Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bread that Spoils; Bread that Lasts


Bread that Spoils

Below is a reflection that I offer for John 6:24-35. If you want to see my detailed exegesis of the text from three years ago, click here

I once heard a breadmaker being interviewed on NPR, whose words have stayed with me: “There is a very fine line between fermentation and putrefaction.” One reasons so many store bought sliced loaves of bread are chocked full of chemical preservatives is because of this propensity for bread to spoil. The same metabolical reactions that ferment the yeast in bread dough are the reactions that ferment bacteria in spoilage. In those societies that pre-dated modern refrigeration or artificial preservation of bread, putrefaction could mean the difference between eating or not.

The writer of the gospel of John seems to be carrying out several polemics, the objects of which we can only tease out through carefully pieced guesswork. That fine line between fermentation and putrefaction, the chemical process that creates in one moment and ruins in the next, may be the space where John sees many followers of Jesus heading. They follow Jesus, to be sure, sometimes with great zeal and ardent work. But, they are following for the wrong reasons, for bread that delights in its taste and satisfaction of hunger, but which also spoils over time.

I feel like I’m just now catching on to the rhythm of this chapter, even though I’ve read it a zillion times. The crowd of 5,000 ate the bread that Jesus produced out of five loaves, with twelve basketsful leftover. Jesus gave specific instruction to collect the leftovers so that “nothing may be lost,” a phrase similar to Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17.  It occurs to me that those twelve baskets are the leftover miracle bread the crowd is following Jesus to eat again. And, why not? They were part of something special, something heavenly, something that echoed God’s gracious manna from heaven that fed the people of Israel on their journey. Why not follow Jesus for more of that? After all, he is the one who provided it in the first place. Surely it is a good thing.

Jesus does not deny that the bread he multiplied is a good thing. But, he avers, it is not a lasting thing. It was good; it met a real need; it was welcomed with thanksgiving; it was shared; it was collected afterward so that nothing would be lost. Yet, if that is why people are following Jesus, then they are sure to be disappointed because the bread that Jesus multiplies miraculously will not last. It will spoil. The creative powers at work in fermentation are also the ruinous power of putrefaction. If the analogy holds, there is a way of pursuing faith that is wonderfully attractive but which can also prove ruinous in the end.

What Jesus offers, instead of the bread that he produces, is the bread that he is. To follow this train of thought throughout some of the “I am” sayings of John’s gospel, Jesus offers the truth that he is, the life that he is, the way that he is, the resurrection that he is.  One can enjoy the truth that Christ offers – propositions, wise sayings, meaningful parables, and insightful teaching. But, until one follows the truth that is incarnate in Christ, for John’s gospel one has not yet found the wellspring, the source, the fountain of truth itself. This may be John’s way of engaging those other Christian groups that are not enemies necessarily or even wrong necessarily, but who also have not yet grasped the eternity of God that is made flesh in Christ. John’s polemic against those who have attained a semblance and measure of truth but not truth itself may also speak volumes to our own day, when we encounter those who have no problem giving allegiance to the words of Christ, but who seem to be far away from the spirit of Christ.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Retreating Glimpse of the Reign of God

Below is a brief description of what I understand to be the dynamic behind Mark’s sixth chapter, particularly as it is expressed through the pronouns that Mark uses. For a detailed verse-by-verse exegesis of the Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56, which I have updated slightly from three years ago, click here.

My perspective of the flow of Mark’s gospel has been influenced partly by Werner Kelber’s argument, in Mark’s Story of Jesus, that from Mark’s perspective, the disciples are depicted as having failed in their calling. At key is Jesus’ message to the disciples to meet him in Galilee and the curious abrupt original ending of Mark’s gospel in 16:8. If that ending actually ends the story, the disciples did not meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection. We are accustomed, of course, to Luke’s description of the disciples and their Spirit-empowered ministry that begins in Jerusalem and radiates out from there. But, that is Luke’s story, not Mark’s.

I’m further influenced by Richard Horsley’s argument in Hearing the Whole Story, that Mark’s gospel shows Jesus’ ministry to be a Galilean-based ministry that is quite distinct from a Judean-based ministry and is grounded in a village-based Galilean piety that is different from the Jerusalem-based Judean piety.

Finally, I have wrestled with a well-known concept in Markan studies, of the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel. Here is an excerpt from my blog regarding Mark 6:1-13, the gospel reading from two weeks ago:

The ‘messianic secret’ attempts to name a motif that certainly is central to Mark’s gospel – the repetitive ‘don’t say anything’ moments right where we don’t expect them.  For me, however, it is not so much a secret as a re-direction. By attempting over and over to make him ‘the Messiah,’ people were missing the point of his message, which was that the Reign of God was present and that they all were invited to participate in it. As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is less to point, observe, marvel, or coronate and more about joining along, taking up the message, and doing the deeds. My point is, I don’t think the “messianic secret” is a literary device by Mark, but a theological point, that Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward the participating followers. The message in Mark’s original ending, “Go to Galilee and there he will meet you” is a way of sending the followers back to this village-based activity-message.

Rather than “messianic secret,” I see these moments throughout Mark’s gospel as “participatory redirections.” When I put all of these perspectives together – and I dearly hope that I am not misrepresenting either Kelber or Horsley – I see Mark 6 as showing the best and worst of the disciples.

The best moments are when the disciples are doing as Jesus does. When Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is at hand, it is an invitation for others to turn around and to participate in it. When Jesus heals, exorcises demons, and even brings life from death, the point is not to show how magical Jesus was, but to demonstrate what it means to participate in the Reign of God here and now. The “participatory redirection” from a group of Jesus’ fans to a group of Jesus’ co-workers, from those marveling as Jesus does great things to those who are likewise participating in the Reign of God at hand, is realized when the twelve go out, vulnerable with regard to possessions but empowered, and do what Jesus has been doing. The “mission of the twelve” (Mark does not use the term ‘mission,’) is the story of disciples being participants. It shows how they cast out demons and heal and proclaim, and it concludes with the disciples needing Sabbath rest and restoration, needing to elude the crowd, not being fully able to do so – all of which are the precise way that Jesus’ ministry is described in the first five chapters of Mark. (It is all framed around the arrest and death of John the Baptizer. At his arrest, Jesus’ public ministry begins. The story of John’s death is sandwiched between the beginning and end of the story of the twelve in mission.)

In verses 12-13, then 30-33 (interrupted by the story of Herod and John’s death), the pronouns are plural “they” pronouns. Every instance of “they” is an echo of something that has been said about Jesus prior to this story. During these best moments, the “ministry of Jesus” has become the ministry of the twelve. The hero has become the empowering model.

However, the pronouns and the demeanor shift again, beginning in 6:34. Jesus invites the disciples to feed the crowd and they answer with incredulity. It is Jesus who goes alone to pray. The disciples do not recognize him as he walks on the water, mistaking him for a ghost. Even though Jesus had delivered the abundance of bread through the disciples’ own hands, they did not understand. Mark circles back to the bread story and the disciples’ lack of understanding what was happening there to explain why the disciples were frightened in the boat (16:52). Sadly, Mark says, “their hearts were hardened.”


The disciples’ cardio sclerosis was not just a momentary fright. Mark 8:14-21 is a story of how Jesus is frustrated with the disciples because, after being instrumental in TWO feeding stories, they still do not understand. The glory of the mission, when the disciples were full participants in Jesus’ ministry, seems to be a receding vision in the rearview mirror, an exception to the rule of the disciples’ failure to embrace the present Reign of God.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

On the Death of a Prophet

Below is a perspective that one can take of the sad and gruesome story of the death of John the Baptizer in Mark 6:14-29, the gospel reading for July 12, 2015. For my exegesis and preliminary notes on this text, which I have updated from three years ago, go to this link.

In a curious way, this death story is also a resurrection story. Mark presents the death of John as the interior story of his familiar bracketing technique, where he begins one story, then inserts a second story, before concluding the first story. The outer story of this bracket is the story of Jesus sending the twelve in 6:7-13, which concludes in 6:30. The interior story is John’s death. By bracketing the stories as connective stories, the mission of the twelve is the resurrection power of the death of John. Earlier in Mark the same pattern occurs: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The power of coercion, even unto death, lies with Rome. The power of resurrection lies with the gospel. It is like the prophetic words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who argued that if he were put to death, he would rise up in the spirit of the people. Coercion unto death is the ultimate and only power of Rome. The gospel does not overcome that power by its own coercion, but by the promise of resurrection. The promise of resurrection is not so much “having a mansion on the other side,” as it is the enduring power of the gospel that even death cannot overcome. Resurrection is not a weird Christian death-wish. It is simply the profound act of denying death its place of ultimacy.



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