Reflection for August 22, 2021
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
When I was a freshman in college, I ended up in a year-long advanced seminar in English literature. It traveled the road from Chaucer on into the twentieth century. The teacher led us through very close reading. He tried to make us read line-by-line and word-by-word. He wanted us to sit next to the author as he took his pen and thought. Really, he wanted us to climb inside the author’s head.
This was breath-taking. The teacher demanded and demanded our attention and our labor. We had to write a seven-page paper every week. The teacher knew each one of us and where we were sitting at the table. No matter how well I performed, he always wanted more. He terrified me.
And to this day I am grateful. In my reading, I at least attempt the attention and questioning he demanded. I try to reach truthfulness by writing carefully and precisely. This teacher changed my life.
I am mentioning him today because I really need what he taught in order merely to scratch the surface of John’s Gospel. There are questions. Why does John show us a Jesus who is sometimes so cryptic, sometimes so scary, so “in-your-face?” Why do I see only Jesus’ riddles? Did John intend to veil his meaning? Or do I see a veil because I have preconceptions?
In the past weeks, the readings in John’s Gospel have taken us through Chapter 6 which focuses on bread. Sunday by Sunday, we have read it in pieces. But when I read the chapter as a whole, I ask: “Why does Jesus push the envelope and push the envelope and push the envelope?” Where is he going?
Look at how John paces Chapter 6. First, we have the satisfying mouthfuls of real bread when Jesus feeds the five thousand. Jesus then withdraws because the people want to make him king. Next, John relates the terror of the disciples when they see Jesus walking on water past their boat. This is a good introduction to the unease that pervades the rest of Chapter 6, the conversation that occurs in the synagogue at Capernaum. The people there demand a sign, something like the manna that came down and fed the Israelites on their forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus. In response, Jesus tells them there is bread from heaven that gives life to the world. The people ask him to give them this bread. Jesus says that he is this bread. He makes an important remark: “. . . [Y]ou have seen me and yet do not believe.” (John 6:36). The people say, “Come on. We know his whole family. How can Joseph’s son be this bread?
Jesus’ statements become more intense. He says that he is the bread of heaven, that people must eat this bread, that this bread is his flesh to be given for the life of the world.
And the people say, “How can we eat his flesh?” (John 6:52) I think that John likes to show people with literal minds. For example, in Chapter 3, Nicodemus responded to the statement by Jesus about being born again by saying, “Come on! How can I grown person go back into his mother’s womb?”
Nonetheless, Jesus does not explain and say to them, “Oh, no. I meant that the bread and flesh idea is a symbolic stand-in for my crucifixion or for the Eucharist.” Rather, Jesus goes on and pushes the envelope in another direction that seems to reinforce the protests of the literal-minded. Finally and forcefully we come to the moment of scandal shared between this week’s and last week’s Gospel reading. Jesus leaves the word “bread” behind and unbelievably he says, “. . . I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. . . [M]y flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:52 and 55)
At this point, Jesus has pushed the envelope until it is torn. So, in today’s Gospel passage, we see that unsurprisingly many of the disciples respond that Jesus’ statement is too hard to accept. It is no wonder that they complained and were offended. It is no wonder that many people turned back and left him.
Jesus turns to the twelve and asks almost sadly and plaintively, “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter says, just as plaintively, “Lord, to whom can we go?”
In my view, this short interchange between Jesus and Peter is the culmination of Chapter 6. For me, it is one of the most profound passages in all of the Gospels. Let me explain why I feel that way.
Chapter 6 does remind me of the Eucharist. But I also notice that the Eucharist or the institution of the Eucharist is never mentioned there. And I notice that John’s Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that does not have any narration of the institution of the Eucharist. In my view, John is being more direct and less liturgical. He wants us to intuit how we and Jesus relate to each other in all our lives. Even in lives we’ve lived for the past year and a half without the Eucharist.
Searching for Jesus is a really long journey for me. He lived in a distant past. He often does not “speak my language.” He can be scary, and cryptic. Sometimes in my life I have turned away, like many of the disciples in Chapter 6. Sometimes, I’ve thrown up my hands. Sometimes, in the past, I’ve mocked as well as any Roman soldier. And sometimes, hopefully most of the time, I simply face Jesus wordlessly as Jesus the person, indescribable and uncompromising, steady and reliable. These are the times when I am Peter and say, “Lord, to whom can I go?”
That is the only response we really have. It is a great joy to study scripture and to puzzle over it and to geek out. But I never wrap it up by saying, “Oh, I get it about eating your flesh and drinking your blood.” But I can wrap it up by coming up against the person of Jesus, and this I do get, not in the sense that I understand with my mind, but that I know without words. As Margaret D. said last week in her reflection on the Eucharist, “There is something real here.”
This response or attitude is, I think, the virtue of Faith. Coming up against Jesus, Peter says, simply, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter is making a confession of faith from his heart, not his brain.
I would like to close with another personal story that I hope is another way of telling about faith.
When I was a boy, our parish was Saint Joseph’s in South Norwalk, Connecticut. I was deeply impressed by a gorgeous stained glass window above the main altar. On it, a handsome Jesus, dressed in a bright, white robe, hovered against a background of incredibly beautiful dark blue glass. You know the blue I’m talking about. Beneath his feet, on a scroll, was written the passage “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
I was probably less than twelve years old because we moved out of the parish when I was twelve. But I was already a geek. I asked myself then and into my adulthood what that passage on the scroll might mean. Where was the key? What club did I have to join? What was the secret handshake?
At some point, after 43 years of avoiding the church, after 43 years of hearing Jesus knock on my head from time to time – because he knows I pretty much live in my head — I realized that the Way, the Truth and the Life is quite simply a person. The “I” of that statement is the important word. There is no secret handshake. There is only encounter. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”