Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Difficult Teaching

Jesus has a knack for offending people.

Today's Daily Office reading from the Gospel of John (chapter 6, verses 60-71) is a case in point. The reading is part of the larger "bread of heaven" discourse in which Jesus says:
"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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them" (John 6:53-56).
In many Episcopal churches, we sing this as we receive communion using Hymn #335 ("I am the bread of life").

I once heard a respected organist/choirmaster say that when his congregation sings this hymn, they always omit verse 3:
Unless you eat of the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his Blood,
you shall not have life within you,
you shall not have life within you.
His rationale for the omission was to say, "What kind of message does that send?!" He found it offensive.

It's fascinating how closely this reaction corresponds to the reaction to Jesus' teaching recorded in John's Gospel:
When many of the disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:61-63).
Jesus' response to the complaints made matters worse: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (John 6:66).

Apparently, taking offense at this difficult teaching is still true for some of us today.


Jendi said...

Why do you think this offends Christians today? Is it the exclusivity of the "unless", or squeamishness about the physical images? There's a Chesterton quote (either in Orthodoxy or Heretics, I think) about how people simultaneously object to Christianity as too unworldly (discounting the flesh) and as too barbaric (all this blood messing up our pretty spirituality).

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Jendi. It's good to hear from you again.

There may be more to it, but I think you've put your finger on reasons why people continue to find this teaching difficult and offensive.

For starters, it sounds too exclusionary. Just like the claim that Jesus is the only way to the Father in John 14:6.

And actually, rather than being too unworldly, it's too this-worldly, what with all of the emphasis on flesh and blood (and eating it!). I think it's more than squeamishness about the alleged barbarism of the imagery. I think it's also a reaction against Jesus' very intimate, physical, incarnational, sacramental teaching by the neo-Gnostic "spiritual but not religious" flight from commitment to anything or anyone in particular (other than one's own subjective preferences and desires). I continue to think that Stuff White People Like is on to something here.

If you find the Chesterton quote, I'd love it if you'd share it in full.