Good News Means We Can't Be Separated
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: John 6:35, 41-51
Sometimes, it can be a little tricky to talk about what I do for a living. I try to assess who I’m talking to and what language would be most helpful. It is sometimes very confusing to people if I say I’m an Episcopal priest. Most of the people I talk to—who aren’t mainline Christians—don’t really know what Episcopal means, and when they hear the word priest, they immediately think of a celibate man in black. Sometimes I wear black, but I’m not the other things.
And I hardly ever say that I’m a rector, because nobody outside our Episcopal bubble knows what that means. I’m not really sure if I know what that means.
Sometimes I say I’m a pastor, and that’s when things can get interesting. If I’m talking to people who aren’t very religious, the word “pastor” brings up a lot of feelings about what a Christian is. I can sometimes see the wheels turning behind their eyes.
Which I get. I used to be one of those not very religious people who made a lot of assumptions about what it meant to be a Christian. That queer folks are an abomination. That the “traditional” family of dominant husbands, obedient wives, and quiet children is the ideal. That Christianity is superior to any other religion. Well, the right Christianity, that is.
Sometimes I meet people who make these assumptions about me when I say I’m a pastor, and I’m tempted to say, “But I’m not that kind of Christian.”
The word “Christian” carries so much baggage in our culture. For a lot of people, it does not evoke safety or love or joy, but narrow-mindedness and judgment and rigidness.
I say all this because that’s how the Gospel of John treats the word “Jew.” Or I should say, how the people who translated this gospel treat the word. Those translators seem to have a very particular idea of what a Jew is, and it’s not so different from the particular idea a lot of folks have about Christians today. In today’s reading we hear, “then the Jews began to complain…” and question Jesus. Later in this gospel, it’ll be the mean, terrible Jews telling poor, helpless Pilate to crucify Jesus.
This has had some pretty horrible ramifications through history. Even since before Jesus’ time, Jews were an oppressed minority whose lands were always up for grabs by their more powerful neighbors. And this translation did nothing to help particularly those Jews who spread out over Europe after the Romans made Israel unsafe for them. Using this gospel in particular, Martin Luther, the infamous instigator of the Protestant Reformation, made Jews the villains of the “real” faith. He taught that Jews killed Jesus. That interpretation informed the Christianity of his homeland, Germany, and much of Europe. And Church leaders used that interpretation to stand idly by as the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews.
The Roman Catholic Church followed a similar trajectory.
The thing is, that’s just lazy theology. It ignores a few glaringly obvious facts: first, that the author of the Gospel of John was most likely a Jew himself. The community from which this gospel came were those Jews who fled Israel.
But even more obvious is that Jesus himself and his disciples were Jews.
This isn’t to say that those named as these complaining Jews in John weren’t Jewish. It’s simply to say that there were different kinds of Jews in Israel at that time, just like there are different kinds of Christians in the United States now. In fact, the word translated as Jews in John is actually a bit more specific in the original Greek. It meant “Jews from Jerusalem.”
Jesus and his disciples were country bumpkin Jews in the eyes of these sophisticated, urban Jerusalem Jews. Kinda makes you wonder if Jesus came from Baker City or LaGrande today, what we city folks would think of him. Would we take him seriously if he questioned our way of doing things?
So I want to be VERY clear: it is lazy and ignorant theology to vilify Jews based on the gospel of John—or any of our scriptures. The man we worship as the Son of God walked and worshiped God and died as a Jew on this earth. That his message was so compelling that it reached even beyond his own Jewish community is why we’re here today.
Because Jesus’ message is always good news. Y’all probably already know that’s what the word “gospel” means. Good news. His is always a message of healing, belonging, and grace. You can’t get around it, not in John or any of the other gospels.
And the second we try to make that message about who’s in and who’s out, we’ve lost the point. Jesus himself embodied a complication of meaning. He was both completely divine and completely human. And as a human, he was embodied in a very particular way—a rural Jewish way—but his gospel, his good news, spoke not only to fellow country Jews, but to Roman soldiers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even some of the big city Jews like Nicodemus. His good news could not be contained.
Jesus taught healing, belonging, and grace, and then through his death and resurrection, he embodied healing, belonging, and grace.
That’s what I think Jesus means when he says—twice today—“I am the bread of life.”
“I am nourishment to your souls,” he is saying. “When you eat my bread, when you believe in my love which is God’s love, you will know the deepest belonging. You will know grace. And grace is knowing that there is nothing—not sin, not suffering, not even death—that can separate you from God’s love. That is eternal life.”
I don’t know about you, but I need that message right now. Because, as I said last week, I’m tired. I know a lot of you are, too. We’re depleted from moving from lockdown and isolation into tentative hope and joyful reunions and now back into caution and distance. We’re sitting with grief upon grief from these past 17 months.
Tonight, we’re going to sit in that grief together. We’re going to take our time reflecting on all the ways this pandemic season has affected our lives, we’re going to write it all down, and we’re going to give our grief to God.
AND—and—we’re also going to remember that Jesus is the bread of life. That though there is death, there is also resurrection. Which means that though the world tries to separate us, isolate us, Jesus gives us belonging. That though there is struggle and conflict, there is also hope.
So I close us today with a prayer you’ll hear tonight:
God our Comforter, you are a refuge and a strength for us, a helper close at hand in times of distress. Help us so to hear the words of our faith that our fear is dispelled, our loneliness eased and our hope reawakened. May your Holy Spirit lift us above our natural sorrow, to the peace and light of your constant love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.