Sunday, September 2, 2012
Proper 16 B - Aug 26, 2012
Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Proper 16 B – Sunday, August 26, 2012
Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18
Ephesians 6: 10-20
John 6: 56-69
The previous several Sunday Gospels have all come from the sixth chapter of John and comprise Jesus’ Discourse on the Bread of Life which concludes in today’s gospel.
The Discourse is notable in that it consists of a Wisdom version of the Bread of Life teaching and a second, distinct, Eucharistic version. The Wisdom version speaks exclusively of the bread come down from heaven and depends extensively on parallels from the Apocryphal book The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach. The Eucharistic version refers to Jesus’ flesh and blood and is thought to have been transposed from John’s account of the Last Supper which in its present form lacks a so-called Institution Narrative; Raymond Brown, the gold standard of commentators on John, considers the Eucharistic version the product of later Christian insight while the Wisdom version represents earlier tradition.
In the editing of the Fourth Gospel it was felt, apparently, that the Eucharistic version of the Bread of Life Discourse would make an appropriate companion for the Wisdom version, and vice versa. A look at underlying texts of the Wisdom version demonstrates that the Bread refers to Jesus’ revelation and teaching rather than to his flesh and blood referred to in the Eucharistic version.
As to the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand which directly precedes the Discourse on the Bread of Life, the words of Amos are appropo in light of the hunger of the crowds and their search for Jesus: “Behold the days are coming when I shall send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord . . . They shall run back and forth seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” Further, in the Book of Sirach: “Wisdom declares
. . .Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more . . .
The one who fears God, Wisdom will nourish with the bread of understanding and give them the water of learning to drink.” To summarize, then, in the light of the Gospel passage: People will never have too much wisdom and will always desire more, and people will never hunger or thirst for anything other than Jesus’ own revelation. The Synoptic Gospels reinforce the identification of bread with teaching inJesus’ warning to beware of the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees which he characterizes as yeast.
Jesus speaks of God’s bread come down from heaven to give life to the world and proclaims that the Son of Man is the only one who has come down from the Father, leading to the belief that Jesus is talking of himself as the bread. But the crowd does not understand and Jesus must specifically identify himself as the bread that gives life.
This means that he is the revealer of the truth, the divine teacher who has come to nourish people with wisdom. In claiming to personify divine revelation Jesus advances beyond the preparation in the Wisdom literature. When he says that those who believe in him shall never be hungry or thirsty, he is expressing the same idea that he will proclaim to Martha grieving the death of her brother: “I am the life . . . whoever believes in me shall never die at all.”
Under all these metaphors of bread, water, and life, Jesus is symbolically referring to the same reality, a reality which, when once possessed, makes one see natural hunger, thirst and death as insignificant.
In the light of this and with the reminder that the Wisdom version of the Bread of Life Discourse is the principal foundation of this chapter of the Gospel, we make the point that what scandalizes the disciples is not concerned with Jesus‘ eucharistic flesh and blood, but with his identification of himself as the bread, that is, wisdom, come down from heaven of which one may eat and live forever.
The disciples are indignant about this and murmur even as the crowd murmured about the same claim earlier. The disciples cannot bear to LISTEN - notice that all the references in today’s passage concern hearing or believing Jesus’ doctrine; there is not a single reference to refusing to eat his flesh or to drink his blood. Since they complain that they cannot listen to his claim to have come down from heaven, Jesus asks what they will think if they see him ascending to where he was before. He uses the term Son of Man to identify himself with a figure whom both Daniel and Enoch characterize as celestial.
We have somewhat of a parallel to this earlier in John. When Nicodemus cannot understand how one can be begotten from above of water and Spirit, Jesus calls upon the ascension into heaven of the Son of Man; for it is the ascended Son of Man who can give the Spirit. So also in today’s passage the Spirit is mentioned immediately after the reference to the ascension of the Son of Man. In contrasting Spirit and flesh here, Jesus is speaking of flesh as the natural principle in humanity which cannot give eternal life. The Spirit is the divine principle from above which alone can give life. This contrast between flesh and Spirit appears also in Paul, as, for example, in Romans: ” . . . those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” The Synoptic parallel to the phrase “the flesh is useless” is found in the Caesarea Philippi scene of Matthew where Jesus says to Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
In today’s passage Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Thus Jesus is once more affirming that one cannot gain life on one’s own. If Jesus is divine revelation come down from heaven, like nourishing bread, his purpose is to communicate the principle of eternal life. The one who accepts the words of Jesus will receive the life-giving Spirit.
Jesus never answers the question about his origins on a human plane; the words he gives are an answer, but on a theological plane. He is sent by God and he is from God, and that is how he can claim to have come down from heaven. If the disciples will desist from their murmuring, which indicates a refusal to believe, and will leave themselves open to God’s movement, God will draw them to Jesus. This is the age spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when they are being taught by God, if only they will listen.
This teaching is embodied, externally, in Jesus who walks among them, but it is also internal in that God acts in their hearts, fulfilling what Jeremiah had promised: ‘I will put my law within them, and on their hearts will write it.‘ This internal moving of the heart by God will enable them to believe in Jesus and thus possess eternal life.
God will draw us to Jesus and will move our hearts; for that matter, Jesus will draw us and will move our hearts; here’s a possibility called ‘Postulant’s Encouragement.’
This Order, and I daresay the Episcopal Church at large, has developed a certain reverence for our departed brother Alan Whittemore in recognition of his becoming in the course of his life a genuine American mystic. For this reason, toward the end of his life in the 1950’s when he lived here as a contemplative he was appointed confessor to the novitiate. His counsel to a new postulant would sometimes proceed in this vein of God’s drawing them to Jesus, a drawing characterized by cords of God’s steadfast love, which he would describe as Jesus standing before you with an inviting hand. “Imagine our Lord standing before you, holding out his hand for you to take it and follow him. Will you take it? He wants you to.” And then Alan Whittemore would say with great emphasis: “But be careful! There’s a wound in it!”