By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
John 6:56–69 (NRSV)
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The Words of Eternal Life
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
There is much talk about these words that Jesus spoke. It has been debated for nearly 2000 years. Yet still we seem to fall far short of them. This past year was probably the most difficult of the six years I have served on the elders’ board, because in a large, we wrestled with these very words. What is proper worship, what is true faith, what does it mean to be a Christian, and what does it mean to be a Friend? All these questions were raging in my mind, and more. On both sides of the debate there were people arguing from a traditional point of view, both from the universal church’s point of view and that of Friends.
For many the debate gets lost in the symbolism just as it did in the early years of the Friends movement. There are those that will defend the use of symbols saying they are a necessary for worship, yet they will then turn around and say that it is by faith that we are saved not by works. If we were to break this down they are saying in one statement that the elements of a sacrament are required means of grace, if not participated in our faith is invalid. And in the other statement they are saying that it is our faith that grants the grace, and participation in works of any sort are invalid without first having faith. It boggles the mind if you listen to the debates for too long.
So, what is the correct answer? This, I am afraid, will be debated for years if not centuries to come. But while we debate these issues there is something that can be done. We can listen to Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in conclusion to this teaching, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Imagine if you will that you were sitting or standing in that great synagogue in Capernaum, you had listened to all these words by Jesus. You heard him telling you about the manna from heaven and that the bread that he will give is even greater than this because those that eat of it will never hunger. He even added that those that eat of this bread will never die. You like everyone else have some idea surrounding the Messiah, and you are in an internal debate with yourself wondering if Jesus just might be the one. The reason this is popping into your mind is because of the various ideas of what the messiah will do. One is that he will reestablish the kingdom of David and you are currently living under the rule of Rome. For the kingdom to become independent there would have to be some sort of battle, either politically or physical. The idea of a messiah that can provide everlasting bread to an army sounds amazing. The Idea that those that eat this bread would live forever is even greater. You remember the history of your people, you know that the greatest forces of Persia were call the Immortals, yet they did eventually die at least physically. But if Jesus was the messiah and he truly could provide everlasting life through bread at his disposal, then the armies of Israel would truly be immortal. No army could stand against them.
Think about this. Imagine what you might be thinking of when you hear those words. Then imagine the shock and horror that you might have felt when Jesus continued to speak and said that the bread he must give is his flesh. He says that he will give his very flesh for us to eat to give us this eternal life. Could you do that? Could you for the sake of Israel join with this Rabbi, becoming a flesh eater? The very though turns the stomach, it turns my stomach even today. Because they did not have the gospels like we do, they could not look back at the first chapter of John like we did last week and connect the flesh to the incarnation. They did not have the letters of Paul who explained that the fruit of the spirit are certain things, and that the wisdom of God provided by the spirit is providing that fruit through the very incarnation of Jesus. All you have on that day in Capernaum are words spoken by a traveling teacher, words that are extremely hard to understand, and boarder on heresy according to the traditions of the past. What would you do?
They grumbled, they complained, just as their ancestors did in the desert. They did not understand why God was leading them through the desert for forty years, it was miserable, it was pointless, why drag it on so long? Why, if they were not able to go into the land, why not just open the earth and let everyone fall in? Why did God allow even their leader Moses get so annoyed with the long drawn out process to the point that even he would sin against God and miss the promise?
There are mysteries in life that we will never fully grasp. When Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, imagine how many farmers spend nights laying awake trying to figure out that riddle. It’s just a seed what deeper meaning does it hold? If the answers to the kingdom of God are found in a seed, what else could be held in something like bread, or even more in the flesh?
We do not know what the meaning of an event or moment in life holds, during the moment. For us at that moment the trials we face are torture and pointless. A few weeks ago, I spoke with my brother at length and we discussed the trials we both felt while dealing with the emotions and grief of losing our sister. The discussion was profound to me. I learned things that he experienced that were far different from the things that I experienced. I for a moment hated myself for not being a better big brother for him, I did not see. In fact, I could not see, because it was not for me to see. It was a mystery that could only be revealed by the holder. Over the course of this discussion we realized that while we would never wish the pain and grief we experienced on anyone, that event, that ending of one life, provided the catalysis for our futures.
Those tough trial we experience, are life giving, even when they feel as if they are taking the life right out of us. They give life if, and only if, we face the trials in the spirit of Christ. They give life because the spirit of God is life. Everything that I experienced and will experience in this flesh can and will provide the strength and hope to encourage another to embrace the spirit of Christ in their own lives. I may not see how it works. I may not even be aware that the Spirit is working because I am currently experiencing another mystery in my own life that has yet to be revealed to me. But like a mustard seed that goes into the ground, the seed dies and is transformed into a sprout, a plant, it matures and produces fruit, and once that fruit is mature the plant dies, and we are left with another seed. Yet another mystery. Yet another trial that baffles us, that tortures us. Yet another era of our life’s journey that causes us to question the very point and purpose of our existence and we like the psalmist curse the day we were born because we feel as if the world just might be better without us.
Those people in that synagogue so long ago, listened to the teaching of Jesus they thought about them and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” They grumble because, the words of the teacher sound terrible, they sound as if he is telling them to turn their back on their ancient traditions and to begin a new life and lifestyle. It sounds as if they would be turning their backs on everything they had ever known and follow him into something they though God would never lead them to. Who can accept it? If we understand God that looks and acts one way and suddenly something else is revealed, how can we accept it?
Jesus looks at his disciples and asks them, “Do you also wish to go away?” Think about that question. Think about it deeply. Think about the many trials you have faced. Think about the times you struggled in faith and even with this meeting. Jesus is asking us the same question. Do you also wish to go away? Would you rather go somewhere else, somewhere that does not challenge us quite so much? Somewhere that might allow us to stay where we are instead of working through a trial that we did not really want to face anyway. There is a reason that many of us have stayed here in this Meeting. And each of us have come to a point where we had to ask ourselves why we even stay, yet we did. Why?
Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” There are very few that came to this Meeting, who were born into the Society of Friends. Most of us for some reason chose to attend and to stay. There are numerous other expressions of faith why did we stay here?
Peter and the others stayed with Jesus, even in their lack of understanding, because they believed that his teaching held within them eternal life. Stop there for a moment. Peter said that Jesus’s words held eternal life, after Jesus just gave a teaching of his flesh being the bread of life. Peter acknowledges that even though that teaching was weird and a bit gross, knew that over all Jesus’s teaching, held within them everything they needed to know. It was the wisdom wrapped in flesh that gave the life, it is the wisdom not the flesh that provided the power. It was the spirit, not the flesh that gave life. And the spirit of Jesus is the essence of life. But it is more than just the teaching. He also says to whom can we go? There is a correlation between the relationship and the teaching, as well as belief and faith. Where would they go?
They did not meet the requirements to follow one of the other rabbis of their day. They were passed over for that honor. Instead, when they became of age they were sent out of school to learn the trade of their fathers. They became fishermen, tax collectors, and some joined gangs. They had each left that life to follow Jesus. There was something that drew them to Him. There was something about that relationship with Jesus along with the teaching that caused them to desire something different from the life they previously knew. There was something about the lifestyle that Jesus showed them that caused them to desire it, even when it was challenging. Even when their friends in their hometown center of worship looked at Jesus and said this teaching is hard. The desire to be with Jesus was greater than being with the rest of the world.
This tells us something about worship, and life. Elton Trueblood, a Quaker Theologian once said, “If you have the reality then nothing else is required, if you do not have the reality nothing else will suffice.” What this means is that the reality of faith and life is found in Jesus. Just as Peter said, “To whom can we go?” The reality is that they found more in the life and lifestyle of Christ, in that relationship with Christ than they had found anywhere else. Why would they leave? When Jesus would later say, “Abide in me,” they would begin to understand what the meaning of even these hard teachings would be.
It was not that they needed to eat the flesh or eat the sacred bread that represented the manna of ancient days. It was that they needed to take on the life and lifestyle of Jesus. The needed to reflect that life and lifestyle in all they would do. They needed to die to themselves and let the life of Jesus reflect through them. As Paul would say, “I no longer live but Christ lives through me.” This is eating the flesh of Christ. It is becoming what we eat or consume. If they consume the life and lifestyle of Christ, they begin to reflect him. When they eat of his holy wisdom, the essential ingredients of that wisdom seep out of their bodies, it is in their sweat, in their blood, it provides sheen to their hair. Just like the things we eat in our flesh. When we eat garlic, everyone knows we have eaten garlic. Do people know you have been partaking of the lifestyle of Christ?
About 370 years ago, Fox and other seekers began what we now know as the Society of Friends, or the Friends Church. When they began their meetings for worship they sought to only require the essentials of faith, the things necessary. They observed the traditions and practices of the Churches of their day and they saw many things that caused their hearts to grieve. One being that children and adults were baptized and nothing changed. Another was that people participated in communion services and lived their lives however they wanted. They looked at these things and looked at the teachings of Christ, and they realized that there must be more to faith than just eating bread and drinking wine. And if there is more to it than that behind the symbol is more important than the symbol itself. They studied scripture and they realized that if the symbol of the lord’s supper was so important that Paul would say, “for all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” This means that if there is a symbol that means something more, and our lifestyle does not reflect the deeper meaning we have caused harm to ourselves and the meeting. To partake of the symbols of Christ, means we must reflect Christ and if we reflect Christ anyway the symbols are only there to remind us to continue.
Do we need these symbols? The truth is when we gather together to worship, we as a corporate body encourage one another to take on the lifestyle of Christ. It does not matter if it is a Catholic Church, Baptist church, or a Meeting of Friends. It does not matter if there are sacramental elements or if there are cookies and coffee. When we meet, we encourage, and it is that encouragement that keeps us going. It is the coming together as people of faith that keeps us focused on the life and lifestyle of Christ, and together we help one another discern if we are living the life we say we are living. It comes in the forms of discussion, queries, singing of hymns and praise songs. It comes in a prayer, and in a smile. We partake of Christ when we come together to worship and listen to the wisdom of the spirit expressed through people emboldened by the spirit. That is why we are here and why we have stayed. It is the relationships we have with one another that have helped us through or trials and helped us see Christ through the mystery of life. Even though we may have different understandings, or different ideas each of us in our own way show each other Christ.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I encourage us to consider what we are showing each other and those around us. Are people seeing Christ or are they seeing us? Can people tell that even if we are broken in some way that we have been feasting on the lifestyle of Christ? In our brokenness and in our trials, in our pain and in our pleasures do we say like Peter, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
You briefly mentioned the beginnings of the Friends movement in England. It was much more than a paring down of of traditional Christianity to the essential elements. If you read first hand accounts, such as Edward Burrough’s introduction to Fox’s Vol. 3, you begin to catch the richness involved in knowing Christ present in and among them in all his offices. I have made available Burrough’s account, written seven years after his convincement at Firbank Fell. You, and anyone else, can see that material at https://thiswasthetruelight.wordpress.com/edward_burrough_intro/?wref=tp. It is my conviction that this is obligatory reading, essential to understanding Friends’ beginnings, and absolutely necessary for anyone asking the question “Are we, individually and corporately, what we should be?” Have I put this in strong enough terms?
Thank you Ellis. I will take a look at it. There is a rich history among Friends and it would be difficult to provide a complete account without multiple days to speak. Thank you for your comments. I don’t lnow if you are aware or not but Barclay College offers a master’s degree in Quaker Studies. You might like to look into it. http://www.barclaycollege.edu
I have recently finished cleaning up an OCR rendition of Lewis Benson’s manuscript of six lectures he gave (maybe 1958) on the Disciple Church. There is a lot of good material in those lectures about Anabaptism, Quakerism, the Reformation and how those things have played out in our times. These include the following topics: 1. The people of God in the Old Covenant, 2. The People of God in the New Covenant, 3. The Church’s Fall and Restoration, 4. Quakerism — The Flowering of the Disciple Church, 5. The Order that Belongs to the Gospel, and 6. The Disciple Church Today (1958). It has occurred to me that these might interest you. Let me know and I can email them to you. You can contact me at woodturnedart[at]vcn.com.
I may have something to say about your suggestion above, but that will have to wait.
I have looked at Barclay College’s master’s degree in Quaker Studies. They state that they are looking at the history of the Quaker movement from an evangelical perspective and tracing an evangelical theme throughout the story of Quakerism. This introduces a distortion which a careful examination of the history does not support. Thanks for the suggestion, but I could not survive in that environment.
It is the only Quaker Studies program within the Evangelical Friends Church. There are very few Masters level programs on Quaker Studies in the United States. And Barclay is one of the primary training colleges for ministers in our Yearly Meeting. (I did not attend there but when I started college ministry was not what I anticipated I would do).