Are You Beyond the Pale?

August 12, 2012

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 11     John 6:35, 41-51

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It took me longer than usual to begin writing this sermon until I began to look at where my resistance was. At the core of it is my love-hate relationship with the passage and I only love a wee bit of it.


In the first verse John has Jesus give voice to one of his seven “I am” statements. They all refer back to when God gives Moses his name, Yahweh, which is often translated, “I am who I am.” It is John’s way of connecting Jesus to God. Today’s “I am” statement is “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I love this first verse, the rest of the reading not so much.


Using the metaphor of bread is a rich metaphor full of meaning and allusions for me. It congers up those occasions when Lynette has made the bread for communion and the house is filled with the delicious aroma of it baking. It reminds me of the most rewarding part of being a priest, having the honour of giving each of you a small piece of it. It is comfort food that connects me to you. Using that metaphor for Jesus works for me. 


Understanding Jesus as the bread of life helps me to understand Jesus not as a person but as a value, a quality: the light of God, or the light of the Spirit, or the light of the holy, or the light of human goodness. Whatever name you choose, think of that light as shining in every person. That is no small thing; it is a great gift, for that is our true nature. It is our sustenance, the bread of life. Everyone who understands that this light shines within everyone, and believes in that, and lets that lead to love for others, as well as for oneself—she or he will live with compassion. In compassion we find ourselves one with its source, right with the world, right with ourselves


But John can’t end it there. He has to go on. He tells of Jesus being challenged by the Jews for claiming to be one with God. They claim to know his father and mother (obviously John hasn’t heard Luke’s story of Jesus’ supernatural conception). In his response he tells them essentially he is the one way to God and God chooses who will be drawn to him.


I hate this passage because it is exclusionary. It is the source of some bad theology and worse, ministry, and the inspiration for some pretty insipid happy-clappy songs. It is the kind of thinking that motivates some to go into public schools to save the little children, irrespective of the cultures and faiths from which they come. It fills too many Christians with the arrogance of certainty and justifies their judgments on all who differ.


The passage is a reflection and commentary on what was going on in the nascent Christian community at the time. It was a self-conscious Jewish Christian community that is deeply aware of its identity over and against the Torah observant synagogue communities John refers to as “The Jews.” They are aware that there are new followers outside Judaism who Paul and Thomas have attracted. They are aware that some people, many being their family and friends, simply will not accept that Jesus is the bread of life. John seeks to understand and explain this, carefully glossing over that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew, not a Christian. His conclusion is, it’s too bad for them. Jesus is the only way. Those that do not recognize that are not chosen to do so by God. Rubbish!


What most annoys me about this passage is I do get where John is coming from. John and I share our mystification over how some can’t see the world as we do. You may have noticed over the years that I am a political news junkie and have a high view of President Obama. As a result I’m following the American election closely. Apparently the race between Governor Romney and the President is going to be very close this November. For the life of me I don’t understand why. It should be a landslide for Obama. I can’t understand why any woman, person of colour, gay or lesbian or someone earning less that $200,000 a year would even consider voting for Romney or any Republican for that matter. It is so obvious to me that they are voting against their own self-interest. It is hard for me not to consider them lost souls, beyond the pale.


Focusing more at home I am equally wondrous that it is not obvious that Christians should not use a loophole to press their advantage to teach the Bible in public schools and call it values education when more accurately it should be called proselytizing. It is using power in a way I can’t see Jesus sanctioning. Those who believe otherwise must be impaired.


The issues of same-sex marriage and ordaining people like Geno bring up the same reaction. Why is it not obvious to all that both are good things that will benefit all of us. The world would so clearly be a better place. So what’s the problem with those who oppose full inclusion of the LGBT community into society? Why can’t they get it? What’s wrong with them?


I know I’m sounding just like John now.


The problem with this thinking is that those on the other side think the same of me and are asking the same questions about me. They also have no trouble telling me so.


Which is fine, usually they are simply trying to save me from myself. Many promise to pray for me that I might know the errors of my way. However, this viewpoint leads to the sickness we saw played out in Wisconsin this week. There a neo-Nazi felt it was his right to take an automatic weapon and gun down Sikhs in their temple. These people were so beyond the pale for him, they were no longer human. Lest we think this is just an American problem, we do get a few emails here that cross the line and make me very glad the sender can’t buy an AK-47 on TradeMe in New Zealand.


When we focus on our differences it is not long before we are casting the other out of God’s good graces into the outer darkness. Little has changed since John wrote in the first century.


This week I also met the antidote to this human condition. Louisa Wall, the MP who wrote the bill seeking to amend the Marriage Act so that it no longer discriminates according to gender or sexual orientation, came to St Matthew’s to meet with a small group of us. Lest you think she is only speaking with those who support her, she had just come from a meeting with members of the Salvation Army. She is eager to meet with those who disagree with her. What they will meet is an extremely well spoken woman who is articulate about her beliefs without being disrespectful of those who disagree with her. She is a lesbian in a civil union. She is young, so most of her life has been lived after laws against sodomy were repealed. She does not understand the prejudice that doesn’t fully recognise gay and lesbian people. But still she goes out of her way to connect with them. She seeks to be in communion with them. She is not religious but she understands at some intrinsic level that Jesus is the bread of life. She understands that in each of us is the light of human goodness. Our task is to focus on that and not our differences. Nothing will change if we continue to see our opponents as beyond the pale. The only hope we have is to seek to be in relationship, to share the bread of life even as we are one with it.

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