Taking It Literally
We have spent five weeks focusing on the gospel of John, chapter 6. The first four Sundays focused on Jesus as the bread of life. The last Sunday invited us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I wonder how the children sitting in the pews heard those wordsÖÖ.
A schoolteacher friend of mine tells the story of a class of five-year-olds who were lining up to receive their inoculation against one of the childhood diseases. They all had their sleeves rolled up and were waiting for the dreaded jab. After a while, my friend noticed that one child was missing. She walked back along the line of children, round the corner, and discovered the missing child out cold on the floor, where he'd fainted.
Naturally, she was horrified and asked the other children why they hadn't told her that this little boy had passed out.
"Oh," they replied, "we thought he was dead, so we just stepped over him." Children have such literal minds!
Humor intended for children often comes unstuck unless it's very slapstick. Introduce any element of nuance or irony, and the humor is completely lost on children. At that young stage of development, the mind can only cope with things that are completely literal.
This makes the task of the Sunday school teacher quite difficult, because so much of Christianity is far from literal. Bible stories are fine, but this is sacred literature that employs all kinds of metaphors and images that make teaching children difficult. For instance, we're told in the Bible that Jesus sits at God's right hand on high. That statement is obviously a metaphor, a figure of speech, but children will usually take it entirely literally, and will probably imagine a giant sized God on a massive throne, in heaven, with Jesus sitting next to him. And heaven will be somewhere in the sky because it's "on high", surrounded with clouds and angels Ė with harps of course.
That literal interpretation is often as far as children can get, but problems arise when their understanding gets stuck there. Unfortunately, all too many Christians never move beyond their early Sunday School experience. They lose touch with regular Bible study and donít grow in their ability to experience the full scope of Godís plan of salvation, laid out in the Holy Scriptures.
Literal interpretation of the Bible is extremely dangerous, because it often doesnít take into consideration the context of the passage or the good news of Godís grace, through Christ. When we donít fully consider this, then the door is open to the misuse of Jesusí words and an undermining of the Gospelís saving grace.
Jesus encountered exactly the same problem when he used the literal to get peopleís attention. In chapter 6 of Johnís gospel, Jesus talks about himself as the bread of life. Then he goes further. He tells his audience that he will give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink.
Obviously Jesus is trying to wake them up to the huge price he will have to pay for them to have eternal life. But, the result is that many in his audience are so shocked that he would suggest such a thing, that they canít hear what he is pointing to. Not surprisingly, they can't cope. The thought of eating somebody's flesh and drinking somebody's blood makes their stomachs turn. Besides, it would have been absolutely abhorrent to Jews, whose dietary laws forbade them to eat anything with blood in it, let alone drink blood.
As a result of his words, Jesus lost many of his disciples on this occasion. In fact, John tells us, they left in droves. But other disciples proved to be more open to Jesusí message, even though it was difficult to understand. They questioned him, which gave Jesus the opportunity to explain what he meant in more detail; he is the living bread come down from heaven for the life of the world.
So how do we understand Jesusí words, especially as they pertain to the sacrament of Holy Communion? We Lutherans believe, firmly, that receiving Jesus in the bread and wine of his table is a sacramental mystery. What Jesus said is true. Yes, the bread is the living bread of heaven. Yes, the bread is Jesusí body broken for us. Yes, the cup is Christís blood poured out for us. We hold to the belief that, when Christís words come together with the bread and wine, Jesus is really present in Ė with Ė and under the bread and wine. When we come to his table, we come to meet Jesus and experience, through his presence, all of his promises in a personal, intimate, abiding way.
There must be a way for us to understand how Godís living word speaks to us today. We strive to understand by doing what the church has always done. We join together to study the Holy Scriptures. We call on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and we always keep in mind that we know the end of the story: Godís plan to save the world, through his son, Jesus. I like Pastor Bethís explanation, ďYou have to put on your Jesus glasses when you read the Bible.Ē Yes, put on your Jesus glasses and understand that the Word of God is a living word that works faith in us. It is good and true. Come and find out for yourself.
We have Bible study opportunities in each of our congregations that help us better move beyond a literal understanding of Scripture to the heart of Godís saving word for us. Invite friends and family to attend with you. Letís study together with all the tools we have to expand our knowledge of the Word of God.
Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries (PLUM), 405 Kennedy Avenue, Duquesne, PA 15110 412-466-7773