Sunday, August 5, 2012

"The Plain Teaching of Scripture"

Text: John 6: 1-15, 25-35, 41-69 (the Bread of Life)

Today's long reading from the Gospel of John begins with the familiar story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes.

As is common, John adds more to the story than do the other three Gospel writers. He follows the feeding of the five thousand with a set of speeches by Jesus that connect that miraculous feeding to the sacrament of communion.

John alone tells us that the occasion of the miraculous feeding was Passover, which is also when Jesus' crucifixion will later occur. John alone has Jesus saying that he is the Bread of Life and that eating his flesh and blood is the only way to have life.

The chapter is filled with metaphors, claims, counter-claims, questions and puzzling responses. I imagine that at least some of us here today could relate to the following statement found in the reading: "Many of his disciples, when they heard Jesus, said, 'This is a hard teaching; who can listen to it?'"

In puzzling over this chapter this week, the phrase "the plain teaching of Scripture" came to mind. This phrase is often used by conservative Christians when arguing that tough questions can be answered by a simple reading of the Bible: perhaps the idea that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved, as our reading today might imply; or that homosexuality is always a sin; or that women should not assume leadership in families or in churches.

Like many liberal Christians, I don't subscribe to the idea that tough questions can be answered simply by reading passages in the Bible. There are several reasons for adopting this attitude: the awareness that the Bible is a human product; that it was written over hundreds of years by scores of different authors; that some texts contradict others; and that it is often filled with metaphors, which makes Scripture more like poetry than a set of legal documents.

Some conservative Christians may be moving closer this attitude towards the Bible as well. I wondered about this when I read this week that Canada's Christian and Missionary Alliance Church reversed its opposition to women in ministry at its General Assembly meeting in Winnipeg last month. From now on, women as well as men will be ordained to ministry within the Alliance Church, as has been the case in the United Church since 1936.

The Alliance Church is smaller than the United Church, but the Alliance congregations in Coronach and Assiniboia are two of the biggest in our area. I am pleased that after years of debate and prayer their Church has come to this decision, and I hope that it will be welcomed in all parts of the denomination.

Equality between men and women remains a hot topic in some parts of the world. For instance, a lot has been made of the fact that the current Olympic Games in London is the first one where all national delegations include at least one female athlete. Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have finally agreed to allow women to compete despite religious objections.

In Canada almost all of us accept the equality of men and women. But despite the legal equality now enjoyed by women in Canada, some Christian churches, including the largest one, the Roman Catholic Church, continue to discriminate against women when it comes to ministry. Such churches usually justify this stance because of the "plain teaching of Scripture."

Indeed, there are places in the Bible where a text plainly says that women should not lead in church. The most notorious is First Timothy: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety."

There you have it: clear direction from Holy Scripture that women should submit to men.  Except, what if one responds to such a text by saying, "So?" To treat such a text as more authoritative than the other means we use to understand the roles of women and men such as personal experience, social and cultural development, and scientific knowledge is to treat the books of the Bible as an idol in my opinion.

I don't know the details of the discussion in the Alliance General Assembly this summer, but I imagine that its decision on women in ministry might change the attitudes of some people within the Alliance Church towards the Bible.

Nor is the Alliance Church the only denomination changing its mind. Last year, the largest Lutheran denomination in Canada voted to allow openly gay and lesbian people to become ministers as did the Presbyterian churches in the United States and Scotland. Many here will remember how that issue divided the United Church in the 1980s. But a generation later, issues relating to sexuality are relatively uncontroversial among us.

Conservatives warn that ignoring texts like First Timothy on the role of women puts a church on a slippery slope that lead to heresy. I partly agree with them. But I believe that the slippery slope is a gracious one that can lead a church to greater hospitality and openness.

I am not suggesting that the Alliance Church will soon follow the United Church and some Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations down this gracious slope to offer full acceptance to gay, lesbian or queer people, though I would be thrilled if that were to happen. I do believe that by turning its back on the "plain teaching" of texts like First Timothy on the role of women, the Alliance Church has taken a step away from a narrow focus on the words of Scripture. The words in the Bible, after all, are not God. They are just tools that we use in our own stumbling ways to try and point to the God who is Love.

Which leads me back to today's thick and difficult reading from John. What might it all mean? Several times in it, Jesus says that belief in him leads to eternal life. But what does eternal life mean? Is it a quality that we briefly taste when, with Grace, we stumble into a moment without ego? Is it a guarantee that our egos and all their selfish desires will live forever in heaven. And what about the big majority of people who have never heard of Jesus? Can they not achieve eternal life?

In our reading, why does Jesus both repeat the graphic images of eating his flesh and blood and then also say that it is God's Spirit that gives life and that the flesh is of no avail? Also, why does Jesus urge us to believe in him on the one hand and then on the other remind us that no one can come to him unless God draws them forward?  One could go on.

Well, whatever treasures and lessons this chapter contains, one thing I would never do is describe its teachings as plain. But despite not having any definitive conclusions, I will close with a few impressions.

I love Jesus' image of the Bread of Life. I appreciate the graphic nature of his words about eating his flesh and blood, despite the disquiet this causes to many of his disciples. I am also reassured when Jesus reminds us that all of life depends on God's Spirit. I am aware that the text might be interpreted as making belief a requirement for salvation. But I am pleased that Jesus counters that interpretation by saying that no one can come to him unless God the Father draws one forward. Here, Jesus reminds us of Grace.

Our reading today is the only place in John where Jesus talks about Holy Communion. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John does not show Jesus instituting a sacrament of communion with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. As such, this seemed like an appropriate text for us to hear before communion today.

Communion symbolizes many things: the death and resurrection of Jesus, our physical and spiritual incorporation into God through an act of eating and drinking; and our status as recipients of the gift of eternal life.

In order for us to better grasp the concept of eternal life, we rely upon prayer, worship, service to the community, rituals like communion, and the many pain- and grace-filled experiences of our lives.

Knowing in our guts what Jesus means by the gift of eternal life sometimes comes in rare moments of awareness. Such moments do not happen every time we pray, every time we serve our family or neighbours in love, or every time we take the bread and cup. But such moments do occur; moments when we know with full confidence that we are of God and that God lives within us. Moments when the simple and everyday links up with eternity.

We cannot force such moments of union to happen. But Jesus assures us that God's Spirit continually draws us towards life eternal through Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Let us taste this truth again and remind ourselves not only in words but in our guts and our hearts that we are all part of God's eternity.

Thanks be to God.


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