“The Mystical Way in John part 2 of 3”
August 16, Proper 15:
Other Texts: The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over into God, by L. William Countryman
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Last week, in our intense focus on Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John, Jesus opens with “I am the bread of life, he who comes to me will never be hungry.”
Which is hard enough to get our heads around…
But the reading ended with this more provocative statement that we begin with today, this bread which has come down from heaven is…not manna…no, it’s my flesh.
And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…
John is having Jesus is up the ante here.
And he doesn’t stop there, he just gets more graphic.
Our translation uses the verb “eat” throughout: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man,” but a more accurate translation of many of these would be “chew.”
My teacher, Bill Countryman’s translation goes like this: “unless you eat the flesh of the son of humanity and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves. The one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life…the one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood stays in me and I in him…This is the bread that has come down from heaven—[…] the one who chews this bread will live forever.” [Countryman p.56]
Pretty concrete and graphic.
What is going on?
Now to us it may seem obvious…we use metaphors about bread and body, blood and wine every week.
And it would have been obvious to John’s community as well, but it would also be incredibly challenging…even obscene to others at the time.
It’s still challenging today.
I daresay that hearing it as “chew my flesh” even makes us pretty uncomfortable.
So what’s going on?
Bill Countryman, in his book “The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel” argues that John’s narrative—the whole point and direction of the narrative— is a mystical path.
A kind of map of Christian experience from conversion, through baptism, receiving the Eucharist, and on to mystical experience and union.
In these weeks when we’re focused on the sixth chapter of John, we’re stepping back and looking at the whole of John and how this chapter fits into this mystical path.
Last week we did a very brief overview of the book:
Chapter 1: Prologue—that establishes Christ the Logos as the creative force through which all things (you, me and everything) are made.
It also sets out the problem: we don’t know nor do we accept our own Creator.
And it suggests the solution—reunion with God through one being only…the Logos, the Christ, now incarnate…made flesh in Jesus.
John’s mystical journey can then be mapped by following the metaphors at play in any given section.
Chapter 1 & 2 Conversion
Chapters 3-5 Baptism (lot of water metaphors)
Chapters 6 & 7 Eucharist. (I am bread)
Then Enlightenment (I am the light of the world)
New Life (I am the Good Shepherd, the Gate to new life)
Finally Union: I am the vine, you are the branches…abide in me.
And ultimately through the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus crosses over in God and blazes the trail we are to follow.
Remember John isn’t writing a biography, he’s using a few biographical details to create a theologically compelling argument for why Jesus matters, and why committing to this particular form of the Christian way is so vital.
John is writing at a time when numerous communities are trying to make sense of how to be a Jew, or a Jewish-Christian, in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. His account was written some time after that.
In this very dangerous and disordered time, John’s community is staking its whole identity on the belief that how we respond to the historical person of Jesus is of decisive importance in our relationship with God.
So like John’s community we’ve been through conversion, and baptism, and we’ve arrived at Eucharist…
The ritual meal we now know as Eucharist, or Holy Communion, or the Mass almost certainly had it’s origin in Jewish formal meals.
At the beginning of these meals the host would take the bread to be served, say a blessing, break the bread and share it, then everyone would begin the feast.
At the end of the meal the host would take a cup of wine, say a blessing, and shared it.
It’s a familiar form, and it’s the form that is encoded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, (one of the earliest New Testament documents we have), and it’s also echoed in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
By the middle of the second century, documents reveal that while Eucharistic celebrations continued as a central part of Christian worship, the meal itself was dropped.
The earliest complete outline of a Eucharistic celebration we have is from around the middle of the second century. In it bread and wine are brought up together during the service, prayers are said over them and they are distributed. Very much like we do today. But the meal is gone.
The connection between actual bread that we eat at a meal in communion with one another, and actual wine that we share is beginning to be eclipsed by a theology of it becoming something more…
Something special…meaningful…something other than just bread and wine.
This language about bread and flesh, blood and wine seems obvious to us, but we have the benefit (or maybe it’s not so beneficial) of centuries of thought and debate and often contradictory teaching about how bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
But John’s community doesn’t have that.
At the time John is writing it’s not yet a fully formed theology but its on the way…
And John is making a strong case for them being something more than bread and wine.
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven.” This is not your father’s manna. This is something else.
And he makes this argument with a technique he uses throughout.
A rhetorical strategy Countryman has called “obnoxious discourse.”
This is where John has Jesus say increasingly extravagant and outrageous things in order to force his audience into making a choice about him.
I am the bread of life. I am the bread that has come down from heaven. You have to chew my flesh and drink my blood in order to have life in you.
Ratcheting up the stakes so that decisions have to be made.
Are you in or are you out?
Or to quote Ken Kesey: Are you on the bus, or are you off the bus?
That’s a troubling place to be in. And how many of us have difficulty with this all-or-nothing Jesus of John’s Gospel?
As John’s narrative continues on into chapter 7 and beyond, the questions get harder, not easier to resolve.
They become almost like Zen koans…This week he says: “the one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life,” but a few lines later (that we’ll hear next week) he says: “the spirit is what gives life, the flesh does no good at all.” Which is it?
”where I am going you cannot come” but “I’ll come and bring you to where I am” and “you’ll abide in me, and I in you.”
Wrestling with these kinds of questions are what often push us into the realm of the mystical.
For John the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist appear to be means to another end. They seem to be both “essential and inadequate,” says Countryman. [Countryman p.7]
In John they are necessary but not sufficient for salvation.
Because that still depends on God—on Christ—the Logos, and we still live in the world even after being baptized and receiving Communion.
And converts, and those who are baptized and even full-communicants still drop away, change their mind, even betray their vows and their communities.
John knows this. And wants us to be aware that even after all the water and bread and wine and chewing… there’s still work to be done, still something to grow into, more transformation to come. And John through this obnoxious discourse keeps pushing us deeper and deeper into that mystical realm. Which we’ll think more about next week.