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



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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