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Reading the Gospel of John 6: 35, 41-51

‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever’

This passage from John 6: 35, 41-51 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

Hear a recording of this passage here

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

 First Impressions:

What impresses me most about this reading is how hard it is to talk about these things.  Jesus is trying to explain and the audience is trying to understand but they are both struggling. They seem to be talking past each other. How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?

Jesus speaks in metaphor. Bread is a metaphor.  The metaphor is intended to provide deeper understanding – so that the listening audience may not just understand but experience what Jesus is talking about. Hunger. The insight Jesus is trying to communicate is that we all have a hunger and there is only one way to feed it.  We all hunger for life and Jesus is the bread of life. But is the metaphor working here?

The crowd seems confused. They are trying reason among themselves to sort through facts as they understand them. Jesus is the son of Mary and Joseph; how can he come down from heaven? God provided bread, manna from heaven, to Moses and his people. Where is the bread here?

What we have is somewhere between a lesson, a dialogue and a debate. And an apparent failure to communicate.

What the crowed has wanted up until now is signs and proofs.  Actions. What Jesus knows they NEED is faith, to believe. Jesus is asking them not to complain, or argue or to try to reason it out.  He wants them to understand that they must be drawn by the father… listen first to God… and they will be drawn to Jesus.

For Jesus this is a matter of life and death.  We are talking about eternal life and the mortality of human flesh. The audience does not seem to grasp this.

By the end we seem to be at a communication impasse. You can almost see and hear the audience dumbfounded by the end of the passage.  How will they respond to what Jesus is telling them?

Text Analysis

Here we are looking for are words or actions that give us clues as to what Jesus and the audience are experiencing at this moment.

This passage is all dialogue. There is virtually no meaningful action taking place.

The words are largely metaphor. Jesus is bread that has come down from heaven?  How can that be?  He talks of hunger and thirst.

Life. Jesus is not just talking about life. He is talking about what it means to never be hungry and to never die.

 “Very truly, I tell you…”  Jesus is patiently trying repeatedly to get through to them.

“Everyone who has HEARD and learned from the father…”  I love the idea reinforced here of HEARING the word of God.

But it seems like the crowd is not really hearing what Jesus is saying.  The words aren’t resonating.

 Reading this passage aloud

What experiences do you encounter in this reading?

Confusion. Your audience needs to hear the people trying to work out what Jesus is telling them, in their heads…  Trying to make sense of this.

There are clear pauses as Jesus waits to see if they get it.

“Very truly, I tell you….”  Jesus makes repeat attempts to get through to them.  Be patient. Explain slowly and clearly.  Give the words time to sink in.

We are not rushed in this passage.

It seems to me that Jesus has never been more vulnerable than in this passage. He is putting it all out there. Like setting a table before the crowd and inviting them to come to eat… but they are rejecting FOOD.  He is saying, come. This is really good food.  I want you to take it and eat.  Please come…

He is not being pursued here for miracles and healing. He is offering the greatest gift of all: eternal life.

So, set the table for your listeners and see how they react.

 What do you hear in this passage?

Pulpit 2

 

A news article caught my attention this past week:

Parents Complain of ‘Religious Indoctrination’ After Video Shows Students Reciting Bible Verse

That got my attention, but not for the reason you might think.

First, no sensible person can really argue with the sentiments recited aloud by small children in a Texas public school: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.”

You could find sentiments like this in almost any self-help book or even on a greeting card.

Many took exception to the fact(s) that:

  • These words were taken from or inspired by the Bible
  • It was small children who were being “forced” to memorize them
  • It was in a public school
  • Parental consent was not sought
  • A boastful video of the group recitation was posted online
  • All of the Above!

There is in fact plenty to pick apart and take issue with in terms of how this was handled and reported.

Reciting v. Reading

But what caught my attention was the word “reciting.”  I was taken aback by the idea of reciting passages from the Bible.

Another educator had recently spoken to me about reciting: his students memorize written [literary] passages to be formally recited before a listening audience, as preparation and training for public speaking. I understand the value of this.

I myself was required to memorize Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride in the 5th grade. We were all required to memorize and “recite” the poem in front of the class.  I can still remember the opening stanzas, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear…” A strong imprint was left.

But the memory is more of rhyming and rhythm and feats of memorization rather than an appreciation for the poetry of Longfellow, or an experience of the English language, or greater understanding of the War of Independence, or a rush of patriotism, or any deeper meaning at all. It was more like completing the requisite number of pull-ups in gym class. In fact, the greatest satisfaction came from learning long afterward that a girl I liked from afar in the class had been impressed that I was the first to volunteer to recite the poem, that and subsequently reciting the poem in a Donald Duck voice for the amusement of friends.

The recent article made me realize that many lay readers take this recitative approach to reading scripture aloud in church (“…the old North Church as a signal light…”) They view it as a kind of recitation where accuracy and avoidance of any hesitation or stumbling are the primary goals and measures of success. The reading becomes automatic. The text is left to speak for itself and the act of reading is dispatched as a duty and a dry one at that. One verse follows another like the opening and reading aloud of one fortune cookie after another.

Reading aloud in public schools

We should aspire to more when reading scripture aloud in public, whether in church or in school. We should encourage the young to read aloud, not simply to perform rote memorization. Reading aloud allows us to discover new words, worlds and experiences through the narratives  and binds us to those experiences and practices. The idea of memorizing and reciting verses or passages risks reducing that experience to mental gymnastics and a collection of aphorisms.  What we should encourage is the act of reading aloud.

NBCnews.com published a painful-to-read opinion piece last February: Schools should teach religion. What they shouldn’t teach is faith.  Agreed: teach religion in public schools, not faith. Making an acceptance of the articles of faith a pretext and prerequisite for reading, let alone studying, religious text denies all students an opportunity to experience and gain an understanding of a world of heritages: heritages that belong to all of us.

Separate church and state without separating the state entirely from the study of religion. You don’t need to be a Christian to teach or appreciate Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Super or Handel’s Messiah and neither should you have to be. I think Jesus would be the first to sit with a non-believer and require nothing in return. Let’s share the Gospel with all and expect nothing in return.

Trust our sacred texts. If our religion is good and the minds are inquiring, students of all ages – who read aloud, or gaze upon a painted masterpiece, or listen to sacred music on a pipe organ — will want to learn and know more without being forced. We will learn to talk together about it.

No reciting required.

 

Angel 2

Reading the Gospel of John 6:24-35

‘I am the bread of life.’

This passage from John 6: 24-35 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

You can hear a recording of this passage by the author here.

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

First Impressions:

What is happening in this reading?  What are those participating in the events recounted in the reading experiencing?

A crowd pursues Jesus. But rather than evading them, Jesus patiently confronts the crowd with what may be uncomfortable truths. Not exactly what they are looking for or expect.

The crowd seeks Jesus, the person. They seek signs from him. But Jesus tells them what they really seek is relief from the hunger they feel for an eternal life.

A dialogue ensues, one to many.  A chorus of voices from the crowd questions Jesus.  What work must they do?  What work does Jesus do?  Still, they want signs. Like the manna from heaven. It’s a curious mixture of emotional need and intellectual sparing on the part of the crowd.

Jesus tells them he is the bread of life. How strange that must sound to be standing before a man who says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.”

How natural it is for the crowd to respond, “Then give us signs that prove to us what you say is true.”  Here is the gap between faith and certainty.

The crowd wants to believe and be certain at the same time.

Text Analysis

Here we are looking for key words or phrases.

This is a dialogue between Jesus and the world. The most repeated phrase is “they said…”  There is a chorus of voices. Everyone seeks Jesus and has questions for him.

“When did you come here?”  i.e. did we miss anything?

The next most often repeated phrase is “Jesus answered them…”  Jesus is the answer.

The voices of the crowd are searching, open, hungry for answers, but still uncertain, skeptical. They want signs. Proofs.

What Jesus offers them is experience. Jesus’ voice is calm and certain. Not signs, but “You ate your fill.”  You had the experience of not hungry. Not thirsty.  That is an experience I can give you always.

That is what we offer as readers. Experience over reason.

 Reading this passage aloud

What we want the audience to experience.

As in previous passages there’s a sense of urgency on the part of the crowd. Jesus remains something of an enigma. They don’t always know where he is, what he is doing, or understand what he says.  The crowd is trying to work through the issues.  They are like reporters. Trying to ask the tough questions.  Trying to understand.

The crowd actually speaks with many voices. They represent everyone who seeks and has questions. So, try different tacts as you read each question: quick, probing, reasoning, etc.

Jesus is patient and gives them their lede: “I am the bread of life.” Slow and clear so that all get the sound bite. I am the one on whom God the father has set his seal.  This is a brave thing for Jesus to say to a large crowd in a public setting.

This is truly a bold encounter.

 What do you hear in this passage?

 

Teaching in parables

Teaching in parables

Articles that attempt to deconstruct, analyze and explain faith and religion in purely scientific terms always remind me of academic studies that attempt to explain why a particular joke is funny. With a joke, you usually either get it or you don’t. Reverse engineering a joke is so detached from the actual experience of humor that it seems like the authors of studies like this are the ones that don’t get it. They can’t see the Mona Lisa for the paint. The studies themselves begin to sound like the better joke.

I think of similar science-based inquiries into religion in much the same way. With the understanding that the terms faith and religion cover a near infinite spectrum of beliefs, you basically either understand the purpose, meaning and experience of faith and religion on a personal level, or you don’t. No amount of psychological, neurological, anthropological or analysis of cultural evolution can bring you to a complete understanding or appreciation of the religious experience or dissuade you from it.
No amount of studying the construct of the inner ear can lead you to a complete understanding and appreciation of Mozart, or diminish the mystery and majesty of his compositions. Music is not disproved as a result of discovering that we hear with our ears. Neither is religion disproved because it’s discovered to meet a basic human need or leverage aspects of human physiology. If anything, music and religion are strengthened by inquiry and seem even more essential as a result.

The importance of narrative

Still, I enjoy reading articles like this. It’s all interesting. Check out: Why Are Some Religions More Popular Than Others? This article reviews a number of scientific studies that suggest, among other things, that successful religions are ones that:

  • Demand some degree of self-sacrifice, and that
  • Include one or two surprising and “non-natural” events in their foundational narratives. That makes them easier to remember and easier to propagate.

According to the article, some religions tend to be more successful than others. Obviously. Religions that require no self-sacrifice or that feature either too few or too many events in their foundation myths, fail to become widely embraced. The author invokes Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus as extreme examples of imaginary (non-natural) beings that failed to develop world religions around them. Really? It’s been my experience that trips to Disney World with young children DO require an enormous amount of self-sacrifice and super-human effort, as does pulling off Christmas at your house for the extended family. I know many people who are enraptured by both Disney and holiday shopping.

Both core observations in this article make sense. This is how things work in this world. Although they may try, I don’t think studies like this effectively discount or argue against the power and validity of the religious experience. And Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus as failed religious idols are false equivalents and cheap straw men.
But what I like about this article are the two papers referenced, presenting research that supports the ideas that a) compelling narratives are a key part of successful religions and b) that they are easier to remember when they include a limited number of extraordinary non-natural events: like a worldwide flood, or a parting of the sea, or walking on water… I seem to be fixated on water here for some reason … or miraculous healing. This is an Interesting observation. And good to know. This is how things work. That’s why powerful narratives are good: they get and hold our attention and we are eager to share them.

Reading scripture aloud

We read scripture aloud because we are immersing ourselves in the narratives contained in the Bible. Narratives are important to us and that may be why the Bible relies on them. We remember them. We experience and relate to the sacrifice of the lives presented in the Bible – some willing, some unwilling – that we are called to emulate or derive cautionary tales from. We encounter events in the Bible that are truly extraordinary and emotionally arresting and worthy of sharing. The fact that non-natural events help make these narratives easier to remember makes perfect sense. We want these events to be remembered so we put them into narratives in an easily digestible way.
The Mona Lisa can’t be dismissed as just paint. The fact that it’s accomplished with just paint makes it the more remarkable and makes it something you must see.

I’ve often wondered why Jesus relied so heavily on parables as a didactic method. Because they are easier to remember than long lists and easier to propagate? The fact that parables are an effective medium of communication in an illiterate society does not undermine the essential truths contained in each parable. It just means they work.
It’s important to hear these narratives read aloud in order to really hear the Gospel. That’s what they are for. That’s how they work. By design. No apologies required.