Proper 16(B): Jesus’ Adaptation in Context
By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell
Has this ever happened to you? You’re watching a movie, and right at the pivotal moment, the big plot twist, the major reveal, someone enters your space. This person knows nothing about the movie, and in the hope that you might be able to convey enough information in a short amount of time so that the new person might join in on the experience, this kind soul begins to ask you questions: “Who is that? What’s her story? Why are they fighting?”
FYI: If you’ve never experienced this, it’s possible that you might be that person!
This is exactly what I feel like when reading John 6:56-69. The lectionary throws the reader into the middle of a pivotal moment, without all the information. If read simply as the lectionary would have it, one might be under the impression that the disciples’ response in 6:60 is aimed specifically at Jesus’ statement beginning in verse 56, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
In reality, the disciples seem to be responding to a great deal more! Jesus’ teaching stretches back to 6:25. And the central gravity of the passage seemingly comes to a head at 6:35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Jesus says a few more things that seem to hold some weight. Things like:
“…‘This is my Father’s will: that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’…” (6:40)
“…‘No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me’…” (6:44)
“…‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you’…” (6:53)
Only after a lot of teaching do we finally reach today’s lectionary’s selection.
…‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.’ Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples who heard this said, ‘This message is harsh. Who can hear it?’… (6:56-60)
While Jesus’ graphic wording in this paragraph is hard to digest, the same can be said for the whole chapter. Jesus’ entire message is difficult! And what is that message? From my perspective, it seems to be this: Jesus is the bread of life, and the way to God. Unless one believes, one may not be raised up on the last day.
In seminary, I participated in an exercise that drew an imaginary line. On one end of the line was Exclusive Christianity (Christianity is the one, true religion.) On the other end, was Pluralistic Christianity (Christianity is one among many pathways to God.) And in the middle—Inclusive Christianity (Christianity is my pathway to God, and there may or may not be others.) We were then asked to figure out where we stood on the spectrum.
Through my first few years of ministry, I thought about that line a great deal, and I couldn’t help but notice that my place on that line tended to shift depending on my context. It still does.
For example, when involved in a deep discussion concerning Christian doctrine with someone who might stand on the Exclusive side, I find myself somewhere in the Inclusive space (possibly approaching Pluralistic.) Likewise, when in a similar discussion with someone who more closely identifies toward the Pluralistic range of things, I end up standing in between Inclusive and Exclusive. It all depends on context.
Similarly, if I participate in a religious conversation, it is going to sound a lot different with a believer than a nonbeliever. We adjust based on context.
This is something I love about Jesus. He is contextual. He adapts to the moment; to the people; to the context.
The same can be said for Jesus in John 6. At the very end of this long passage (in 6:64-66), we finally reach a break in the action, and we find out that Jesus has been aware from the beginning that some of his own disciples may not believe. In fact, the author of John writes that Jesus actually knows the specifics of who would not believe AND who would end up betraying him. Jesus actually states, “Some of you do not believe.”
Since context is important, we need to recognize that Jesus is not addressing the 12. He is addressing a larger group of disciples. A group that seems to include some who are much more committed to the movement than others, and even some who do not believe. And because some disciples do not believe but continue to “follow” Jesus, he declares this to be the reason for his “harsh” teaching, essentially serving to “weed out” the unbelievers from the believers, much like Organic Chemistry seeks to do with Pre-Med students. He’s testing for commitment. His teaching occurs in a context. Thus, the reason for the hard teaching.
I wonder if Jesus would address a crowd of “sinners” in the same way. I wonder if Jesus might address a group of Pharisees more harshly. I wonder if Jesus could say the same deep and difficult teaching to a group of new, post-modern followers. Or would he change the way he said it? Or would he use action? Or simply listen?
We serve an adaptable God, with an adaptable message, and ever-adapting manner by which the gospel makes its way into the world. But that same message of forgiveness, and hope, and love of Jesus Christ will always be the same. God will always be reconciling the world to Godself. But it may look/sound/feel different.
May your reading of Scripture look for context.
May your ministry take note of ways to adapt.
And may you know that God is a God of creativity, innovation, adaptation, and ultimately, love.
The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.