This is still not going to end well.
“When they heard [his words], therefore, many of his disciples said, ‘This word is hard; who shall be able to hear it?’ But, Jesus, because he knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling concerning this, said to them, ‘This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?’” (John 6:60-61, my translation). Robert Hoch points out that Jesus’ question to his disciples is constructed in such a way as to indicate the expected answer. The question is really more of a statement: “This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?”
Well, doesn’t it?
The mystery of the Incarnation is the central theme of the Gospel according to John. The Word became flesh and has come to abide among us. God is deep in the flesh and intimately connected to each and every part of Creation, including you and me. Jesus brings that Word, is that Word, embodies that Word, and authenticates that Word.
God is closer to you, me, and all of Creation than our very breath. That intimate involvement gives us and all of Creation Abundant Life – the outcome of salvation according to the Gospel of John.
“God in the flesh” is an idea that is as scandalous, dubious, and incomprehensible in the twenty-first century as it was in the first century. I date myself, of course, but I think of Bette Midler singing wistfully that God is watching us “from a distance.”
In the lyrics of that song, this distance was a good thing since we all look the same from that distance and thus are valued the same. But there’s no room in that perspective for the God who comes close to each of us and all of us and loves us precisely for the sake of our differences.
“What if God was one of us?” Joan Osborne wondered in song. “Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on the bus tryin’ to make his way home?” Again, there is no space in that song for a God who has come close and in fact is “just a slob like one of us.” There is no sense that Jesus is the face of God for which Osborne seems to long. There is no sense that we have any sort of access to “God” or that the Divine is present in any meaningful way.
If people believe in the existence of God these days, they are most likely to expect such a being to be “somewhere, up there” beyond the clouds in a too-distant heaven. This theology is based on and leads to an “escape hatch” theory of salvation. The goal, in this view, is to get out of this world relatively intact in order to live with the distant God in some splendid isolation for all of eternity. In this sense, the further away God is, the better.
This view of the New Life is not the view we find in the Christian scriptures. “Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like,” N. T. Wright reminds us. “God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. And when we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21–22,” Wright continues, “we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace” (page 19).
The Gospel of John puts this in a different way with the same outcome. The notion that God is as close as our breath, that the Word has become flesh and remains among us – that idea remains scandalous. An increasing number of Americans don’t even keep up the fiction of a far distant god who might have some nodding acquaintance with us. Instead, the distant god has been replaced by the absent or non-existent god. Incarnation is not an issue because there is no longer anyone to do the incarnating.
In fact, religion is as likely to be seen as the problem as it is the solution these days. Douglas John Hall recalls seeing a bit of graffiti on the wall of a Canadian university building late in the last century that declared, “Religion kills.” Christopher Hitchens made a reputation and a fair bit of money writing and speaking under the title, God is Not Great. He and his “new atheist” colleagues insisted that all this talk of an involved god produced fanatics who were happy to commit terroristic mayhem in that god’s name.
We who live in the “church bubble” may not have much contact with the scandal of the Incarnation these days. We are so comfortable with that idea that it hardly causes a ripple in our consciousness. Yet, we must come to the realization that in 2018, those who reported no religious affiliation of any kind (the “None’s”) became the majority spiritual perspective in the United States. The scandals of the Christian faith are not lost on many of those None’s.
We church bubble types don’t really even think about that scandal much except at Christmas time, when for a Sunday or two we pull out the Prologue to John’s gospel and complain once again how opaque that account is compared to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. We have enough scandalizing realities in our lives, it would seem, without having God add one more to the mix.
Karoline Lewis reminds us of what is at stake in the Bread of Life Discourse in this regard. “Jesus as the Bread of Life cannot be understood as merely metaphor,” she writes, “but rather as a literal revelation of who Jesus is and what abundant life entails. Bread, an essential component of daily life in the ancient world, is what Jesus is” (my emphasis). We can never ignore the concrete event that launched this Discourse in the first place.
“This promise,” Lewis continues, “hinges on John’s central theological claim of the incarnation. If the incarnation is only euphemistic imagination, then it defies its own logic,” she argues, “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires,” she concludes, “that at every turn the incarnation is completely present” (page 84).
With all that in mind, we should not rush past the first few verses of this section of the Bread of Life Discourse. The verb, skandalizo, comes from the noun which means a “stumbling block,” (skandalon). The noun takes us back to Leviticus 19:13-14 – “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (NRSV).
The Hebrew noun is miksol, which in the Septuagint is translated as skandalon. In Isaiah 57:14, it has the sense of an “obstruction.” The prophet instructs the listeners to remove any obstacles which might hinder the flourishing of the returnees from the Exile. A form of the word can be translated as a heap of rubble or ruins (see Isaiah 3:6). The idea develops into something that might cause offense and then into something that would cause one to sin.
Lewis notes that the verb, skandalizo, can be translated in this way. She suggests that this may be the most fitting translation here in the Fourth Gospel, “where sin is equivalent to the absence of a relationship with God. In other words,” she proposes, “the disciples hear Jesus’ words and are led to a possible position of unbelief rather than belief” (page 97). As she notes, this is one of the major issues of this passage in the verses that follow.
Jesus follows this up with another, even more challenging question. “What, then, if you were to see the Son of Man as he is ascending to where was at first?” (John 6:62, my translation). If you stumble at the conclusions to the Bread of Life discourse, he says to his disciples, how much more will you stumble when you see where this is all going? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
“Instead of trying to minimize the scandal of believing Jesus’ testimony about himself,” Clark-Soles writes, “he intensifies it by (a) claiming to be the Son of Man and (b) associating himself with Jacob’s ladder (cf. 1:51), the one through whom heaven and earth are ultimately linked.”
“As has been Jesus’ habit throughout this conversation, he meets objections by sharpening the point of his message, raising the offense rather than softening it, and thereby bringing the conversation to a crisis,” Brian Peterson writes, “and in John’s telling Jesus returns to the Father by being lifted up on the cross. If the disciples have been scandalized by what Jesus has said,” Peterson continues, “what will happen when Jesus ‘goes up’ via the cross? Will they be able to see the glory of God there?”
Lewis suggests that the scandal is even more than the cross, but rather the Ascension of Jesus to the Father. “We anticipate that predictions of the crucifixion would cause resistance,” she writes, “but that the ascension would trigger dissention? Why the ascension here and now?” (page 97).
She argues that the full scope of Jesus’ claims is now becoming clear and challenging. If the disciples can hear and accept the “hard word” of the Gospel, then they would have to accept what Jesus says as true. “That Jesus really does come from God. That he really was in the beginning with God. That he really is God. In the end,” she concludes, “this is by far more outrageous than the death of Jesus” (page 98).
“This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?” Well, doesn’t it? If it does (and it should), then what do you do?
Resources and Reference
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Matera, Frank J. “Christ in the Theologies of Paul and John: A Study in the Diverse Unity of New Testament Theology.” Theological Studies 67 (2006): pp. 237-256. http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/67/67.2/67.2.1.pdf.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.