19 August 2015

Murmuring and gnawing, and
preaching for ‘the hoi polloi’

‘This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate’ (John 6: 58) … bread in the Avoca shop in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I have been invited to preside at the Eucharist and to preach in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, next Sunday, and at the moment I am trying to pull together my thoughts on the readings and for my sermon.

Next Sunday [23 August 2015] is the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: I Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 or Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 84 or Psalm 34: 15-22; Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6: 56-69.

The Old Testament reading (I Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43) is a particularly difficult editing of story that is going to be difficult for a reader to work through without the lectionary to hand, and I can imagine flutters and flurries of yellow sticky page markers in churches across the land on Sunday morning as readers lose and try to find their places.

In this story, the Temple has been built, the Ark has been brought to Jerusalem and it is now moved in procession to the Holy of Holies or “inner sanctuary.” After the priests leave, a cloud fills the house of the Lord as a sign of God’s presence. Solomon tells the people of the continuity between God’s covenant with Israel during the Exodus, his promise to David, and the Temple, God’s dwelling place among his people.

In his prayer of dedication, Solomon asks God to be attentive to the people’s by being just when they turn again to him, when they suffer in wars, from drought, in famine and from plagues. But he also asks God to respond to the pleas of foreigners who seek and find the God of Israel.

As he concludes his Letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul tells the people of Ephesus that they must learn to rely on the power of God. He also asks his readers to pray for him that he may be given a gift of the right words in telling of the “mystery of the Gospel” (τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου), for he is like an ambassador or prisoner “in chains.”

In the Gospel reading (John 6: 56-69), we are coming towards the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse while Christ is teaching in Capernaum. He has said that he is divine and the living bread. Now he says that taking part in the Eucharist establishes a lasting relationship, a community of life, a mutual indwelling, between him and the believer.

The “Living Father” (verse 57) – a phrase that reminds us of “living bread” (verse 51) – has sent the Son to give life, and the life the Son has is the Father’s, given to the Son. This type of relationship is extended to us when we take part in the Eucharist.

When he leaves the synagogue, many of Christ’s followers find this teaching is difficult or offensive. But he replies that if we cannot accept these things, seeing him ascend to heaven will really confound us. The words he speaks are spirit and life, and “it is the spirit that gives life.” Our human lives, even Christ in human form, are of no use without the spirit.

Because of his teaching, many of his disciples turn away, as many would later leave the Church. Christ asks the twelve whether they too wish to leave him. But Peter replies on their behalf: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

There is a clear connection between the feeding of the 5,000 that begins this chapter, with the manna story, when they recall the exile in the wilderness and quote from Psalm 78: 24, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (see John 6: 31). Dr Bridget Nichols, Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to Bishop Stephen Conway of Ely, also points out in her lectionary reflections in the Church Times last Friday [14 August 2015], that the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse is the Fourth Gospel’s counterpart to the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels.

This morning’s conversation as Christ leaves the synagogue in Capernaum where he has been teaching also brings into focus the relationship between Christ’s words and the teachings of Moses.

This conversation begins on the other side of the lake and ends at the synagogue in Capernaum, without any mention in the narrative of the movement or the change of location. But when did the location shift from the shores of the lake to the synagogue? And why?

We should remember that at this point in the Fourth Gospel, the Passover is near. Christ is fulfilling the kind of community that trusts in God’s abundance that the manna story envisions. His feeding and his reflection on it is a kind of synagogue teaching. It signifies that Christ is proclaiming himself as one greater than Moses, and is therefore greater than the usual synagogue teaching, which is a scandalous challenge in itself.

What is that that these people find hard to grasp? Is it the concept of “eating my flesh”? Is it the implication that Christ is greater than Moses? Is it the idea that to follow Christ is to see the Mosaic tradition fulfilled?

I am working my way through some of the original Greek texts in this Gospel reading as I explore what is going on.

‘But the one who eats this bread will live for ever’ (John 6: 58) … bread on display in a bakery in Frankfurt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Verse 56 says: ὁ τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα καὶ πίνων μου τὸ αἷμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μένει κἀγὼ ἐν αὐτῷ.

We translate this and similar passages into English so politely. For example, the NRSV says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I them.” But a more direct translation might say something: “Whoever is gnawing on my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me and I in him.”

There are three interesting verbs in this verse: the verb τρώγων (trógon) means to gnaw, crunch, or chew, as in chewing on raw vegetables or fruits, is subtly different in meaning than the verb “eat” (ἐσθίω, esthío); the verb πίνων (pínon) means to drink; and the verb μένει (ménei) means to remain or abide, yet some of his disciples or about to leave Christ and the twelve are to continue to walk with him.

Verse 57 says: καθὼς ἀπέστειλέν με ὁ ζῶν πατὴρ κἀγὼ ζῶ διὰ τὸν πατέρα, καὶ ὁ τρώγων με κἀκεῖνος ζήσει δι' ἐμέ. “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live through the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” But, again, we could translate this: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so also the one gnawing on me also will live because of me.”

Christ is not merely claiming to give the bread: he is the life-giving bread that the Father gives, and, lest his hearers dismiss this as a metaphor, he insists that this bread is his own flesh.

The Greek word here, ἀπέστειλέν (apésteilén) speaks of being sent to or going to an appointed place. The words ζῶν (zon), ζῶ (zo) and ζήσει (zései) speak of living, breathing, and being among the living. Once again, we hear the word τρώγων (trógon), from the verb τρώγω (trógo) to gnaw, crunch or chew.

Verse 58 says: οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἄρτος ὁ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, οὐ καθὼς ἔφαγον οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἀπέθανον: ὁ τρώγων τοῦτον τὸν ἄρτον ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. “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 for ever.”

Again, how would you respond if this had been translated more explicitly as “This one is the bread that has come down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and died; whoever gnaws on this bread will live into the age-long.”

We have the contrast between καταβὰς (katavas), from καταβαίνω (katavaíno) to go down, come down, or descend, which contrasts with the later reference in verse 62 to ascending to where the Son of Man was before.

In the first part of this verse, Christ uses the word ἔφαγον (ephagon) to describe eating, rather than the verb used again in the second part, τρώγων (trógon), to gnaw, crunch or chew.

This verse brings us back to the earlier discussion in the Gospel reading the Sunday before last (John 6: 35, 41-51, see verses 49-51), comparing the temporal nature of the manna in the wilderness with the everlasting nature of Christ’s own bread or flesh. It is a reminder that this chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000 near the time of the Passover, an explicit echo of the Manna story from the Exodus journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Verse 60 says: Πολλοὶ οὖν ἀκούσαντες ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ εἶπαν, Σκληρός ἐστινὁ λόγος οὗτος: τίς δύναται αὐτοῦ ἀκούειν; “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’”

The many and the disciples are two different groups. We often misunderstand and misuse the term οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi, “the many”).

In English, the phrase has been corrupted by giving it a negative connotation to signify deprecation of the working class, commoners, the masses or common people in a derogatory or even an ironic sense. Synonyms that express the same or similar distaste for the common people felt by those who believe themselves to be superior include “the great unwashed,” “the plebs,” “the rabble,” “the riff-raff,” or “the herd.”

The phrase is used by Pericles in his ‘Funeral Oration,’ as quoted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.But Pericles uses it in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy, contrasting “the many” with οἱ ὀλίγοι (hoi oligoi) or the oligarchy, the few.

Its current English usage dates from the early 19th century, when a person had to be familiar with Greek and Latin to be considered well-educated. The phrase was originally written in Greek letters, so that knowledge of the classical languages set apart the speaker from οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), “the many” or the uneducated.

Early users of the phrase include Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, and in the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, where πολλοί rhymes with joy as in “the high pol-oy.”

In the 1989 film Dead Poets’ Society, Meeks raises his hands and asks: “The hoi polloi. Doesn’t it mean the herd?” Professor Keating replies: “Precisely, Meeks. Greek for the herd. However, be warned that, when you say ‘the hoi polloi you are actually saying ‘the the herd.’ Indicating that you too are hoi polloi.”

In the Eucharistic prayers, we use words such as: “this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (see Common Worship, pp 185, 189, 192, 196, 199, 202; The Book of Common Prayer (the Church of Ireland, 2004), pp 210, 215, 217). In Common Worship, Prayer D changes this to “shed for you all for the forgiveness of sins” (p. 195), while Prayer H changes it to “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (p. 204).

What do the institution narratives in the relative New Testament passages say? We read: “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26: 28); “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14: 24); Only Saint Luke’s account is missing the word πολλοί or the “many”: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant of my blood.” Saint Paul uses neither “you” nor “the many.”

But it is clear that the Eucharist, while celebrated among the disciples or within the community, is for the benefit of “the many.”

In verse 61, we read: εἰδὼς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν ἑαυτῷ ὅτι γογγύζουσιν περὶ τούτου οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τοῦτο ὑμᾶς σκανδαλίζει; “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?’”

Again, we might translate this: “And Jesus, having seen himself that his own disciples are murmuring about all this, spoke to them, “Does this cause you to stumble?” or “Does this scandalise you?”

The word σκανδαλίζει (skandalízei) comes from the verb σκανδαλίζω (skandalízo), to put a stumbling block or in the way so that someone else may trip and fall. In other words, it is a metaphor for “to offend” or “to scandalise.” But the scandal is surely more than the repeated prohibition in the Old Testament on eating any flesh in its own blood (see Genesis 9: 4, Leviticus 3: 17, Deuteronomy 12: 23). Perhaps I am thinking this because I also find here a reminder of the concept of the “scandal of the Gospel,” although that well-known phrase appears nowhere in the New Testament in that form.

The word γογγύζουσιν (gongízousin), translated in the NRSV as “complaining,” has far more negative implications than this translation. It comes from the verb γογγύζω (gongízo), to murmur, to mutter, to grumble, or to say anything negative in a low tone. It recalls the negative murmurings of fleeing Children of Israel in the wilderness. It is used four times in Saint John’s Gospel to describe disbelief:

● “then the Jews (Judeans) began to complain (murmur) about him” (6: 41);

● “Do not complain (murmur) among yourselves …” (6: 43);

● in this instance, where “his disciples were complaining (murmuring) at it (6: 61);

● and “The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering (murmuring) such things about him” (John 7: 32).

Verse 63 says: τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ ζῳοποιοῦν, ἡ σὰρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδέν: τὰ ῥήματα ἃ ἐγὼ λελάληκα ὑμῖν πνεῦμά ἐστιν καὶ ζωή ἐστιν. The NRSV translates this: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” We might also translate it in this way: “The spirit is the thing making you alive. The flesh is not profiting anything [the double negative here, nothing, does not translate easily into English]. The words that I have spoken to you is [are] spirit and is [are] life.”

The word ζῳοποιοῦν (zootoioun), “making alive” implies not just to make alive or to give life, but refers particularly to imparting life that lasts for ever, eternal life

Verse 64 reads: ἀλλ' εἰσὶν ἐξ ὑμῶν τινες οἳ οὐ πιστεύουσιν. ᾔδει γὰρ ἐξ ἀρχῆς ὁ Ἰησοῦς τίνες εἰσὶν οἱ μὴ πιστεύοντες καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ παραδώσων αὐτόν. In the NRSV, this is translated: “‘But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.” Or, we might translate it: “‘But there are some among you who do not believe, who do not have faith.’ For, Jesus had known from the beginning who the ones are who are not believing and who is the one who is betraying him.”

Faith is related to both belief and practice, as I was saying in my sermons in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, last Sunday [16 August 2015, here and here]. As I prepare next Sunday’s sermon, I am wondering whether we ought to ask whether faith is related to Eucharistic belief and practice? Do those who reject or deny Eucharistic belief and a regular Eucharistic practice deny Christ himself.

It is interesting that those who seek to impose a literalist reading on many New Testament passages, including teachings on sexuality that are not actually in the New Testament, are often those who would refuse to concede a literalist reading of this Gospel passage when it comes to an understanding of the Eucharist. Indeed, could we ask whether the denial of a Eucharistic interpretation of the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse is a betrayal of Christ himself, is no longer walking with Christ.

Verse 66 says: Ἐκ τούτου πολλοὶ [ἐκ] τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ ἀπῆλθον εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω καὶ οὐκέτι μετ' αὐτοῦ περιεπάτουν. The NRSV translates this: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Or we might translate this: “From this time, many [out] of his disciples went back (or turned back) and no longer were walking with him [either following him, or on the journey to Jerusalem].”

This turning back, of course, is in contrast to the true meaning of conversion, which is turning around towards Christ.

Verses 68 and 69 read: ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Σίμων Πέτρος, Κύριε, πρὸς τίνα ἀπελευσόμεθα; ῥήματα ζωῆς αἰωνίου ἔχεις, καὶ ἡμεῖς πεπιστεύκαμεν καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν ὅτι σὺ εἶ ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ. The NRSV translates these verses as: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”

Knowing and belief come together, knowledge is meaningless without wisdom, faith is more than the acceptance of facts.

This profession by Simon Peter is immediately followed by a cautious and disturbing remark by Christ about Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71). But the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary decided to omit them from next Sunday’s Gospel reading. Judas is going to walk out at the Last Supper. Is a regular refusal to eat this bread and to drink this cup a betrayal of Christ and of the Christian faith?

The Gate of Persecution leading into the site of the Basilica of Saint John the Divine in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Which brings me back to our Epistle reading nextSunday morning (Ephesians 6: 10-20).

The writer of this Gospel is addressing a small community of Christians in Ephesus, for whom linear time is displaced by the fact that they already know the divine identity of Christ. And the life that Christ offers to his own people is being worked out in practical ways by the recipients of the Letter to the Ephesians.

The word sacrament is derived from the Latin sacrāmentum, which is an attempt to render the Greek word, μυστήριον (mysterion). Saint Paul asks the people of Ephesus to pray that he may be given a gift of the right words in telling of the “mystery of the Gospel” (τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου).

What if next Sunday’s Gospel reading is a reminder of the heart of the Gospel, the mystery of the Gospel?

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