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Simple Words, Difficult Lessons

Simple Words, Difficult Lessons

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’  But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  – John 6:60-63.

Sometimes reading the gospel of John is like reading Paul. Paul can be wordy, without a lot of punctuation yet with answers to questions that have been asked (though) not stated in a way to help us figure out the context of his response. John is a mystic and, like Jesus, sometimes talks in what seems like riddles, though quoting Jesus and some of his more mysterious teachings. This John passage, part of the longer gospel reading for this morning’s Daily Office, was a two-by-four hitting me between my eyes. It partly translated itself into what is going on today, “ ‘…This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?’”  I know that the quotation reflected teachings on eternal life to the disciples. Still, it applies to some of the lessons we either have or have not learned over the past several years.

Jesus had been teaching to a large crowd about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which to us sounds cannibalistic and perhaps did to the people hearing originally these words. We understand that Jesus was referring to the Eucharist, the bread and wine which he had blessed. We believe the elements are blessed and made holy, if not as the actual body and blood as some denominations believe, or merely representations as other denominations proclaim it. For those of us who are Episcopalian, it is somehow neither – and both. Jesus’s presence is within it, and thus we accept it as food from heaven to bless and mark our joining in the celestial banquet. 

But that wasn’t what grabbed me in the reading. Just as the teaching Jesus gave to the crowd was hard for them to understand, there are many things today which we have been given but which seem to be equally as puzzling. One of the hardest things is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Loving some people is relatively easy. They are wise, not seeking fame and earthly goods, and may have a charism about them that almost seems visible. People follow them and try to let their lives reflect the faith they have in these saints-on-earth-sans-haloes. Many of these will never be remembered except by a few who knew them, and within a few decades, their memories will fade away. We will recall them along with all the saints that surround God’s throne in the eternal home in heaven. People have been trying for millennia to learn and live up to that commandment and haven’t mastered it yet. Still, we keep preaching it and, hopefully, practicing it as well.

Today, it occurred that even simple teachings, laws, ordinances, or wise sayings appear to be impossible to be understood. For instance, take “Wear Your Mask.”  Three short words that are demonstrations of “Love your neighbor.” I wear a mask during this pandemic to keep myself safe, sure. Most folks do. But some folks also have the idea of keeping others safe from the virus that can be lethal to susceptible people. Those are our neighbors that we are commanded to love. Yet some “Christians” demonstrate that their personal rights to go maskless everywhere supersedes “Love your neighbor.” Granted, Jesus didn’t tell us to wear masks or even love our neighbor in this lesson.  Still, he knew that not all would hear, obey, or even believe. Many left him after the teaching he gave earlier in the chapter.  They still leave him, unwilling to understand or accept his words and lessons. 

How much does loving our neighbors today reflect in our daily lives? Would cutting someone off on the freeway to save us a minute and maybe cause an accident that takes other lives show our love and caring for others? How about passing legislation that benefits a group of people who already have a great abundance of wealth but crushes the poor under the foot of the rich? Does targeting members of other racial or ethnic groups, even religious groups, make our faith stronger? 

Do “Hate Crimes” act as “Love Acts” by those who perpetrate them? Do they actually “love” their own group so much that they have to preach against others to prove they love their group more? I seldom (if ever) see signs, billboards, and posters that say anything loving about groups that proclaim hatred for others. Church signs, and occasionally posters and billboards, sometimes proclaim the basic tenets of their mission – loving others as God loves us. 

Maybe Christians as a group need to do more things like wearing masks, regardless of dirty looks or snide comments from others who continue maskless. Perhaps we should be first on the front line with tools to repair, replace, or clean damage caused by haters who have marked buildings, graves, and houses. There are thousands of things that might be done, like donuts to first responders, volunteering to help at soup kitchens and child care centers, offering rides (while wearing masks) to aged and infirm elders who have no one to rely on for assistance. Kids (and adults) could make posters and hang signs thanking the people who have been so vital in keeping our lives running as smoothly as possible in these past trying months. 

I could go on and on with ideas, but hopefully, I’ve sparked something that the reading sparked in me. If a problem (or teaching) seems difficult, don’t reject it out of hand. Keep wrestling with it, meditate on it, pray about it, try looking at it through different eyes. Start with simple things like “Love your neighbor” and work from there. It might be more straightforward than it first appeared. 

God bless.

Image: Portland Black Lives Matter protest, June 13, 2020. Author: Peter Forsyth. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

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