Hard Words

Proper 16 (21) | John 6:56-69

Hard Words

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stone pathwayTaking offense has been raised, or lowered, beyond an art to a daily occupation. Each day a staggering number of people find the energy, interest, and time first to half-read or half-hear the words of others, then to take umbrage, and then to attack. The trolls have crawled out from under the bridges and started strolling in the light of social media. So long as people spend their energy and time being outraged on Facebook and Twitter, the poor will always be with us.

It is not a modern day problem. The Internet has simply given us a new venue.

The people of Capernaum, where Jesus was living, were just the same. The lectionary passage from John’s Gospel describes people taking offense at the ongoing metaphor Jesus was using—bread, and his own body, as a symbol for the life of the spirit.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Hard words, indeed. If he meant what he said to be taken literally, Jesus was insane. People wondered: we read that many of Jesus’ own disciples left him.

The Gospel of John lacks the obvious communion passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Instead, John takes the metaphors of bread and wine and weaves them throughout the entire narrative as running themes to explore the spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus. Even so, the words are hard. The image is so visceral—eating a man’s flesh, drinking his blood—that they would be more easily accepted as elements of a horror story: The Vampire Cannibals of Capernaum, or something like it.

Stone gargoyle
A stone face at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Perhaps he is contemplating a soft word.

In the posts of the past weeks, perhaps enough has been mentioned of the bread metaphor. Still, we might do well to consider the value of hard words.

We often hear them—words spoken in anger, or in ignorance, which is the frequent companion and precursor and cause of anger. Sometimes we ourselves speak or write them, words to condemn others, to screech our indignation, to demonstrate our personal righteousness.

How often we want to be right! Jesus was right, of course, all the more so if Christianity has the truth of it and this man was also somehow God. But oddly enough, Jesus did not appear to be very interested in being right.

What was he interested in? Working from the supposition that what we do demonstrates who we are, we might figure it out. Jesus fed hungry people. He had compassion, and patience, for needy people. He healed the sick ones, paid attention to the marginalized ones, spent hours talking to and teaching anyone who was willing to listen. He was kind to children.

Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.
Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.

He was angry with people who claimed to be good. He made a violent scene in the temple itself.

I don’t know whether he would have had a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Maybe. He did sit down in the synagogue to teach, which was the closest thing to public media in his day. I suspect that he would have posted interesting things, and for one post or another, many of his followers would have un-friended him. Following someone two thousand years ago took more energy, but the idea is much the same.

The hardest words are the ones we need, but do not wish, to hear. Give up the French fries and the sugar. Stop the drugs and the drinking. Get over yourself. Put your children first. Be faithful. It’s not all about you.

Hard words may convey the greatest love. Those who care about us the least are also least likely to speak the hard truths we need to hear.

Jesus may have hard words for us all.

Hard stones in waterfall
Hard stones at Linville Falls in North Carolina