamiliar with our tradition, reading this text about eating a mans flesh and drinking his blood might have them run screaming from the room, or at least walking out very confused.
Because it sounds terrible and confusing and left to stand on it’s own this reading makes us sound like crazy cannibals who want to live forever – or maybe that’s just me.
And second – John’s gospel is hard. If you read it as many of our scripture interprets, this Gospel sounds antisemitic. Which also sounds terrible.
So, I think when we hear or read passages like this, we need to unpack them. We need to notice the words and we need to think about the context. And so fair warning that is really what this sermon is. I don’t have any funny examples from my life or my lovely vacation of the last two weeks, (which was really lovely). This sermon is an unpacking, because I needed a way in, even though I’ve read it several times before and likely even preached on it a few times. I needed a way in. So here it is:
There is a book that I found, recommended by a friend called: The Jewish Gospel of John by Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg. Just by way of full disclosure, it has been really helpful to me in unpacking this Gospel and has offered me a window. Some of what I’ll share comes from there.
One understanding about John’s gospel is that it was written for an intra-group of Israelites. That is to say, that it was written for a group of people who were members of a variety of groups within Israel, all of whom were Jewish. So when we read ‘Jews’ in the text, which we have used for this morning ‘People’ it is maybe not the most accurate translation. Jewish people would likely not refer to another group of Jewish people as ‘the Jews’. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg suggests that when we hear or read ‘Jews’ in John’s gospel, it would be better translated ‘Eudioui’. This group, the ‘Eudioui’ were themselves or were affiliates of the authorities of Judea. (Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, 2015)
The notion of Jewish vs Christian, which is what I think many of us hear and are uncomfortable with, only began to happen once non-Israelite Christ followers began to self-establish, this likely took centuries to do.
So for the purposes of this text and in fact this Gospel, I am convinced that when we hear ‘Jews’, who we are hearing about is a particular group who were in power the ‘Eudioui’ not ‘Jews’ in general.
The second bit of unpacking I want to do is about eating Jesus. At the time that this Gospel was written, the suggestions of a body separate from a spirit was unheard of. As I understand it, the people who were hearing this text understood the person’s whole self to be one and they could not be separated. The body was connected: soul and flesh were one and the life of the body was in the blood.
Jesus is telling his followers that to follow him was or to take on his person, his teachings and the work. His whole self.
He was telling them and us that he is the way – in a time when the authorities were saying that they were in fact the way. Jesus was standing in direct contradiction to those in power and saying that they were not in fact who you needed to follow, that their ways were not Gods way – that they did not get to vet the pathway to God. They are were not and still are not in control of God or who God loves or offers mercy or grace to.
And Jesus was using a really complicated metaphor to make his point. But his followers would have got it.
The members of the leading Jewish sect, apparently missed Jesus’ point, blinded by their own power and need to hold on to it.“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they ask. This is impossible. It was impossible for the Eudioui (Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, 2015) to understand because they could not see the signs that Jesus offered. They could not understand the metaphor. They could not accept Jesus as the Son of God.
Jesus who came to us, God enfleshed, Manna offered freely to feed us so that we would know how to live. Jesus was and is a way to life: his teachings, the work that he did, his connection to God.
And I know that we hear this over and over again: that we are all susceptible to the powers of this place. We have gatekeepers, our own version of the temple authorities who decide what salvation will look like in the form of goods, or money or power and Jesus says, “nope, that’s not it.”
People and things can not offer you eternal life, which for John was not a future tense thing- John’s eternal life starts now. Eternal life is a life connected to God, it lives out the teachings of Jesus.
It understands that we cannot be tied to the judgements that we pass on to one another based off rules that we make for each other. It’s not connected to our own personal biases.
One definition of the word ‘eternal’ is of course ‘lasting or existing forever; without end or beginning´ but an alternate definition when thinking about truths, values, or questions is ‘valid for all time; essentially unchanging.’ (Google Dictionary, 2018)
What if what we are talking about here is not some notion of living eternally ourselves, but of the values that we live being passed on for all time through our embodiment of them. We follow Jesus by living out the truth that we find in him based in an understanding of grace for all and love of neighbour.
Remember that in John’s gospel the big deal in the story of Jesus’ final supper with his friends, is when he washes his disciples feet, which he did as a an example for his followers, right after which he says to them: ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’. We are called by Jesus to live by his example – living out the values that he taught of serving each other, offering forgiveness, caring for one another and remembering that we are God’s own beloved.
Eternal life is a life lived with grace and space and forgivness for one another and it starts now, it starts here.
It is a life that once it touches you, it is really hard to let go of because suddenly you understand that you are loved and it is a life that is passed on to those around you because of the way that you live it.
The manna that the Israelites received in the wilderness was not given to them by Moses. It was not human made, it was offered to them freely by God. Moses was just sent to tell them to get ready for it and what the rules were. God heard the people crying out and then rained it down.
Because that’s how God works. We do not mediate God or control Gods love. God does not choose between you and me. God hears us and sees us and God shows up.
God showed up in the flesh and the blood of Jesus and said, “listen and do not as the authorities tell you but as I tell you.,”
And we do this by showing up in with our whole selves. With our flesh and bones and our hearts and our minds. When we put our bodies on the line for one another in response to our understanding of who God calls us to be and because we can see and hear each other. We are called to a life that cannot separate our bodies and our souls on this earth, they live as one. We are not living for admission to some far off place not of this earth, but for one another and for this earth, right here and right now. And whatever happens as a result of how we live on this earth is not up to us anyways, that is also for God.
When we talk about taking in the body and blood of Jesus, we are talking about the lived reality, the fleshy, messy, beautiful and sometimes dangerous life following the one who knew what it was like to live in these bodies and the harm that could come to us.
He was not asking for some small thing in saying, ‘follow me’.
Jesus was in conflict with the authorities and knew that what he was asking would likely put us there too. Asking us to stand against those who would seek to take credit for that which only God can do.
This is the part of our faith that is the hardest work and it is also the most liberating though it may not always feel that way.
And so we come each week, we offer out our hands and receive the bread and the wine, blessed and broken and freely offered. We take this in and are reminded once more or maybe for the first time, of who we are called to be and whose we are invited to become. We are always becoming always learning and invited to live into the life that Jesus offered himself for, for you and me.
This is a hard teaching, this Gospel text that we read today. It takes some thinking about, John’s poetry is not an easy read for some of us – even his disciples say in the next verse: “This is a hard teaching, Jesus’. It is a hard teaching and it is a true one.
We follow a God who came among us and who showed us how to live and he doesn’t leave us alone to figure it out. They stick with us. We stick with each other. We continue to try to live it, with God’s help – as we say in our baptismal vows. We keep seeking to turn more deeply into our relationship with the one who loves us, despite us. And who invites us to the table to feast on the bread of everlasting life so that we remember how to live.
Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, E. (2015). The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel. CreateSpace Independant Publishing platform.