None Driven Away
Last week I noted in closing that the crowd gives the right response for the wrong reasons. “Lord, always give us this bread!” (John 6:34, my translation). They clearly don’t know what they’re asking. They keep talking about bread, but they don’t get past the dough. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Lord, feed us with your life all the time and at all times. That’s the “applause line” for this passage, to use a category from performance criticism. As the gospel writer enacted the story for the audience, verse 34 would end with a pregnant pause. Perhaps the listeners responded with cheers. Perhaps they shouted out, “Yes, Lord! Us too!” That line is really the end of the previous pericope.
Now we move to the Bread of Life Discourse proper – except that it’s really more dialogue than discourse. Verse 35 is the beginning of this section. The lectionary folks saw fit to omit verses 36 through 40 from the reading, but I would include them for a number of reasons. In addition, I would end the reading at verse 50 this week. It is another “applause line” in the performance of the text and caps off the debate in the previous verses.
Verse 51 clearly begins the next section of the dialogue/discourse, which is the section most focused on the eucharistic meanings of the text. Of course, we will dive more deeply into that section next week, so I will focus on verses 35 to 50.
It’s important to begin by noting that, as is the case throughout the Gospel of John, this is an intra-Jewish debate. This is not an assertion by the Johannine community that Jews are bad. Instead, this is a debate about the correct interpretation of the Jewish scriptures in light of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
Paul Anderson offers a detailed and downloadable discussion of anti-Semitism, religious violence, and John’s gospel in his fine monograph. I want to lift out a few paragraphs to focus our attention and clarify our thinking in this regard.
“While it is a tragic fact that the Gospel of John has contributed to anti-Semitism and religious violence during some chapters of Christian history,” Anderson begins, “John is not anti-Semitic. It was written by a Jewish writer, about a Jewish messianic figure, targeted first toward convincing Jewish audiences,” he notes, “that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah” (page 1).
I would note that this is made the clearest when we reflect on the most accurate translation of the purpose statement of the Gospel of John in John 20:31. “But these things have been written in order that you might come to [and/or continue to] trust that the Messiah is Jesus, the Son of God, and in order that as you are trusting, you may have life in his name” (my translation and emphasis). John’s audience doesn’t need to be convinced that the Messiah is coming. They need to be persuaded and/or assured that he has come, and that he is Jesus.
That’s an intra-Jewish debate. In our time when anti-Semitism and the hate crimes it generates are on the rise again, we Christian preachers have a responsibility to remind our folks that the supposedly anti-Jewish texts in the Christian scriptures have been repeatedly misused and abused.
This in no way excuses or downplays the horrors of Christian anti-Semitism. We have inhabited a system that for 1500 years has perverted the gospel witness to do violence to Jews. That violence continues, often based on the same texts as before. Therefore, we must continue to equip our folks at least with the conviction that the texts are being misused. If that perversion was imported into the text rather being native to the text, then that perversion can be resisted and rejected.
“The thesis of this essay,” Anderson writes, “is that while John has played a role in anti-Semitism and religious violence, such influences represent the distortion of this thoroughly Jewish piece of writing, which actually provides ways forward for all seekers of truth and inclusivity if interpreted adequately. The Fourth Gospel represents an intra-Jewish perspective,” he asserts, “standing against violence and force, forwarding a universalist appeal to all seekers of truth, while also documenting the dialectical engagement between revelation and religion” (page 3).
This comes to focus in John 6 because the issue at hand is the theological interpretation of the manna in the wilderness, narrated in Exodus 16. The crowds bring up the image of manna in John 6:31. Jesus launches into the Bread of Life Discourse to interpret the image for the crowds and for the readers of John’s gospel.
“When Jesus’ words are understood as an interpretation of Scripture,” Susan Hylen (2013) writes, “it appears instead that Jesus is not rejecting the Jewish version of the manna story but interpreting the story in light of present experience. Like other interpreters of his time,” she argues, “he reads the story in a way that makes it relevant for the hearer” (page 343).
“John’s narrative is written by a Jew, about Jesus the Jew, who is believed to be fulfilling Israel’s divine vocation and global mission as a light to the nations and a blessing to the world,” Anderson argues. “Thus, in no way can the thoroughly Semitic Gospel of John, the most Jewish of the Gospels, be considered anti-Semitic. If anything,” he continues, “John represents a radical view of the Jewish vocation, in that it sees Jesus as the embodiment of typological Israel as a means of blessing the nations” (pages 12-13).
This perspective on the interpretive framework of John’s gospel can open up the text for us (well, me!) to notice layers of significance. I want to lift up the ongoing universalism of the Gospel of John. We know that God is loving the entire cosmos through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (John 3:16). Let’s remember Jesus’ declaration that when he is “lifted up” he will draw all people to himself.
In John 6:35-40, we see that universalism clearly as well. Whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry. Whoever puts their faith in him will never be thirsty. Anyone who comes to Jesus will never be driven away. Jesus comes down from heaven so that he should lose nothing (or no one) that God has given to Jesus. Rather, all of (it, them?) will be raised up on the last day. “This is indeed the well of my father,” Jesus concludes, “that every one who sees the Son and puts their trust in him may have eternal life, and I will raise that one up on the last day” (John 6:40, my translation). I’m not sure there can be a clearer fulfillment of what it means to be blessed in order to be a blessing for the cosmos.
Jesus continues a debate that has gone in within Judaism from the end of the Babylonian exile up to the moment of our text. Are the Jews called to pull inward and focus on being a holy people, not risking contamination from the world? Or are the Jews to be a light to the nations, as advocated for example in texts from Isaiah? Jesus argues and asserts that the latter is the fulfillment of the vocation of Israel. His opponents adopt varieties of the former strategy as the means to survival in a difficult and threatening world.
Of course, this debate rages (or simmers) in American Christian congregations. In my experience, the default position of congregations is the inward-turned, defensive posture. Congregational life is focused on those who are already there. It takes focused and intentional effort to change that gaze to those “outside the walls” of a congregation. And even when that change happens, it takes equally as much focus and effort to maintain the outward gaze and to prevent a return to self-enclosed defensiveness.
While we will look in more detail at the Eucharist in John’s gospel next week, certainly this week we can look at who is welcome, or not, at the table. I have experienced and observed an evolution in my thinking and the thinking of other ELCA Lutherans in this regard. We still officially expect the Lord’s Supper to be available only to the baptized. But that is certainly not the practice in many congregations.
The debate is often whether the “Table” (the Eucharist) can lead to the “Font,” (Baptism) rather than insisting that only the “Font” can lead to the “Table.” In my experience, the more a congregation is involved in reaching out beyond the walls of the congregation, the more flexible the congregation must become in this ordering.
When I was involved in weekly ministry with offenders and ex-offenders, I knew that many of the regular communicants had not been baptized. If I had insisted on the “proper” order of things, any number of those folks would not have returned – either to the Table or to Sunday worship. For the sake of caring in Christ, we exercised (as that congregation still does) a liberal flexibility in this regard. Anyone who comes to Jesus will never be driven away – if we are faithful to what we see and hear in John 6.
The good news is that such a welcome and openness begins with and is applied to – me! I come with all my selfish agendas, intentional misunderstandings, and perverse prejudices. And I still hold out my hands to be filled, expecting a welcome and a feeding. Too often, I simply take that welcome for granted rather than experiencing it as the astonishing reality it is.
In a time when invitation, welcome, and inclusion continue to be massive challenges in our (white) congregations, this may be a good place to begin with the text.
References and Resources
Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289.
Hylen, Susan E. “Seeing Jesus John’s Way: Manna from Heaven.” Word and World, Volume 33, Number 4 (Fall 2013), pages 341-348. http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/33-4_Bread/33-4_Hylen.pdf.