There is no escaping the fact that each of the four Gospels provide us with very different glimpses into the life of Jesus. For some people these differences can pose a problem for believing in the life of Jesus, because of the contradictions and inconsistencies between the four.
Some of these difficulties have been documented recently in a whole set of books which aim to disprove the story of Jesus. For other people, particularly those of us who are in the Church, we can fall into the trap of assuming that really the four Gospels are one and the same. We hear a snippet from one Gospel one Sunday, and a section from another Gospel the next, and do not pay much attention to the different sources that they have come from. So reading the Gospels, as a source for our faith, can be a complicated task.
When I was at Sunday School, I remember being taught that the four Gospels were different from each other, because four bystanders to any event will see that event in slightly different ways. And the example which my Sunday School teacher used to help me to understand this was the various vantage points in relation to witnessing a car accident. If I was standing on the side of the road, the car accident which happens in front of me, will be seen (and experienced) quietly differently by me, than it would by Father Stephen if he was in the car which was being crashed into, and that in turn would appear quietly differently to Deacon Robyn, if she was the one who was driving into Father Stephen’s car. You get the idea.
Like pretty much everything that I was taught at Sunday School, I have (over the years) had to come to realise that there was something very helpful in that observation (about the different things which people see) but that there was also something incomplete and rather unhelpful about it as well, as it relates to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the four Gospels. It is certainly clear for those of us who have been reading the Gospels for many years, that the kind of approach to Jesus’ life which we find in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, is different from the way that we see Jesus’ life being approached in the Gospel of John.
If we had some big pieces of paper we could map out the connections between the stories in the first three Gospels, which are often told in very similar ways, quite easily; but we would find it much harder to fit the stories of the Gospel of John onto that same diagram. The writers of John’s Gospel tell stories about Jesus which we do not find in the other three Gospels. And the way that the stories are told is very different as well. This is not so much the result of four bystanders looking on from four slightly different vantage points, but almost certainly the result of the fact that John’s Gospel (for example) is written much later than the other three Gospels, possibly a whole generation later on, and in a very different context. So one of the things which sets John’s Gospel apart from the other three Gospels is that it is written at a time when there has been significant space in the life of the Church for the beliefs that the Church has come to hold about Jesus to be further developed, and thought through.
Some scholars want to go as far as to say that when we read John’s Gospel we should not even approach it as if it contained history, but rather that we should see it as a series of reflections from within the life of the Early Church on how Christians had come to understand the significance of Jesus for them. John’s Gospel, they say, is much more a reflection on themes in the life of the Early Church, than it is a kind of historical document on the life of Jesus. In response to this, in my own reflections on John’s Gospel (for what they are worth) I want to try and hold together two possibilities – that on the one hand the Gospel is built around themes which were determined by events in the life of the Early Church, but on the other hand that the source for those reflections was the great wealth of credible stories which had been recorded, and edited by the first Christians, and passed down from those who had experienced Jesus’ earthly ministry.
What is certainly true is that there is a deep connectedness between the themes of John’s Gospel and living out our lives within the life of the Church. And one of the themes which is more prevalent than any other in John’s Gospel is the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus says, “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… The one who eats me will live forever.” We could almost imagine Jesus preaching those words at a Eucharist for Christians like this one, rather than where he did say them, in a Jewish synagogue as Jewish men gathered together to reflect on the Old Testament. And it is no wonder that, for many who heard him, this was really the last straw.
Our reading almost suggests that by the end of his teaching it was only Jesus and his twelve disciples who remained, and all of the others had left him because what he was saying was too difficult. We know that this really was not the case, because a little later in the story which is being painted for us, Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem with a great crowd to greet him. But certainly, Jesus’ teachings about himself lead to many people ceasing to follow him. To some extent it is true today, that the one thing which should unite us (the Eucharist) is one of the most significant things which divides us across the denominations and groupings in the Church around the world.
But what was it, about what Jesus is saying on this occasion, which makes so many people decide that they can no longer follow him? What does it mean to eat someone’s flesh and drink someone’s blood?
In many places, down through the centuries, non-Christians who have heard something of the teaching of Jesus, have presumed that Christians gather for some kind of a cannibal feast – to literally eat human flesh. During the time of the persecutions of the Early Church one of the main arguments put forward against Christians (by those who mis-understood what they had heard about the Church) was that Christians killed babies and ate them when they gathered together for Eucharist.
For these first followers of Jesus, what they were hearing, which challenged them so much that many of them left him, was that the world which Jesus was describing was different from the world that they thought that they lived in. Any of us who have had experiences of finding out that things in our lives are not as we thought they were (whether for good or for bad) will know the de-stabilising effect that such information can have on us. These Jewish listeners believed in a world in which God, as creator, was quite separate from the world which had been created. They were waiting for God to send a messiah, a messenger and a leader who like Moses of old, would lead them forward. They lived under the oppression of the Romans, and their greatest hope was that God would send a leader who would defeat the Romans so that they could take back control of their lives and their land. They wanted a messenger from God, and they had hoped that Jesus was this Messiah. But what they heard Jesus saying to them, was that he was much more than a messenger, that he was God himself, able to ascend and descend; able to live on the earth and in heaven. God radically amongst them.
And much more than this, they heard that this Jesus was not only God, but was willing to share his God-ness with them. That through union with him, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood (the very things gave him life) they could live forever in God’s life of love. Quite apart from the mechanics of how all of that was to be done (whether Jesus was about to start breaking off his limbs and sharing them out with those who were listening) the very idea that God would act in this way, and share himself in this way, was so startling for many of the people that they simply could not take it in. They walked away rather than trying to grapple with this further.
It is genuinely difficult for us, who are the products of two thousand years of the life and culture and teaching of the Church, to be aware of how disturbing and world-altering these assertions are. Its one thing to be waiting around for God to send a leader, it is quite another thing to be told that this new leader is God himself.
As we prepare for Back to Church Sunday one of the things which we will have become aware of, is that there are a number of people who live around us who have left the Church because the teachings of the Church have become too difficult. For some people the idea that women can represent God to us as priests was too much to bear. For other people the idea that every one of us is called to share in the ministry of the Church, and that this ministry is constantly changing and developing, was a difficult teaching. For a whole host of reasons, there are people around us who have walked away. They have cut themselves off from the community which represents the living body and the life blood of Jesus. And we have an opportunity next weekend, despite our differences which may remain real, to welcome them home. Because that is what the Eucharist is in the life of the Church. Not a meal for friends who are all the same, but a gathering of all of us despite our differences, to be nourished by the life and love of God.
Jesus says, “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… The one who eats me will live forever.”