Literalism.Pent10B.2012

Pentecost 10B, 2012
John 6: 25-35

A Liturgy is also available

LITERALISM DOES NOT UNEARTH TRUTH.  IT HIDES IT.

This week we continue the stories about ‘bread’, but
I have returned to the storyteller we call John.

Last week it was Mark’s version of the feeding of 5000 or so,
with bread and fish.  This week, like young Oliver,
the crowd respond with the cry: ‘More sir!’.

Indeed, this Lectionary theme of ‘bread’ will continue for several more weeks yet.

So I want to start with the premise that these stories are familiar to all of us.
The people eat their fill of bread.
Yet John indicates they are not satisfied.

Why?  Let me offer some comments which I hope might be helpful.
Because a similar situation is before us today...

How do we, in the 21st century world,
receive and interpret the stories from our biblical tradition.

For me and many others this is an important question.
Because the competing answers are so different, it can be very frightening.

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In this and the other stories on ‘bread’, all the storytellers
have Jesus trying to get the people
to look beyond the literal
to the meaning and world view the teller is inviting them to consider.

But they either refuse or are unable to do so.

So expressing a degree of frustration, John’s Jesus says:
‘you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat’.

Jesus has just fed them.
They were hungry because of staying on the hills
and listening to his words,
and he had compassion for them.

But they continue to want the actual thing - the literal answer.
And there is no literal answer given,
because Jesus argues that it leaves everyone just as hungry as before.
They are unable to look beyond the words.
That is too complex.
Too difficult.
Too stressful.
They settle only for what they see and taste and touch.

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I think John’s Jesus is a realist.
He knows these people are looking for actual food that fills the hungry stomach.
They want miracles that will make their lives easier.

In a rural peasant culture
• where food is not always plentiful,
• where peasant farmers had been forced off their land, crushed by the rich and powerful,
• where people are persecuted because of their beliefs...
magic or miracles are easier and more welcome
than the grind of daily reality.

So the last thing I want to suggest is that somehow
these people deserve their plight
or are responsible for it,
or if they only prayed harder, or had more faith, their situation would change.

What John is trying to suggest through this story,
maybe 60+ years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, is
look, listen, hear, imagine beyond the literal words.

Katerina Whitley, a professor of communication
at one of the state universities in America,
who has also reflected on these stories, suggests:
‘The words of Jesus, though based on what the people knew from experience, always point to that which is true, to that which does not perish.  But the people clamo(u)r for more assurance than that...
(Worship that works Web site 2003).

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That’s back then.
What about us, now, in our so-called ‘postmodern’ society?

More so than they, we live in an age where the ‘literal’
is constantly struggling with the ‘more than’,
in a climate where answers have international or global implications.
And the literal seems to be winning.

Fundamentalists still ask for a sign, an answer,
that is firm and unquestionable:
to the sadness of abortion,
to the fear of terrorism,
to the problem of disobedient children,
to the rapid technological changes, that baffle them.

In our moment of time, indeed for more than 25 years, we are particularly
conscious of this ‘firm and unquestionable’ position,
in regard to the questions of difference in sexuality.

It is easier to retreat from the world and its problems.
Most of us want concrete and secure answers.
Ambiguity is troubling.
We want definiteness.

And literalism, even as it picks and chooses only those portions of the Bible
it can manipulate, gives to the fundamentalist this assurance.

But in some words of warning, Katerina Whitley also points out:
‘Literal interpretation of what we don't like gives us permission not to love those who are different from us’
(Worship that works Web site 2003).

And that too is very serious!

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Retired Uniting Church minister, Bruce Prewer tells this story.

An outstanding preacher of a previous generation,
was invited to speak at a men’s breakfast meeting,
held in the lounge of a local hotel.

Before he was called to address the gathering,
the chairperson quietly warned him there might be a bit of trouble. 
One of the men present was involved in a serious court case.
His case had not yet been determined.
Some members might resent the man’s presence among them.

After the guest had finished giving his address,
a man at the back of the room stood up and shouted:
‘That fellow at the middle table must leave.’

The man stayed seated.

The objector then called out the man’s name
and insisted he immediately be sent out of the room.

Then another man stood up and said: 
‘We may be in a hotel room filled with tobacco smoke, but we are assembled as a church.  That man at the middle table is in church here, in the place where forgiveness rules.  The law-suit concerning him is in the hands of the authorities, and will be properly prosecuted.  But that does not alter the fact he is our brother in the faith.  Therefore he must not leave’
(Prewer Web site 2003).

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The problem with literalism is it does not reveal truth.  It hides it.
It comes from a position of fear, and is
fuelled by what I believe is a
misrepresentation of religious experience.

And when it comes from within the Christian community
it is often all the more dangerous and vitriolic.

Bishop John Shelby Spong knows about all that.
In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he writes:
‘I have had a ‘truth squad’ based at an evangelical theological college in Sydney follow me throughout Australia wherever I lectured, handing out their tracts and publications designed to mute my witness.  I have lectured with guards protecting me in Calgary... (and) endured a bomb threat... in Brisbane.  I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’...’
(Spong 1998: xvi).

As a former colleague indicated to me over coffee this week,
to take up Spong's challenge of a ‘new Reformation’
requires courage and some risk.

And a lot of theological people in Australia are not prepared to take risks,
either for fear they shall be criticised,
or dismissed from office,
or both.

But an ‘honest church’ requires its theologians and ministers to be that - honest.

oo0oo

John’s Jesus was not a literalist.
The eating of bread is much more than the mere ingestion of food
as nourishment for the body.
It is the symbolic sharing of our common humanity,
in mutuality with those around us.

So John the storyteller invites his listeners, then (and I reckon, now),
to seek the meaning beyond the words, beyond the ‘bread’.

For in the doing of that we are freed
to go on the journey chartered by Jesus rather than
being caught up in worshipping the journey of Jesus,
as do the literalists.

Such a ‘Jesus theology’ is, I believe, liberating because:
it shows us something of what it means to be human,
it invites us to find in ourselves the same powers that were manifest in Jesus, and
it means we are to be co-creators with God.

Now, if we have the courage, that can indeed be a great blessing!

Notes:
Spong, J. S. 1998. 
Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

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