Sunday, August 23, 2015

St John's Gospel and cognitive dissonance

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time 160815

Gospel Reading: John 6:51-58

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… 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."

We are at a point in the church year when our reading through Mark’s gospel is interrupted for 5 or 6 weeks by readings from John’s gospel. So for a brief time we enter the strange world of John and have to engage with the challenges that presents.

I talk about the strange world of John but this morning we have just this small fragment of gospel to work with and we come as always (explicit or implicit) with the basic question of ‘How does this
gospel speak to me now?’ Can it speak in the confusion and complexity of this moment, this ‘now’; and speak through and above the hubbub of all my doubts, my unfaith, and my indifference? Perhaps even more difficult, can it speak through the dense insulation provided by my familiarity with this text, all my prior knowledge, assumptions and interpretation of it?

I want to begin with a proposition that I heard in an address at the Deans’ Conference in Adelaide: “Without cognitive dissonance we learn nothing.”

That proposition rather neatly summarises how I find myself tackling scripture on most Sunday mornings. Too often the church seems to have tried to ‘explain’ scripture – in the sense of smoothing away difficulties, harmonising dissonances and trying to homogenise the text into a more culturally palatable form. I suspect that to be a mistaken approach. Instead I suggest we cannot learn from what we think we understand; we only learn from what we realise we don't understand.

So, with that in mind, think about what strikes you as strange or difficult or different about this passage. We tackle these problems directly, ‘head-on’. It is in the strangeness or difficulty of the gospel, in what affronts us, that the ‘Word’ may really come alive for us.

So, for instance, what about that daring proposition: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”? This is not normal speech: it sounds breathtakingly arrogant and strange. More than that, this is a very ‘high’ form of speech; it is speech that is at war with itself; it is freighted with paradox – after all ‘bread’ and ‘forever’ don’t hold together; and neither do ‘bread’ and ‘flesh’; you might also note that this is highly metaphorical speech – though to say that does not explain the speech or it’s shock effect. It is speech that seems to reach to us from another dimension and that calls our grasp of reality into question. I am painting with words as I say all this: do you feel the strangeness in the words of this gospel? Do you feel the grate and stress in the words – the ‘cognitive dissonance’ as we try to make sense of what Christ is saying? “I am the living bread…”

And what do we say of the response of those other Jews in the synagogue who hear these words but are not followers of Jesus and respond, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

In this little drama we recognise something of ourselves. On the one hand we feel the dissonance, the strangeness, in Christ’s words; but, on the other hand, we also hear within ourselves the voices of those other non-followers in the synagogue: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

To hear “I am the living bread” is to be confronted by a statement that directly opens another world or dimension to us. While we may know the biblical background and the Eucharistic theology that can be attached to these words, the words themselves shock us with the inexplicable reality of the one who speaks them and the deep reality he opens to us. To follow him, to stand in the queue at the altar and receive the wafer, is to receive him and enter that deep reality and see the world in a different way.

Opposed to this deep reality is the little world of literal speech and surfaces and mere appearance. In John it is the Nicodemus world – you know the story in John 3 when Jesus explains to Nicodemus the need to see reality, to be born again, and Nicodemus asks how a man who is old can enter his mother’s womb - that's the Nicodemus world, where reality is reduced to literalism. It's the Nicodemus kind of thinking that we so often use, it's the kind of thinking those other Jews used in the synagogue when they asked “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

To read this gospel, to engage with the ‘living bread’, is to feel the boundaries of our world start to shift; to sense a massive cognitive shift pressing against the narrow frames we use to define reality and set our priorities. Our world changes and the Christ beckons.

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