Imagine for a moment that, within your church or place of worship, a small clique has formed. This is not simply a matter of a group who want to extend the parking lot when everyone else does not, or of those who prefer the old hymnal over the new. No, these are people who have shared in some kind of spiritual awakening, most likely under the influence of an engaging preacher whom they have heard speak or whose books they’ve read.
At first it is just a slight annoyance. Everyone knows that these people believe their experience to be superior to what is on offer during the weekly service. They whisper cryptic messages to each other, they huddle together before and after worship, they exchange books. Eventually it is discovered that they have started their own study and worship groups, meeting in homes to encourage each other in the new teaching. They are still members of your church, but they obviously have another agenda as well.
As the movement persists and the years pass, the dividing lines become more distinct. New traditions and customs have been formed; new terminology is being used. Furthermore, similar groups have been popping up in many locations and their leadership is increasingly at odds with that of the established community. Finally, the church authority can take it no longer and they force the issue: “you are welcome to attend worship, but not if your first allegiance is to the new group; you must choose one or the other”. And with that, there is an official split: many people leave and a single worshipping community has become two.
This, very simplistically, is the process which, among other factors, forms the context for the writing of the Gospel of John. We cannot be sure who wrote this Gospel, nor of the location where it was penned; but we can say with some degree of accuracy that it was written near the end of the first century, some six decades after Jesus died.
The first generation of Jews who followed the way of Jesus did so while still belonging to their local synagogues. Yes, there were instances of real persecution (think of the martyr, Stephen) and of local resistance to this new Jesus Movement, but it was only after a good number of years that the real break with Judaism occurred. The Gospel of John was written soon after it became widespread practice to bar from the synagogues those Jews who were followers of Jesus.
Looking back from our vantage point in history – surveying the exponential growth of the church across the world and the privileges of the age of Christendom – we might see this early break with Judaism as a mere bump in an otherwise sure road to success. To the original recipients of the Gospel of John, however, the break with their heritage was yet another threat to deal with in an already difficult and puzzling time. The powers in Rome were waking up to the Jesus Movement as well and not viewing it favourably, to say the least. Furthermore, the holy city of Jerusalem, also an important centre of Christian leadership, had recently been sacked and the Temple destroyed.
To what was a Christian to turn? The links with the Law of Moses were becoming less clear, Temple worship had ended, the synagogues were off limits, the Romans were making life difficult (in some cases, literally). From where would a follower of Jesus draw courage and strength?
And so, in this time of great strain and uncertainty, John writes his reflection on the person of Jesus. For the follower of this new way, he says, Jesus is like the Wisdom of God, he is like a Light to the World, he is like refreshing spring Water, he is like a Good Shepherd in times of peril, he is like a Path to a life of purpose.
To Jesus he attributes these words: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them….This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
John agrees with his worshipping community that yes, their losses are indeed true losses and their challenges are real challenges, but that as they stay faithful to their new spiritual identity in Christ, gathering weekly to share in the bread and the wine, calling to mind the teachings and life and execution of Jesus, pledging themselves afresh to God in Christ, they avail themselves of an enduring source of life.
Today we gather around the Eucharistic table just as the early Christians did. Some of the prayers we say are direct quotations of their recorded liturgies. We may not face the threats and challenges which they did as a community, but we do bring our own burdens and losses as individuals. Like them, we share in the sacrament of the bread and wine in the hope and the expectation that, as we do so, God in Christ will again become present for us, feeding our souls with the promise of restoration, of renewal, of resurrection.
Whether I kneel or stand or sit in prayer, I am not caught in time nor held in space, but thrust beyond this posture I am where time and eternity come face to face; infinity and space meet in this place where crossbar and high upright hold the one in agony and in all Love’s embrace. The power in helplessness that was begun when all the brilliance of the flaming sun contained itself in the small confines of a child now comes to me in this strange action done in mystery. Break me, break space, O wild and lovely power. Break me: thus am I dead, am resurrected now in wine and bread. – Madeleine L’Engle