Jesus lays out the “hard” word of the Incarnation in the Discourse and raises the stakes with the Ascension to the seat of Abundant Life. Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the Greek of verse 60 can be taken in a couple of ways. It could be, as in many translations, “that the teaching was hard to accept,” they write. “It could also mean that because of the hard teaching, Jesus was difficult to accept. The latter,” they conclude, “makes more sense in terms of the demands of group loyalty” (page 137). It’s not just his words that are hard. Jesus is hard to take without conversion – then and now.
“The outcome of this,” the narrator reports, “was that many of his disciples abandoned the following after bit and no longer were walking around with him” (John 6:66 my translation). Jesus sounds somewhat bereft as he asks whether the Twelve are leaving too. “Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You aren’t also leaving, are you?’”
My experience as a pastor tells me that many people come to churches looking for comfort, tranquility, and reassurance. The last things many people come to churches looking for are discomfort, disruption, and deconstruction. When those are the things that happen at a church, many folks start heading for the exits. There will always be a shop down the road that offers a placid place for passive piety.
Like many pastors, I have watched over the years as neighboring congregations wooed members from one flock to another with promises of precisely such spiritual still waters. “Come to our place,” they say. “We won’t bother you with any of that uncomfortable politics from the pulpit, expectations of responsible membership, sacrificial giving, hard thinking, and daily dying and rising.” They haven’t put it in precisely those words, but the message has always been clear.
It’s nice to know, at least, that there’s nothing new under the sun. Many of us pastors can empathize with Jesus’ wistful question. “You aren’t leaving as well, are you?”
Peter responds with words that are well-known in my liturgical tradition as our response to the weekly reading of the gospel text. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).
Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this text is “often assumed to be the Johannine equivalent of the confession in Mark 8:27-30” (page 138). They note that in Mark’s account “the issue is Jesus’ concern about his proper role and social identity.” But the agenda in John’s account is different, they argue. “Is Jesus the genuine broker of God or not?” The question is not, as in Mark, whether Jesus is the Messiah. The question is whether the Messiah is Jesus (see John 20:30-31). After all, he’s making it pretty difficult to come to that conclusion. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Karoline Lewis compares this response to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi in the Synoptics and points to a significant difference. “It is important to note that what Jesus has revealed in this discourse, which is found to be difficult and ultimately rejected,” Lewis observes, “is not predictions of suffering and death but visions of eternal life. Perhaps there is only so much of a good thing we can take” (page 101).
There is something to be said for that, but I don’t think that’s why many of the disciples gave up on Jesus and went home. The good news of the Incarnation means that everything we think we know about God, about life, and about ourselves needs to be turned upside down and inside out. God is closer to us than our breath, not watching us from a distance. Jesus is the human face of God, full of grace and truth. The cross is a throne, and the grave is a beginning. The reign of God is living and active among us now.
This encounter with the God who changes everything creates a “crisis,” to use the language of John – a moment of decision, of judgment. “Given the setting of the feeding of the five thousand and the provision of food and water by God for the Israelites in the wilderness,” Lewis writes, “critical is how God’s people respond to God’s desire for relationship. For the Fourth Gospel, encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102).
The Christian church in North America and individual denominations and congregations face a crisis moment. That’s no great insight. But what is the nature of that crisis? I recently read an article by Dwight Zscheile called “From the Age of Association to Authenticity.” Zscheile had noted in an article two years ago that some projections show the ELCA virtually disappearing as a denomination by 2050.
If that’s not a crisis (at least for the institution known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), I’m not sure what is. In the current article he notes that the pandemic has likely accelerated this trend and the disintegration it represents, not only for mainline denominations but for many other religious institutions in this country. “This is not to say that Christianity itself is going away,” Zscheile writes, “but rather its dominant institutional forms of the past two centuries.”
Zscheile refers to and riffs off of the 2021 Sprunt Lectures given by Ted Smith at Union Seminary, Richmond, this past May. Smith talks about the history of denominations, seminaries, and congregations in this country. He describes the move from the “Standing Order” that existed from 1600 or so to about 1815. That “Standing Order” was gradually replaced by the “Age of Association,” the model of doing church and professional ministry that shaped American religious experience from 1815 until at least the 1960’s.
Now the Age of Association is being replaced by what Smith calls the Age of Authenticity. Smith is a fine historian, and he knows that “ages” and taxonomies and typologies never really reflect reality. But his heuristic description is a helpful and penetrating analytical tool. You can find the lectures on youtube.com just by searching for “Sprunt Lectures 2021.” I’ve also posted a link to the playlist below.
Zscheile gives a useful summary of Smith’s argument. “In the Age of Authenticity, individuals become increasingly dis-embedded from voluntary associations and institutions without re-embedding. Identities are understood not to be ascribed but constructed and performed by individuals through a series of choices. Economic and social burdens and responsibilities are displaced from institutions onto individuals…People feel less and less of a need to affiliate with an organization to find meaning, community, and purpose; that is understood instead as a highly personalized journey.”
Smith argues that we have not fully left the Age of Association. Nor have we fully entered the Age of Authenticity. We are living between the times. One of the reassuring notes of his lectures is the observation that we’ve been here before. There was a beginning to the Age of Association as well, when the Church had to find a new way of being in a changing cultural setting. We can do that again.
The facts that we can do this and that we’ve been here before do not reduce the crisis we face. I sense raw panic in the voices of pastors and judicatory officials these days. As we come out of the Covid crisis, we are finding that somewhere between one third and one half of our folks may simply not return to our churches as they were. They have had a significant time to discover that the Christian social clubs that “closed” during the pandemic are not institutions they now miss.
I struggle with that issue myself these days.
How will we respond? It appears that the “middle” is disappearing from the Church. Mid-sized congregations are less and less sustainable. Megachurches and megachurch wannabes are doing well enough so far. And very small congregations and communities do not have the same economic and social costs as the mid-sized institutions. A problem for the ELCA is that many of our shops are mid-sized.
Smith wonders if the future of the church in the Age of Authenticity looks more like networks of micro-communities. Perhaps that will be the case. Regardless, we will need to try new things. Many Church institutions are imitating businesses as they divest themselves of property, physical plants, and paid staff no longer needed in the new system and situation. I imagine that trend will continue and accelerate.
What does this have to do with the Bread of Life Discourse? The Discourse finally asks us to reflect on the nature of the Incarnation in our lives and in our settings. Can we American church folks figure out how to separate our sense of being the Body of Christ from the buildings and properties the Body has inhabited for the last two centuries?
Can we mainline Protestants in particular get over our “edifice complexes” and find ways to be authentic communities of faithfulness? Can we divest ourselves of our neoliberal market values, rampant individualism, and commitment to the myth of redemptive violence long enough to find a different way of being Church? Only time will tell.
I’m not sure Smith’s typology works all that well, and neither is he. If the Gospel of John is to be our guide, then our call is to form and sustain “Authenticity Associations.” We are called to gather around the Real Presence of Jesus in our midst and to be that Real Presence for the life of the cosmos. We are invited to be authentic followers of Jesus and to cling to him for the “words of eternal life” here and now.
I return to the words of William Cavanaugh, quoted earlier in this study. “The eucharist is not a mere symbol, a source of meaning which the individual reads and then applies to social issues ‘out there’ in the ‘real world,’” he declares. “There is nothing more real than the body of Christ. The eucharist is not to be applied to political issues; rather, the eucharist makes the church itself a political body. The church practices the politics of Jesus,” he argues, “when it becomes an alternative way of life that offers healing for the wounds that divide us” (2002, page 177, my emphasis).
Unless we refuse the healing and become The Devil…
Resources and Reference
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
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.
Sprunt Lecture Series youtube.com playlist — https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLq1zKD6DFrpTHqt1_QA6hcSWLRADAWrJe.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Zscheile, Dwight. “From the Age of Association to Authenticity.” https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/from-the-age-of-association-to-authenticity/?fbclid=IwAR2bhFD6AZxnu9dmBbrU6puAYCWz79M4QhN9SV7cPtn0iRNZUvz0F2balJ4.