Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 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. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.”
One of the great religious thinkers of our time is Don Cuppitt. The Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University makes a telling point when he states, that “All of the world’s religions take place within the realm of human conversation”. The implication of this is that any thought that religion dropped from heaven or anywhere else, as a gift to humans, is simply a nonsense. We humans created religion as a product of our consideration and contemplation of how reality works in our Universe. This of course does not imply that the process was always conscious. Much of our ordering and explaining of the world is unconscious. That is why we have dreams.
However, if we can grasp this truth, that religious thought is a human process, then many things become clear.
With reference to this Sunday’s gospel, the one thing that clarifies itself is why so many of Jesus’ followers gave up on him when he offered them a teaching that directly confronted the ego’s role in religion. If you have been following The Listening Hermit for the past few weeks you will have read that when Jesus identified himself as the bread of life that could not be earned by the sweat of human effort, he immediately put the egoic investment in religious achievement in question. If Jesus is the bread of life, we are nothing more than the 5000 plus hungry pilgrims on the hillside, or the lost wanderers in the Sinai desert.
Yet if we hold that religion is a human process, and humans are largely defined by ego demands, it follows that religion in current practice will also be consumer indulgent. Isn’t the whole science of Church Growth and Congregational Management founded on ensuring that people have a good experience and thus drop the maximum amount of cash in response?
In Jesus day it was no different. Cash may not have been as dominant an idol as in our day but the human pleasure principle (If it feels good do it) was. When the crowd realised that Jesus was demanding profound inner transformation and not merely offering customer service, they lost interest.
I wonder if we, who are the communicators of the Gospel and the line managers of the church, can be honest enough to admit that we seldom proclaim without an eye on the balance sheet?
If this true, then we have failed to proclaim the words of eternal life and have been largely busy with proclaiming the words of eternal comfort and indulgence.
The irony with this approach is at some point when the ego is inevitably challenged, there will be many who stop following. In South Africa it happened in the 1980’s as preachers in white churches started naming Apartheid as the sin that it always had been. The exodus from such challenging preaching into comfortable charis-mania was huge. I used to call such people “Tutu Refugees” as they tried to disown and disavow the courageous actions of the diminutive Archbishop.
“Words of eternal life” are of course hard to define, and challenging preaching can be as much of an ego trip for masochistic martyrs as the comfortable gospel.
I suppose at the end of the day, the soul will know what is life giving bread and what is candy floss.
The bottom line seems to be that true transforming discipleship is always an activity pursued by minorities.