(This is the third week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)
The Gospel of John is the only gospel that does not have the familiar scene of the Last Supper.
There is no breaking and sharing of bread, nor is there a blessing and sharing of wine. But what we do find in John is language that has heavily influenced the doctrine and liturgy about Communion or Eucharist.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has just fed the multitude and followed the disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee before the crowd carried him off to crown him king. But the crowd of people simply follows Jesus and when they gather around him Jesus essentially says, “You’re not here because you recognized a sign of something more, you’re here because you ate your fill of bread. But, seriously, you shouldn’t work for perishable food, but for food that lasts for all eternity, which I can give you.” (John 6:26-27)
They don’t quite track what Jesus is saying. “Give us another sign,” they demand, “like Moses giving manna from heaven.”
In paraphrase, Jesus responds, “Listen to me! I AM [ego eimi – the original Greek which echoes God’s works to Moses at the burning bush] the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who believes in me will be thirsty.”
Then Jesus uses a graphic metaphor that seems to go badly. He says, “If you don’t eat my flesh and drink my blood you won’t have life in you.”
Wow. That’s just a bit much. People can’t get over the graphic images, they can’t leave their literal minds behind. Verse 66 tells us that many of his disciples broke away after this. He still had the Twelve (John reassures us), but many people just couldn’t hang with this kind of language and imagery. Can’t say as I blame them.
It is precisely this language and imagery, taken literally, that was the impetus for the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Catholic Church. The doctrine that says that the host and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ. Children are indoctrinated in this belief in second grade when they participate in their First Holy Communion.
What is drastically wrong about this, is that it was never meant to be taken literally.
In the Gospel of John there are layers of meanings, references to Old Testament stories and themes, and mystical concepts that repeat over and over again… most of it couched in characters, language, and situations that are symbolic in nature. But without deep knowledge of the Old Testament, of the situation going on at the time of the last editing of John, or knowledge of Jewish mystical concepts, all we are left with is a literal reading, which doesn’t do justice to any of the stories in John.
Symbolically, Jesus was the great prophet that Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-17.
Symbolically, Jesus was so connected with God, was such a conduit for the Divine that the book of John is full of “I Am” statements to remind us.For John, Jesus and YHWH were ONE in mystical union.
Symbolically, John’s Jesus was using flesh and blood language to entreat his followers to take his life into their life. Sometimes we hear people use the phrase “I gave my heart and soul” or “I gave my life” to the company, or to their family, or whatever. Jesus was basically saying the same thing. He gave his heart, his soul, and his life to helping people connect with God in a way that was beyond religious and social boundaries, beyond religion and rules, beyond gender, beyond the synagogue.
This paradigm shift was huge. This was radical and heretical thought for the Jews. God was not up in the sky, but within each person. Faith was not about following the laws and traditions, but about believing that oneness with the Divine was possible.
How do we get there? How do we achieve oneness with God? Believe… to believe is the first step. Believe that the core of our beings is light and goodness, peace and joy. Believe that Oneness already exists within us, we’ve just covered it up. Unity with the Essence of the Universe and therefore with all things.
Every major religious tradition (at least the mystical sect of each) will tell us the same thing. God is within. Christians mystics call it the Christ nature. Buddhists call it your Buddha nature. Hindus call it Atman, the indwelling God. Jewish mystics tell us that the essence of divinity is found in every single thing. The Tao de Ching states, “We know that each part is the whole, and the whole is in each part.” And the Islamic text, the Hadith, says, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” All these refer to the mystery of self-knowledge, or going within and discovering one’s true nature.
If only believing this wasn’t so difficult for us humans who have our egos and baggage to deal with.