Tag Archives: Gospel of John
This verse is like an explosion. How do we get right with God? How do we attain that righteousness with which God judges the world and condemns the wickedness of humanity? Do we have to humble ourselves before our husbands? Do we have to lord it over our wives? Do we have to follow “Biblical life principles”? Do we have to pray an hour every day? Will that get us to the righteousness of God?
When the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the sacraments, he wrote about them as the way God gives us grace. “Now the gift of grace,” he wrote, “surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking in the divine nature.” This is a professional way of saying that grace is the gift we can’t get for ourselves because it is beyond our capability. It is the way we embrace the very nature of God. It is the way that the invisible, eternal Father comes to live inside of us, like a radioactive tracer that outlives our own flesh.
And it’s funny—it seems that no one can think about these words for more than a few minutes without turning them into a problem that has to be solved. What did Jesus mean? Was he referring to the meal his disciples shared, the sacrament of bread and wine? Or was he talking about eating and drinking as a metaphor for believing in him?
So Jesus lets you say no—to him and to each other. He invites his disciples to leave. He does this without blame or resentment. He doesn’t call out after the people who are leaving, “You’ll be sorry!” And if the twelve had walked away discouraged, he would have found new disciples. He would have raised up a body for himself in the world somehow. He will find a way to share his eternal life with this hungry, bleeding, sinful world. Someone, somehow, will answer.
Now when a crowd shows up in ancient literature, it usually stands for human nature at its most basic and unimproved. The crowd is not very smart. The crowd is not very patient. The crowd is not very reasonable. The crowd is prone to fear. The crowd is fickle and impulsive. The crowd is like a child: when it hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and something to eat, it can become difficult.
This principle–God’s words are actions, God’s actions are words–is something I try to keep in mind whenever I read a miracle story in the Bible. Because the fact is that miracle stories can seem very disappointing after you get used to them. The people who are healed and fed in the Bible just remind me, at least, of those people ever since and even today who are not healed and not fed. Where’s the miracle for them?
This fear is a dreadful burden to carry. It really is. We don’t notice it, because we’re so accustomed to it, but it’s like a load of bricks on our back. It’s a way of letting death win in advance. And here’s my pet theory about it: It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.
Now for Luther, the big problem was that people didn’t pray boldly enough. They didn’t expect good things from God, because they were afraid of God. He compares the person who asks for too little from God to a beggar. A rich and mighty emperor invites the beggar to ask for whatever he might desire, prepared to give him “great and princely gifts.” And if the beggar asks only for a dish of beggar’s broth, he would be “considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence.”
And this sounds kind of strange to us today, perhaps. But for Luther, salvation was a human impossibility. Every road we could choose would take us away from God. You can ignore God and go from bad to worse, or you can try to please God and only learn pride, or become more painfully aware of your own failings. And it’s all hopeless, except that God makes the impossible, possible. God gives his Holy Spirit to me so that I may believe things that are beyond my own power to believe. So that I can come to a Jesus I cannot recognize on my own. And every little bit of faith I have is the gift of this Spirit. It’s not something I could have ever gone out and found for myself, however small it feels.
Jesus is steering himself straight into the heart of that great fear that lurks in the human heart: not just of death, but of humiliation; not just of pain, but of abandonment and rejection; not just the fear of failure, but the fear of breaking the solemn silent code among humans: you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and you stay seated, and I stay seated, and all of us will stare at the floor together. And whatever happens, happens.