Choosing an Ethic of Love

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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