There was a summer in my mid-teens when we would all gather in the evenings at the foot of the stairs at the far end of Apartment Block One. Sitting around on the sidewalk or on the first flight of stairs, hanging off the railings, we were a squirming gaggle of teenage angst, energy and hormones. A single light affixed to the side of the building, standing in for parental supervision, would render its dim view of our proceedings, casting long shadows on the grass and into the woods beyond.
As the evening drew on, the hour late, the night dark and quiet, inevitably those of us who were storytellers would take it in turn to spook our huddled flock with gruesome and ghostly tales. The repertoire was limited and well-known, learned from our older siblings, but, told correctly, the stories would never-the-less produce the thrilling shivers and squeals of terror we all enjoyed and send us home glancing over our shoulders at the pitch-dark woods.
It’s been a long time since I’ve told a ghost story and I can’t say that I now believe in ghosts (at least, not that variety). “When I became a man I put away childish things…”, something like that.
Part of what makes for living life successfully in our modern Western society is a willingness to embrace a scientific and empirical paradigm about what is factual. Superstitions persist, but the vast body of them which ruled the lives of our not-so-distant ancestors has been tossed into the dustbin of history, no match for the scientific method.
So the Judaeans grumbled about him, that he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” And they were saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother? How come he’s now saying, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Methinks we would have been uncommonly good bedfellows with the realists in the Gospel of John who are fed up with Jesus’ absurd prating. The obvious thing, the factual evidence, is that Jesus did not come down from heaven; his father and mother are known by name and, if called upon as witnesses, would confirm that, yes, little baby Jesus had emerged from his mother’s womb. He’s an ordinary human being, just like the rest of us. “Came down from heaven”, my arse.
But then, as readers, we are in danger of ignoring another bit of factual evidence: that the Gospel of John as a literary work is not a biography; it is a Gospel, a retelling of “good news” and, as such, it is not terribly concerned with the facts. Better to understand it instead as a reflection, an interpretation of the meaning of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. And its conclusion is this: insofar as we are able to understand the divine as expressed in the life of a human being, we find it in Jesus. Jesus is the “Son of God” not in a biological sense, but in opposition to Caesar, who for readers in the ancient world was a somewhat more widely known claimant to the title “Son of God”.
God as revealed in Jesus is compassionate, merciful, forgiving, one who identifies with the poor and disenfranchised, one concerned about justice for all individuals and peoples; Caesar’s claim of divinity reveals a God who is ruthless, violent, vindictive, one who identifies with the rich and powerful, and who is concerned with the preservation of his rule, dynasty and national preeminence.
Which vision of God, of how the universe should be run, will be your rule of life? Those who bet their life on (“believe in”) Jesus being the true revelation of God (“Son of God”) will discover a new frame of reference and will find themselves already participating in the universe as it should be (“will have eternal life”) even as they endure the hardship of living in a world dominated by the opposing vision.
The Gospel of John refuses to allow that what is true is limited to what is factual. No, Judaeans, Jesus is not literally bread descended from heaven. His claim to be the Bread of Life, however, is not absurd. His teaching, his manner of life and death, his Spirit alive in the world in which we live, constitute daily nourishment for any and all who would find a deeper, more lasting significance to their own existence.
Jesus is not God’s only agent for good in our world, not by a long shot, but he is, simply, extra-ordinary.