By Dcn. Eric Whitehair on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name ✠ of the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
Before we get started, I always have a preface that I like to say whenever I do a Gospel reading that includes a particular word that, taken out of its historical and textual context and placed into the twenty-first century here in America, or in Europe, or pretty much anywhere else in the world, really, is going to look different then I think that it was intended when it was originally written. I do not presume to speak for the Gospeler, that being said, I will tell you why I am led to think this way.
“The Jews then disputed amongst themselves, saying…” I don’t know about you, but when I read that word aloud to you all, it jumped off the page, and it jumped around inside my head, and it knocked over all kinds of things in my brain. I’m going to reference this again in a second. But a part of my vocation, of my diaconal vocation, is to teach. And I teach history and religion to high schoolers. And it is impossible to run across the history of western civilization without bumping into some of the most hideous acts of oppression that have been perpetuated against a people. Anti-Semitism is a problem in western civilization. Western Europeans and Americans have a problem with anti-Semitism. That’s a fact. You may not as an individual, individuals may not have. Individuals have certainly acted in ways that have been good neighbors and protected and defended Jewish people. But at the same time, the reason they have had to protect people is because there were larger systems that were doing harm to them.
So after the terrible pogroms, after awful anti-Semitism that took its fullest form in the Holocaust, with the murder of literally millions of people and the murder of fifty percent of Europe’s Jews, even in our own beloved city of Baltimore, the neighborhood that I now live in, used to literally have a covenant that you had to sign. This is in the twentieth century, after World War Two, you must sign a covenant saying that if you were to buy a house in this neighborhood, a neighborhood I currently live in, you could not sell that house to an African-American person or a Jewish person. That was true in the lifetimes of people sitting in this room right now. And anti-Semitism that bold and naked is something that has happened in living memory. And while certainly, I hope, things have gotten better, it is not a problem that it’s completely alleviated itself.
And so, like an ugly stain, whenever we in America hear the word ‘the Jews,’ unfortunately, it comes filtered through that whole historical experience that I just spoke of. And if we aren’t careful, we can believe that the Gospeler, we believe that John, if John wrote this gospel, we might believe — we might put onto him anti-Semitic ideas. We might make him think that he’s, boy, he’s really showing us ‘the Jews’ and how much we disagree with them. It is my belief that that is a mistake of our filter. It is mistake of us in the twenty-first century, looking back through hundreds of years of oppression and looking at a piece of writing that was, let me say it, written by a Jewish man, about other Jewish people in a Jewish part of the world, who more than likely was probably writing for a Jewish audience. In which case, again, it certainly isn’t my place to change Scripture or to tell you what the Gospeler is thinking, but it seems to this one historian standing in front of you speaking that perhaps when John wrote ‘the Jews,’ instead of thinking, as we would, of a specific oppressed people that are other than us, he probably would have been saying something more like “us, the people.” And if you read it that way, again, this is me, this is not the Gospel, this is me, “The people then disputed amongst themselves, saying” I believe, personally, that’s probably closer to what the Gospeler was trying to say to us.
And indeed, I have personally found it very edifying that when I bump into a reference to ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel, especially one that is critical, especially one that shows a people that are lacking faith or doubting, that it is often more beneficial for me, spiritually, personally, to put myself in that place than to put a group of people from the outside into that place. And so that when someone in the Gospel is being pointed out for not having enough faith, or for disputing, or whatever lack is being pointed out, that I remember that I am of the people, that I am of the crowd that would have been listening to Jesus. And, I have to be perfectly honest, I wonder if I was transported two thousand years ago and dropped into the middle of Judea, and I had the honor of listening to the words of my Lord, I would have had discernment and the understanding and the faith to listen to the words He said and to believe them perfectly? I’d like to think I would, but I’m also honest with myself, and I know that very likely I would have been critical, I would have been perhaps doubting faith. I may not have been the best exemplar of a believer in that time and place, just as I am not now.
Which brings me to the actual sermon for today. I know, you’re probably, “oh my goodness,” right? I have to be perfectly honest with you. This part of the Gospel of John is not my favorite to preach upon. Mark’s Gospel, to a deacon, is so much easier to preach on. It’s an action Gospel. There’s not a lot of long sermons, He just does things. Go out and do things, heal people, feed people! John’s Gospel records a different part of Jesus’s ministry. We have full paragraphs about bread and flesh and wine and blood and resurrection, things that, to be perfectly honest, when I look at them and the words on the page, I can’t tell you that I perfectly understand what John wrote, and that I don’t perfectly understand what our Lord said. Which brings me to the absolute most useful phrase that I have ever found as a teacher: “I don’t know.” I tell my students that phrase at least once a day, and sometimes several times more. And then I will tell you a phrase that was given to me by a spiritual mentor.
I came from a tradition of Christianity that placed a high premium on certainty. I came from a tradition in Christianity that knew The Truth. Capital T and capital T, The Truth. They knew what every Bible verse meant, literally. They knew what every line of Scripture meant, literally. There was no argument. There was no discussion. It was The Truth. The Truth was plain to see. The Truth was handed to you without question, and The Truth was expected to be embraced, memorized and, if need be, shouted in people’s faces as loudly as possible. I don’t have that kind of faith anymore.
One of my favorite authors growing up, Hermann Hesse, wrote in his book, Magister Ludi, faith and doubt govern each other like inhaling and exhaling, they belong together. And I think there’s a good reason for that. It isn’t faith in God that I don’t feel like I don’t have any more. That is a gift given to me. I don’t have perfect faith in my own understanding. I don’t have perfect faith in my ability to speak for God. I don’t have perfect faith in my ability to speak for the Gospel. And so when I decided to return back to a Christian practice, I honestly don’t think that I stopped being a Christian. I stopped practicing as a Christian. But when I returned back to a Christian practice, my spiritual mentor, Fr. Jesse Parker, told me a phrase that would change my life and my practice and my belief. He said, “When you must speak of things, it is often useful to say, I have been led to believe.”
I am going to lean on that phrase so hard when talking about today’s Gospel. Because, again, my two favorite phrases, both as a teacher and now is a deacon, are, “I don’t know,” and “I have been led to believe” and that’s not because I don’t have faith in God, it’s because I don’t have faith that my understanding is God’s understanding. I don’t know if I am completely getting this all the time. Scratch that. I give you one hundred percent certainty that I am not getting this correctly perfectly all the time, I guarantee you that. I have been led to believe, and I don’t know. And with that, I’ll give you one more thing, and then I just want to return to a second reading of today’s Gospel. And then we will continue in today’s liturgy. The type of Christianity that values and places a value upon absolute certainty, one hundred percent clarity, no arguments, Capital T The, capital T Truth comes from a culture that values certainty. Prove it! What are your stats, what is the data? What are the numbers? Right, that’s American, isn’t it? Prove it to me. We are certainty. Well, what are you literally trying to say? Sometimes, I have been led to believe, the truth is not literal. I offer that is a thought as we listen for a second time, to the words of our Lord.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.” The Gospel of the Lord.