Our Elders in Faith

Joshua 24:14-18
Romans 11:1-6, 25-32
John 6:47-69

The gospel of John is unlike the other New Testament gospels in that it does not refer to the kingdom of God, it does not contain parables, and it gives speaking roles to the disciples Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, and Thomas. Chapter 6 of the gospel of John comes in the midst of arguments that Jesus is having with "the Jews," arguments without parallel in the other books of the New Testament.

Of course, there are also similarities between the gospel of John and the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. All four gospels tell a story of John the Baptist, record the feeding miracle of the five thousand, conclude with a passion narrative and report the resurrection of Jesus. But there are also factual inconsistencies. For instance, in the gospel of John Jesus throws the money-changers out of the temple at the beginning of his ministry, whereas the other three gospels place this cleansing at the end of Jesus' ministry just before his arrest, trial and execution. Also, in the gospel of John, Jesus is arrested the night before Passover and put to death on Passover, whereas in the other three gospels Jesus is arrested on Passover and put to death the day after.

But John is most different from the other three gospels in the way that Jesus speaks in a series of arguments that he has with "the Jews." Because all the disciples as well as Jesus are also Jews, it is odd that the adversaries of Jesus are described repeatedly in the gospel of John as "the Jews." Furthermore, this representation in the fourth gospel of those opposing Jesus has had disastrous consequences throughout the centuries, as it has reinforced Christian anti-Semitism.

In the passage for today Jesus argues with "the Jews" about food. Jesus has just fed the crowd of five thousand. When the crowd follows him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus accuses them of simply wanting more bread. Instead, he offers them "food that endures for eternal life." (6:27) They ask, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" (6:28) Jesus answers, "This is the work that God requires; to believe in (have faith in) the one whom he has sent." (6:29)

The crowd, however, wants something more tangible and asks for a sign, like the manna given to the Israelites by God after they had fled from Egypt and were starving in the wilderness. Jesus replies by saying, "I am the bread of life." (6:35) When the crowd challenges him, because they know him as the son of Joseph from Nazareth, Jesus says to "the Jews" — "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (6:35) This assertion causes the disciples of Jesus to complain and finally to abandon him, except for the twelve men closest to him.

We spiritualize the words of Jesus about eating his body and blood, so that we do not take them literally but symbolically. Therefore, it is hard for us to appreciate what such words might have meant to a first century Jew, for whom keeping kosher meant not eating certain kinds of animal flesh and never eating meat with the blood in it. As we evaluate this argument between the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers, who now split into two groups, we should remember that the first three gospels of the New Testament say nothing at all about this conflict. Therefore, to understand chapter 6 of the gospel of John, we need to reconstruct as best we can the community for which it was written.

The gospel of John is very Jewish. It calls Jesus "rabbi," it structures the story of Jesus around Jewish festivals, and it makes Jesus the Passover lamb by reporting his crucifixion on Passover itself. Of the New Testament gospels only John identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God." (Jn. 1:36) But unlike the gospel of Matthew, which begins with evidence that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and a long sermon explaining that Jesus supports Jewish law, the gospel of John begins by applying to Jesus Greek philosophical concepts. (In the beginning was the Word . . ..") Moreover, the gospel repeatedly identifies the opponents of Jesus as "the Jews" in contrast to the other New Testament gospels, which reports the opposition to Jesus of the scribes and Pharisees. The gospel of John even reports that Jesus stayed with Samaritans, which meant he ate non-kosher food with Gentiles.

From clues such as these we may hypothesize that the gospel of John was written for a Greek-educated group of Jewish Christians, who had split from a Jewish synagogue or been thrown out, because of their "Gentile" understanding of the ritual Christian meal we call Communion. Among Gentile pagans there were popular mystery cults involving special meals, which were understood as a way for followers to take the power of a god into their bodies and thus into their lives. The gospel of John begins with an image of Jesus as the word of God, which is made flesh. In the 6th chapter of the gospel of John the eating of the flesh of Jesus is understood as taking God's word into our very being. The Greek understanding expressed in chapter 1 creates the context for comprehending the ritual act described in chapter 6, for identifying the death of Jesus as the lamb of God on Passover, and for interpreting symbolically the commandment of the risen Lord to Peter at the end of the gospel to "Feed my sheep." (Jn. 21:17)

In short, the gospel of John is all about Christian worship, which has apparently led to a falling out between Jews, who worship Christ as the Son of God in a way influenced by Gentile culture, and other Jews, who may have high regard for some of the teachings of Jesus but worship God according to the Law of Moses. In the gospel of John the disciples represent the Jewish Christians of this church, and "the Jews" represent the Jewish opponents of this Jewish Christian church. The gospel of John does not simply tell the story of Jesus, but was written to witness to Christ in the midst of a quarrel among Greek-speaking Jews. For one community of Greek-educated Jewish Christians, the gospel of John explained why Jesus is the Son of God. Other Jews, obviously, did not agree.

This division among Jews leads the author of the gospel of John to assert that "the Jews," who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, are beyond the saving grace of God. But earlier in the life of the first century church, another Greek-educated Jew argued that Jewish opposition to the church was an essential part of God's plan for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 9-11 Paul struggles to explain why most Jews have refused to believe in Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ, in Greek). Paul offers a number of arguments, but the most striking is his conclusion that God hardened the hearts of Jews in order to extend the gospel message to the Gentiles. Paul reasons that if all Jews had accepted Jesus, then he would have been only the Messiah for the Jews. The emphasis on a Jewish savior for a Jewish people would have made it difficult for the church to appeal to Gentiles.

No one who reads Romans 9-11 carefully could ever conclude that God has condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. Yet, Christians have persecuted Jews for centuries, as if called by God to punish the very people that Paul says were used by God to spread the gospel to Gentiles. One of the great challenges of the church in our time involves resisting interpretations of the New Testament that blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. On the contrary, the church needs to affirm that, as Pope John Paul II has said, "The Jews are our elder brothers in faith." As Christians, we must repent of the gigantic sin that for the past two millennia Christians have committed against Jews. Moreover, we must resist the anti-Semitic tendencies in the New Testament that continue to be used by Christians to justify hatred for Jews.

In the book of Joshua in the Old Testament we see what it means for Jews to be God's chosen people. Their ancestors, the Israelites, are given a law and promised a land and descendants, if they will be faithful to their covenant with God. In the New Testament, or "New Covenant," the church proclaims that in Jesus Christ we know God has chosen all people. Our faith is not that God has abandoned the people of the first covenant in order to make a new covenant with a more righteous people. Our faith is that the love of God, which is manifested in the covenant with Israel and in the writings of the Hebrew scriptures, has in Jesus Christ and the witness of the New Testament been revealed as offering forgiveness for the sins of all people. Amen.

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016