Worshiping in Vain

Herb Montgomery | August 27, 2021

worship service

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast click Episode 386: Worshiping in Vain)


I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, Why dont your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” For it is from within, out of a persons heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

There is a lot in this week’s reading. Let’s jump right in.

First, the text names the “Pharisees and some teachers of the law.” It is possible that Jesus himself had training in the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Yet those who were in power in Mark’s gospel were the Pharisees of the school of Shammai. I’ve written at length on the distinctions between these two schools of thought and Torah interpretation in The Golden Rule, Woes against the Pharisees, Woes against the Exegetes of the Law, and Renouncing Ones Rights, so I won’t repeat all of that information here. It’s enough to say that this week’s passage could have been attributed to Hillel the Pharisee as much as we attribute it to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The language and emphasis is very Hillelian.

I share this because throughout history Christians have used the label of Pharisee as a disparaging or derogatory title very carelessly and in very antisemitic ways. Some Christians continue to do so today. We can do better. I want to offer an alternative to these common, anti-Jewish interpretations, and shed some light on why the gospel of Mark speaks so disparagingly of “Pharisees,” I believe, particularly those of the school of Shammai. The following interpretation is not my own but found in Ched Myers’ excellent commentary on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.

Myers argues that the gospel of Mark uses the characters of Pharisees and teachers of the law not to pit Christians against Jews, but to help us understand classism within the Jesus stories and the conflict between upper classes (the elites) and the lower classes (the marginalized).

In Mark’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus’ society was shaped like a cone, with the Sadducees at the center and top of the cone. Right below them were the Pharisees, competing for power. This society also used faithfulness to the traditions of ritual purity and “cleanliness” to determine who were insiders and who were outsiders, who would be centered in that society and who would be pushed to the margins, and who was at the top of the pyramid and who was at the bottom.

The Sadducees were much more conservative in interpreting which behaviors enabled someone to be pure or “clean.” The Pharisees, by contrast, used a more liberal, “progressive” interpretation of purity standards. This enabled more people from the masses to claim cleanliness and therefore avoid being socially disenfranchised. If we were to look at this anachronistically, the Pharisees could be called the blue-collar, working person’s religious leaders, whereas the Sadducees were the religious leaders of the elite and the wealthy who could afford to live up to the Sadducees’ strict standards and their interpretations of who was pure and in or impure and out.

Myers uses the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ differing interpretations of Leviticus 11:38 and of eating domesticated, unirrigated grain versus imported grain from Egypt, which was irrigated but also much cheaper and so affordable for those with less means. Follow closely:

According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees had a more inclusive interpretation than the Sadducees, but even their broader understanding still left some excluded and outcast. Most of all, their interpretation used the needs of the working class as leverage in their power competition with the Sadducees. In Mark’s stories, Jesus sees through this. Though the Pharisees were relevatively more inclusive, they still benefitted from a classist system that left others on the margins.

Jesus emerges in the story as the prophet of the outcasts, whether they are outcast by Sadducees or by Pharisees.

This is the dynamic we are bumping into in this week’s passage. Handwashing was another tradition used to determine who was in and who was out, who was centered and who was pushed to the margins, who was closer to the top of their society and who was closer to the bottom.

But it was classist and elitist. To put it in terms used by Karl Marx, handwashing was bourgeois. Remember this was way before the discovery of germ theory: it was not about cleanliness as we now understand it. Handwashing in this week’s passage was about one’s dedication to Torah observance or rather their interpretations of and adherence to society’s definition of purity.

And Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter. It is not unwashed hands that are harmful in a society, he says, but “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Today, in certain sectors of Christianity, we could apply these same principles. It’s not church attendance, offering size, worship music tastes, watching Fox News as your news media of choice, wearing the political label of “pro-life” or the claim of being a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” that makes you an insider. Jesus could just as accurately say to us: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

What truly threatens a person’s, a community’s, or a society’s wellbeing are greed, classism, scapegoating immigrants, a distrust of science, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacist ways of thinking and viewing the world. These are all things that come from within and are intrinsically harmful and destructive of our human communities—our life together. Jesus’ teaching could be broadened here to parallel contemporary analysis of systemic-isms or kyriarchy. Racism isn’t only internal to individuals, for example; it’s embedded in social policy and custom and culture as well as internal bias and socialization. I’m not saying that we can retrospectively make Jesus a critical race theorist because he was not that, and he wasn’t even really talking about that. But we today can build on his individualist critique and ask if there is something here that can also be applied to our social systems today.

Lastly, I don’t interpret Jesus here as simply giving his followers a new list of rules that allowed them to go on practicing the ways of marginalizing others, just with a more internalized standard. I see him doing something much different. By naming the things his new list, I see him calling the very ones who are marginalizing others based on something as silly as washing their hands to do a little introspection and see if there were things within themselves, practices that they themselves engaged in that harmed others or themselves.

What are the things that matter? Why do they matter? What are the things that are genuinely, intrinsically harmful?

And how are we as Christians today worshipping Jesus in vain, holding up elements of Christian culture as the test of who is in and who is out in the midst of our political culture-war, all the while engaging in practices that quite literally in this time of pandemic harm people around us.

What would the Jesus of our story this week say to us today?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. At RHM, we’ve often said that activism is a spiritual discipline. It can also be an act of worship. In what other ways can our justice work, informed by the Jesus story, also be an act of worship? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


Universal Love Means Universal Thriving

sunrise in field of green

Herb Montgomery | August 20, 2021


“Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:56-69)

There is a lot to unpack this in this week’s reading. This passage starts Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The original audience would have immediately recognized this as a metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. Nonetheless, as we discussed last week, it is very hard to imagine a 1st Century Jewish male, deeply cultured in the teachings of Torah, using this kind language even metaphorically. And even the text itself recognizes this language is problematic on the lips of a Jewish teacher:

“On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”

The author recognizes the problem that this language creates for its Jewish audience and seems to be trying to get out in front of it by highlighting the tension in the story itself: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

This passage also includes the early Gnostic and Pauline view of the world as divided between the spirit and the flesh. Christianity has a long history of harmfully categorizing things of “the flesh” as evil and things of the “spirit” as good. (For an excellent telling of this history I would recommend reading, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Brock and Parker.)

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) does not draw the deep distinction between the spirit and the flesh that’s described in the gospel of John or in Paul’s works. In the synoptic gospels, we see a very fleshly Jesus who is deeply concerned with what negatively impacts people’s material, concrete well-being. His response to suffering is not to focus on the spirit but to liberate humanity from whatever oppresses people in their “flesh.” The Jesus of these gospels is very enfleshed.

What I do appreciate about this week’s passage in John is that its author keeps defining “spirit” for Jesus followers in terms of the “words” of Jesus. Jesus’ words “are spirit and life.” Simon Peter also affirms that Jesus has the words of life in the story when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (emphasis added).

He’s pointing to he words of Jesus—his teachings, his message. In our context today, it’s difficult to understand the distinction between “flesh” and “spirit, even if John’s original audience understood it. But defining whatever is meant by “spirit” as focused on the words or teachings of Jesus—this I can begin to get my head around. Perhaps it’s easier for you to understand as well.

The teachings of Jesus bring to my mind Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which the author of the gospel of John does not mention, and the economic justice found throughout the entire gospel of Luke. In Mark, the teachings of Jesus repeatedly challenge the political status quo through stories full of political symbols and meaning. And even in John, the teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of love more than any of the synoptics.

Consider the following passages:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 cf. Luke 6:31)

And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.(Matthew 22:39)

To love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Mark 12:33)

He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied, ‘Do this and you will live.’ (Luke 10:27-28)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

These are the words/teachings that are life, two thousand years ago and today. Love is not only named in the gospels as an ethic of life, but it is also defined in the gospels. John emphases love more than the other canonical gospels and yet the synoptic gospels are still needed to define what that love looks like publicly: as Cornel West often says, justice is what love looks like in public. Matthew and Luke can be interpreted to teach this:

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations. (Matthew 12:18, emphasis added.)

You neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

Love and justice are connected in the gospels. Proclaiming love, specifically a universal love of which everyone is the object, and embracing the directive to practice that love for every one of our neighbors, will necessarily move us to make sure every person around us has what they need to thrive. We won’t focus only on ourselves individually, but also account for others within our collective communities, too. That is social justice. We at RHM sometimes call it making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. Yet whether you call it social justice, or politics, or economics, or whatever, in the end what we are talking about is love and treating others the way oneself would like to be treated.

Anything less isn’t love, no matter how “Christian” the language for it. As Jesus followers, our words of love must be accompanied by actions of justice. We say something about this every week: Choose compassion. Take action. Work toward justice. This is how we define living in the way of love repeated in each version of the Jesus story we hold sacred.

Love and justice.

These are spirit.

These are life.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Many of us are feeling deeply concerned with the events in Afghanistan this week. Here are a few organizations that are providing ways for those who are moved to take action to do so:

No One Left Behind

https://nooneleft.org/

International Refugee Assistance Project

https://refugeerights.org/

Women For Afghan Women

https://womenforafghanwomen.org/afghanistan/

Lutheran Immigration And Refugee Service

https://www.lirs.org/

International Rescue Committee

https://www.rescue.org/

Global Giving

https://www.globalgiving.org/

WorldHelp

https://worldhelp.net/

Child Foundation

https://www.childfoundation.org/

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Choosing an Ethic of Love

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue being a voice for change because of you.


heart drawn on foggy window

Herb Montgomery | August 13, 2021

Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)

This section of John’s gospel includes some problems. First, it’s difficult to imagine a Jewish Jesus using the language of “eating flesh and drinking blood.” Second, this version of the Jesus story comes to the canon very late, written while the latest gospels were being composed. Third, the analogy of flesh-eating and blood-drinking is only found here in this late gospel. It’s absent from all of the earlier, older synoptic versions of the Jesus story, and that becomes even more confusing because though bread and wine are found in each of the other stories of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, they are absent from John.

John’s gospel is where we would expect bread and wine to be, given John’s references to eating flesh and drinking blood, and yet they are nowhere to be found in this version of the last supper. Further, John’s Jesus does not command his followers to continue the Eucharistic sacrament in this gospel as the synoptics do. In fact, if this were the only gospel we had, we would never even know that the last supper included bread and wine.

For all of these reasons and more, most progressive Christian scholars ascribe our opening passage to the Johannine community—the community that emerged around this gospel—and not to the original, Jewish Jesus.

Yet there’s a way for us today, with our focus on establishing justice on Earth and making our present world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone as objects of a Divine, universal love, to reclaim these words in a life-giving way. Let’s talk about it.

Many Christians today focus on what they believe was the focus of the Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That Jesus did not focus on himself or his own person, but rather focused on inspiring others to follow his teachings or what early Christians called the Way (see Acts 9:2). Christians on this path focus on following Jesus’ teachings as found in the stories, rather than on worshiping Jesus or believing in Jesus. In fact, they feel that they may be more accurately worshiping or honoring the Jesus of the stories by endeavoring to follow his teachings in our society rather than merely mentally assenting to Christianity’s high claims about his person.

As I shared last week, we could substitute the language here in John of “flesh” and “blood” with language about following the teachings of this Jewish prophet of the poor and the marginalized communities of Galilee.

For example:

My teachings are the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats these teachings like we partake of bread will experience those things that are not temporary but eternal. This bread is my teachings, by which I reveal the path of life of the world… Very truly I tell you, unless you internalize and follow my teachings and drink deep of their wisdom you have no life in you. Whoever eats my teachings and drinks my teachings has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my teachings are real food and real drink. Whoever internalizes my teachings, allowing my teachings to become part of themselves like we do with food and drink, remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on my teachings will live because of them. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58, personal paraphrase)

I realize this kind of substitution won’t work for everyone. For some, the analogy is still unreclaimable for now, and that’s okay. For others, it’s not clear why this language from a deeply Jewish Jesus might be challenging. We are all on a journey, and for me today, where I am on my own journey, the substitution works. It places my focus where I believe it should be.

Christian history is littered with those who honored Jesus with titles and high claims, yet committed harmful atrocities in his name. I want and choose to place greater value on endeavoring to follow the ethical values in the Jesus story than on promoting the higher claims about Jesus found in the Christian religion. Though those options are not mutually exclusive, I want to be clear that many find Christianity’s high claims about Jesus unbelievable while they see value in the Jesus story because of its ethic of love in human community.

While we don’t have to choose between these options, certain sectors of Christianity seem to choose high claims about Jesus over practicing his ethics. Sometimes they are ignorant of them, but sometimes they practice harmful ethics and hold destructive values while using Jesus’ name.

I’m also in relationship with people who no longer believe in Christianity’s high claims, but who still engage the work of living the golden rule, practicing the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and modeling an ethic of personal and social love above all else. Again, I don’t believe this has to be an either/or, but if I did have to choose, I’d prefer the latter. I would much rather that a person have questions and doubts about the person of Jesus while endeavoring to practice the way of love Jesus taught than that they claim to believe all of Christianity’s high claims yet promote a bigoted, racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, classist, nationalistic, or supremacist kind of Christianity.

At the end of the day, someone may believe all the approved, orthodox teaching of the Christian religion about Jesus but not actually be following the Jesus of the story.

If you can do both, I affirm and honor you. If you can’t do both, I want to honor and affirm you too. Whatever you choose, choose the way of love, the way of life, even if you can’t wake every morning absolutely sure that the way of love will eventually and ultimately win. Choose the way of love because you believe it is the better way. We may not be able to change our world by those actions, but we do get to decide what kind of people we will be.

We may not influence the harmful, destructive means we encounter in our world. But by our choices we get to decide whether they will influence us and the kinds of people we want to be. Personal choice today, given enough time and influence, can become social choices tomorrow.

So this is my hope:

That the kind of people we choose to be today will impact the kind of world we compose tomorrow. Even if we never get to see those choices work their way into social change in our lifetime, I rest in the thought that what we choose does matter. It matters to me, and it impacts the kind of person I am choosing to be today.

My hope is that it will matter to our world, too; that it will impact the kind of world we and future generations get to live in tomorrow.

Whoever internalizes my teachings has come in contact with those things which are eternal.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does practicing an ethic of love look like for you in your daily life and as part of your larger society? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Bread of Life

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue to be a voice for change because of you.


Herb Montgomery | August 6, 2021

Our reading this week comes from the gospel of John,

Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty . . . At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:35, 41-51)

Our passage this week starts a chain of “I am” statements that are unique to the gospel of John. There are six more in this version of the Jesus story, seven in total. In John 8:12, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world.” In John 8:58, he says, “I existed before there was an Abraham.” In John 10:11, he says, “I am the good shepherd,” and in John 11:25, he says “I am the resurrection and the life.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am life,” and lastly, in John 15:1, he says, “I am the authentic vine.”

Robert Funk explains that John’s Greco-Roman audience would have recognized this series as an “established formula in speech attributed to one of the gods” (p. 419, The Five Gospels). For John’s Jewish audience, these sayings could have echoed Yahweh’s words to Moses: “ I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Both associations would have highly honored the Jewish Jesus by whom many who encountered him had their lives changed forever.

But also note two things. John’s language about “the Jews” has proven deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. We must be careful in how we read, understand, and use this passage, and we must not use it to harm Jewish people.

Another problematic phrase is, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” This seems to contradict the synoptic Jesus who accused those in control of the status quo of having established a monopoly on knowing God: “Damn you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have blocked those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52) There is much to ponder here.

Can we reclaim this passage in our lectionary reading for this week?

I think the synoptic gospels can help us.

The synoptic gospels don’t emphasize Jesus as a person (as John does) but emphasize Jesus’ teachings, specifically his teachings on nonviolent resistance, mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, debt forgiveness, and more. Jesus’ teaching in these gospels has very concrete political and economic implications for communities. No wonder many of those with much political and economic power, then and now, have chosen to interpret Jesus as providing a path to heaven rather than an affront to unjust social structures in the here and now.

But ponder for a moment how our understanding changes if we interpret these teachings as “the bread of life.” Coupling John’s Jesus who is the bread of life with the synoptics’ definition of Jesus in terms of his teachings would lead us to state:

Nonviolent resistance is the bread of life.

Mutual aid is the bread of life.

Resource sharing is the bread of life.

Wealth redistribution is the bread of life.

Debt forgiveness is the bread of life.

And in a time of massive wealth inequality, when the richest are competing on getting to the edge of earth and space while most of the world still does not have even their daily needs of food, shelter, and care met, we wonder if these statements could be true.

Consider the political and economic forces obstructing the changes we need to make right now to effectively address climate change alone. What does it mean to have the bread of life today?

If eating this kind of “bread” would lead to life and refusing these things would lead to death, that would make much more sense to me if we defined the bread of life as the ethical, social and political teachings of the Jesus story.

It is much larger than this, too. As a Jesus follower, I have encountered these teachings in my own journey with Jesus. Others exposed to Jesus through harmful expressions of Christianity have encountered these values from other sources. I can say that they, too, are partaking in the bread of life, even if they aren’t associated with “Jesus.”

What is bread that is only temporary and what is bread that leads to life everlasting? What are sustainable, renewable, long-term ways of supporting life? Could these practices from Jesus be a way for us to interpret Jesus’ words in John’s gospel?

Lastly, we once again bump into the myth of redemptive self-sacrifice in this week’s passage:

“This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

It’s good to deny greed for power and resources from the powerful and privileged. I see those kinds of denials as a way for the powerful to reclaim their humanity or “self” rather than sacrifice it. Likewise, I do not interpret Jesus as prescribing self-sacrifice for those who are marginalized, victimized, or disenfranchised. In a system where so many people’s full humanity or “self’ is already being sacrificed, I do not believe the message for them is one of greater, voluntary sacrifice of themselves, but rather, as we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings a call for them to reclaim their full humanity in their struggle for justice. (See Imagery of a Good Shepherd and A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Parts 1-10))

Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker correctly warn of the damage that unhealthy interpretations of John’s gospel can produce:

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world.” (God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

If you would like understand this analysis more deeply, I recommend reading their critique in its entirety.

So what does the bread of life look like for us today?

Rightly understanding our history including our society’s racism is the bread of life.

A living wage is the bread of life.

Open, free, and fair elections where voting rights and voting access is protected is the bread of life.

Affordable and accessible health care for all is the bread of life.

Getting vaccinated when we can be is the bread of life.

Common sense preliminary background check on all gun purchases is the bread of life.

Funding those trained in mental health to respond to crisis situations in our communities, ending police militarization, and investing in non-policing forms of public safety and community support is the bread of life.

Clean, renewable energy is the bread of life, especially for those monetarily profiting from the fossil fuel industry now. What does it profit you if you gain all the money in the world but have no planet to live on?

What is the bread of life that results in concrete, life everlasting for humanity rather than temporary gain? What does that mean to you?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What do you interpret to be the bread of life in our context today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week