Learning from Experience


John 6:51-58

1. Odd Experience

We have listened with care to a reading from the second century of the common era. One wonders what resonance, what close connection these words make to those listening for hope in Maine, or on the warm shores of Cape Cod, or out in the lakes and woods of New Hampshire. Living Bread. Live forever. True flesh. True blood. These words seem to be pulsing with life and promise, but they are, to the average ear, odd words too.

Recently a reporter from traveled to Alaska. The reporter followed a trail of news, stemming from the announcement that in several Alaskan cities, there lived an abundance of young single men, and a paucity of young single women. An eager editor, seizing a summer moment, sent off his dutiful scribe, to interview the Northern Lights. As I recall, the reporter did confirm the statistical imbalance, far more women than men. 3 men for every woman. 3 to 1. What made the article memorable, however, was a more insightful quotation, with which the report concluded. The reporter interviewed a young woman at a bar, and asked her perspective on this statistical imbalance. “Well”, the woman replied. “yes, it is true, look around you, yes, the ratio is heavily weighted. The men outnumber the women. There are something like two three men for every woman. You could say that the odds are good, if you are looking for a relationship. The odds, yes, the odds are good….but, on the other hand, again, look around you, the odds are good, but…though the odds are good…the goods are odd!”

Her experience changed her outlook, modified her perspective, qualified her inherited idea.

2. The Difference of the Fourth Gospel

This morning, the odds are good that we have before us great good news. We worship in a historic, beautiful sanctuary, with divided chancel, beautiful windows, wondrous music, plenty of parking. Those present have weathered the rain, the good gift of this week. Some weeks are better than others. Some weeks bring Spahn and Seine and a day of rain. Some weeks you get the day of rain. Still, come Sunday, the odds are good that we shall hear again a saving, good word.

But today, though the odds are good, the goods are odd. These are strange terms. We do better to acknowledge our puzzlement about the words and phrases, and we do better not too easily or quickly to append them to our way of seeing and hearing. They do not do well, these and other words from John, copied and strung along as signboards in baseball stadiums. They do not fare well, these and other words from John, recited and repounded in quick cadence. They do not travel well, these and other words from John, especially in the heat of a summer like this, if they have not been cleaned and cut and frozen. The odds are good. But the goods are odd.

It is odd that John has no record of the Last Supper, in his account of the passion. It is odd that John demotes Peter from his regular central role. It is odd that this gospel carries no remembrance of parables. It is odd that hardly anything of the standard ministry of Jesus, usual gospel fare, appears here. It is odd that the humanity of Jesus has virtually disappeared into the bright eternal light of his form in John, “God striding upon the earth”. It is odd that the New Testament would include a Gospel so fully at odds with its three synoptic cousins. Cousins, not siblings. It is odd that John, by the main, has no use for the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. Where would the church be without birth to celebrated and forgiveness to announce, birth to cleanse and guilt to absolve? It is odd that the Gospel we read today is shaped around seven stunning miracles, and four impenetrable chapters of teaching. It is odd that a Gospel so wildly different from the rest of those in the Bible should have made the cut, and been included. If you think having Ecclesiastes—which rejects, contradicts or at least questions much of the rest of the Hebrew Scripture—included there is a strange thing, then multiply that odd presence severalfold and you have a sense of how different is John. Nor in church nor in academia have we yet begun to account for the radical freedom and difference of this nonconforming gospel. It is odd.

3.A Strange Passage within a Strange Gospel

But the plot thickens again, today. Now when we approach the rickety gate of John 6:51, we arrive at oddity squared. Here the Johannine rejection is itself rejected. Where the rest of the gospel has laughed at end time speculation and ignored sacramental theology, our morning reading has replaced them both. In vivid imagery. In chomping sound bites. Pun intended. In bloody, gorey physicality. The greek word for eating, softly rendered here for mild English speaking palates, means “munch, grind, chomp”. Odd, odd. All the rest of the gospel concurs with a verse just out on the back lawn from the house of our reading, “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. Hence no baptism of the Lord. Hence no Lord’s Supper. Hence the washing of feet instead of eucharist. John has no use for end time speculation. John has no use for sacraments. John has no place for the left behind series. John has no place for hyper sacramentalism.

Except in this passage, and a few others like it. How odd.

It is as if in one paragraph we tumbled from pulpit to altar, from Philadelphia to Rome, from George Fox to John 23.

So odd, in fact, that scholars have sent their own studious reporters into the fray to interview, to gather the facts, and report on their own imbalance. One standing judgment about this passage is that it is a later addition to the original. A later editor added these and a few similar passages, whe
n the community entered new territory.

4. Watching John Learn from Experience

Facts are stubborn things, as one of our earliest Presidents, from Massachusetts, asserted. Facts are stubborn things said John Adams. They are the bedrock of our experience, which itself is a stubborn reminder to us of our limitation, our potential, our error, our success, our shortcomings, our glories.

Whether or not we can finally ferret out all the intricacies of this morning’s text, and whether or not any have stayed fully awake to follow the trail of such an effort, and whether or not the preacher of the day has served poorly or ably as a trail guide, there does stand out a feature of truth that may, in its own way, provide a healthy word.

The writers of the fourth gospel and its traditions changed course when their experience showed them a deeper dimension of their inherited faith. The fourth gospel in particular gives us the fossil evidence, the footprints, the fingerprints of people and communities that could change, when the facts and their experience warranted change.

Yes, there is another sermon for another day, from another text in another context, warning against us being ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’. Fair enough. But let the day’s own Scripture be sufficient for the day. Sufficient to the day is the Scripture thereof…Today we find a reminder from the shrouded past, that even in the heart of the Bible, down in the depths of what is most firmly traditional about our faith, and buried in that most sublime and spiritual of the gospels, no less, that of John, there dwells a capacity to trust in what our actual experience, the blood and breath of our own lives, the flesh and bone of our own work and death can give us.

In the Johannine tradition there were moments when Spirit and Life were fully sufficient to guide the church: “those who do what is true come to the light” (3:18); “the true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world (1:9)”; “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten son, that whoever believes…”; “very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24): “I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:9).

Then there were others, when, for whatever obscure reasons, a regrounding in the earth of relationship, a reconnection with the blood and flesh of sacrifice, required a rewriting of the tradition itself.

Often this passage has been fought over by those extolling word, on the one hand, and those extolling sacrament, on the other. Oddly, the ecumenical movement has both ameliorated and broadened this debate, a good and old and lasting one. Is it hearing and believing that saves? Is it eating and drinking that saves? Is it Word? Is it Table?

Hear some good news. The very lasting existence of this debate honors our experience. There same days when it is the former that is needed. There are some days when it is the latter. And they do not blend together, in some easy synthesis, anymore than Wednesday becomes Thursday, by our wishing it to be so. Both Word and Table come in experience.

Schleiermacher seems to have captured this: Where Christ recommends as essential the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood, He had in mind neither the Supper nor any other definite act. He wished rather to indicate in how profound a sense He Himself must become our being and well-being…we must be related to Him as the branch to the vine (TCF, 704).

5. We learn too.

Ours is crucial good news today, for individuals, for churches, for nations. We learn too.

We just knew the earth was flat. Until Copernicus and Galileo. We just knew that India was just a few miles west of London. Until Columbus. We just knew that the world was formed in seven days. Until Darwin. We just knew that the reason was king of the forest. Until Freud. We just knew that Pluto was the last planet. Until this week. We just knew that homosexuality stood apart from our tradition. Until we met George or Mary, or reread Galatians. We just knew that they would welcome us as liberators in the streets of Baghdad. Until they didn’t. She just knew he would stop drinking before he hurt someone. He didn’t. He just knew he would win that money back with one more hand. He didn’t.

There is no lasting harm in surprising, different or difficult experience. Nor lasting shame in failure. With one exception. That is the sin against the Holy Spirit that comes with blind and willful ignorance of our lived experience. Sin is not receiving what is offered, as Ann Ulanov used to say.

Sometimes the Biblical witness is set against our experience, our blood, breath and bone. But here, as in general, what we find in the Bible is our experience, at its depth. And what we find in our experience, is the deep witness of Scripture.

At lunch, some years ago, after the single most hurtful, most depressing, and most bitter experience of my professional life to that point, my friend asked me a simple question about what had happened: “So, Bob, what have you learned from it?”

This week dear friends sent Ellen Goodman’s Paper Trail, autographed by the author, one of my double decade favorite voices. It is her capacity to consider the actual experience of life that makes her so gifted. Of course, she has her traveling
companions, three in number. Skepticism. Humor. And the question, “Wait a minute…”

Timothy Tyson’s memoir of his father’s ministry in the south during the 1960’s, Blood Done Sign My Name, includes the same three traveling companions, and reminds us that really change, really learning, can take generations.

When even an anti-sacramental, non millenarian, Spirit Gospel like John, can suddenly make space, in John 6:51, for some sacrament and some cosmic eschatology, you know that some experience changed some view.

New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth. One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

My friend’s dad told him, “You do not have time to make all the mistakes yourself, so you will need to listen and learn from the experience of others, too.”

There is a great deal of hurt, a world of hurt, behind the development of the Fourth Gospel, which to this point we only minimally understand. Even as we have yet to appreciate John’s difference, we have yet also to appreciate, feel, his pain.

I wonder, this summer, whether, dangling a foot in the pool, or listening to the wind in the rigging, or awake at dawn, you might like to learn from the experience of the early church, from John, and with him find a way to admit, assess, and accept what we find there.

I wonder, this fall, whether, by televised debate or print exchange, we as a country might like to think about whether, in all our youthful and adolescent and idealistic intent, we may have made some errors, truly costly errors, near and far, in the past few years.

I wonder, this morning, sitting in the pew, or driving on Route 90, whether you might want to ponder your experience in the light of what is at the depth of your experience, living bread…coming down from heaven… To live life, that is, sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.

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