As I read these words, I debated whether to make them the focus of today’s meditation. They’re so familiar to many of us. We sing them just before the reading of the Gospel, except, of course, during Lent, when we can’t say the “A” word, which is part of the canticle. Quite naturally, I was humming the tune in my head as I read them.
But as is often the case with a brief verse, my struggle was more with trying to explain these words in a way that can be condensed into a readable, digestible amount. I usually aim at around 750 words or so.
I imagine Jesus had the same challenge explaining who he was, and why he came.
Both Jesus’ followers and his critics were divided about this itinerant preacher. They simply didn’t know what to make of him or his teaching. Earlier in this sixth chapter, those in authority – the “Jews” as they are identified in John’s Gospel – were outraged by Jesus’ claim that he was “the bread of life” sent by God from heaven. [John 6:41-42]
This sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John is one of those on which many Christian churches establish their doctrinal basis for Holy Communion. It begins with the miracle of the five loaves and two fish with which Jesus fed a multitude. (See my Monday, March 15 post.)
This then leads to a dialogue between Jesus and the crowd which leaves many confused. Even some of his followers decided they’d had enough, as suggested by the beginning of our reading: When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” [John 6:60]
It calls to mind a scene from the baseball movie, “A League of Their Own,” in which Tom Hanks tells one of his struggling players, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Sadly, even today, among us Christians who have had the benefit of two thousand years of reflection and thought, the controversies still linger.
We aren’t so much divided over who Jesus is, but how our relationship to him is expressed. This has led to conflicts that have resulted in our refusal to eat at the same table, to share in Christ’s Holy Meal.
The earliest Christians did not have this problem. Not because they were so loving that it did not arise, but because doctrine had not yet been carefully formulated and approved by church councils.
They believed that Jesus had told his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.” They believed that he said, “This is my body, this is my blood.” They did what he had asked. They shared the bread and wine without having to give approval to a particular and precise explanation in words of what was happening. There was no authorized interpretation which either admitted you to the holy meal or kept you out.
But over the centuries we have tried to reduce the holiest of mysteries to words. As a result, some churches ban certain other Christians from the Table, not because they don’t love the Lord, but because they cannot embrace a particular doctrine concerning the Holy Table. The Roman Catholics use one set of approved words, the Episcopalians another, the Lutherans another, and the many “free churches” have their own special phrases.
Even we Lutherans are divided among ourselves, ELCA, LCMS, and the rest of the alphabet can’t seem to agree that we are one in Christ. We in the ELCA have been at the forefront of establishing full communion agreements with several other church bodies. But still, in each of our congregations every Sunday, or every first Sunday, or however often we commune, we come to the table, we go, but our fragmented relationships remain fundamentally the same.
This division extends beyond the Eucharist. We discriminate, we judge, and we play favorites for many reasons – race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, intelligence, and politics, among others. We have a tendency to judge one another and treat others differently according to their status in life. We place a high value on appearances. We favor people with money. We make It our natural human sinful tendency to put up walls all around to separate us from everything we consider different.
Just this week, in Georgia, we saw the tragic results such divisions can lead to.
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Jesus came to earth to walk alongside us and show us what it means to be loved by God. May we heed those words, and become a reflection of God’s love; so that in our actions, in the support, the care, and the encouragement that we show to each other, others may come to know Jesus, and see the otherwise invisible God.
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Reminder: No post tomorrow, the Fifth Sunday in Lent.