We were sitting around the table after a great dinner of homemade fajitas, cheese dip and guacamole. I loved talking with my nine-year-old nephew. I loved how engaged he was in conversation, how quickly his mind responded to new ideas, how deep a thinker he was already, how articulate he was in asking questions. After a short lull in the conversation I asked, “so, if you could have a super power what would it be?” My superpower, what I’d really love, is to time travel. I’m not interested in changing the past, but I am interested in engaging the people there … in smelling the air of the Americas before they were called the Americas, of seeing the vastness of the stars before the light pollution that blocks our view at night, of living the everyday life before electricity. I didn’t say this then, but I’d also love to travel to the future … to meet my great great grandchildren, to see how humanity ultimately works peace in the world, to see how love survives when all else passes away.
The time travel conversation led us to the theories of multiverses and to mind-boggling possibilities. And then I stumbled into a statement about the stars. “Some of the stars are so far away from us it takes millions or billions of years for the light to travel to us; it’s like we’re looking back in time millions of years every time we look up at the night sky.”
My brother-in-law couldn’t hold back his agitation at this point, “We don’t believe that.” Huh? “WE don’t believe that.” Oops. My passion for possibility and teaching (and my belief in my own ability to “know better”) had overstepped.
My brother-in-law is my husband’s youngest brother, and probably the one most like him. He is intelligent, highly loyal, a hard worker, a great father, a budding actor in the community theater, and a computer professional. They were both raised Methodist in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania. I knew that he and his wife had been homeschooling the boys for educational and religious reasons for a few years now. I knew he had been re-baptized a few years ago in a Baptist church. I knew they were avid disciples of Christ and very active leaders in their church. I knew they were politically conservative. I even knew they were creationists. What I didn’t realize is that they were young earthers.
I DO love to challenge the faith of my relatives … and, actually, most anyone else. I know it can be annoying, but I find it refreshing and thought provoking … and, yes, I have to admit, pretty ego-boosting because I’m REALLY good at it. But I had no intentions of derailing a parent’s religious teaching of a nine year old, particularly not one I loved so dearly. We could have just let it go, I suppose, but neither of us could do that. We were both hooked … having to defend what we both “knew” to be true.
Our conversation shifted to evolution and creationism, to God’s role and intentionality in creation, to the scientific method and rules of probability, to scripture and cultural criticism, to ancient biblical languages and archeological finds of texts and variants, to … yes, I think we covered it all.
“It’s hard.” “Its just too difficult.” I heard my brother-in-law admit after a short lull in conversation. He’s the father of five, that’s hard enough. He doesn’t have the time, energy or desire to think about all these possibilities. I get it. While it’s definitely not “easy” sticking to a faith that is, in so many ways, counter-cultural, the certainty and the reliance on the truth of God’s word and that God’s will is straight-forward … well, it’s less risky, in a very dangerous world. A certain faith can be good for building a strong family — knowing what’s right and what’s wrong gives a strong foundation in quivering times.
I looked away and out into the space of our great room and skylights … and I saw an image … bumper bowling. You know what I mean, when they put bumpers in the gutters of the alley in order to make it easier to hit the pins. “I can’t help but think of your faith as bumper bowling,” I said. You bowl knowing you cannot miss, but you don’t get to challenge yourself to up your game. “Maybe,” my brother-in-law answered, “but I LIKE bumper bowling.”
Many among his disciples heard this and said, “This is tough teaching, too tough to swallow.” Jesus sensed that his disciples were having a hard time with this and said, “Does this throw you completely? What would happen if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where he came from? The Spirit can make life. Sheer muscle and willpower don’t make anything happen. Every word I’ve spoken to you is a Spirit-word, and so it is life-making. But some of you are resisting, refusing to have any part in this.” (John 6:60-64 MSG)
I thought of bumper bowling again a few weeks later as I was preparing a sermon on the lectionary text (John 6:56-69). After the feeding of the five thousand, walking on water, and teaching that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus told his disciples “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.”
John implies that some were stuck taking Jesus’ words literally and were having trouble with the cannibalistic metaphor. We shouldn’t make the same mistake and miss the larger metaphor. What’s the “tough teaching?” What are the disciples finding “too tough to swallow?” Perhaps it’s the notion that Jesus is calling his disciples to up their game and begin to remove the bumpers.
One of the main themes of Jesus ministry is that the law is made to give us guidance, but not to supersede the law of love. He argues that we don’t exist to observe the Sabbath, but the Sabbath exists to help us serve the Lord of Love. When Jesus is confronted with a question that confronts the obvious tensions between his teaching or behavior and the rules of righteousness or the rules of the religious establishment, he answers in parable or in spiritual metaphor. “You must be born again.” “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is more than acknowledging the spiritual realm separate from the earthly world. It’s an invitation to incorporate both the earthly and the spiritual into our lives. This coming together is not about rules, it’s about relationship. It’s not about knowing the answers; it’s about knowing Christ. It’s not about being able to explain God; it’s about being one with Christ.
Following the law of Moses is difficult. Following the way of Christ demands all of us, and it’s risky. It involves thinking, praying, studying, loving; it demands going to the places of discomfort, embracing the outcast and seeing the world from their perspective. It also means we could bowl a zero game. It means the rails are gone, the guards have been removed, and we are much freer to mess up. This is why Jesus reminds his disciples, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” (John 6:65 NRSV) or as Eugene Peterson translate in The Message, “This is why I told you earlier that no one is capable of coming to me on his own. You get to me only as a gift from the Father.”
In Christ there is a mutuality of relationship, a give and take, a constant evaluation and “reforming” of ourselves and our faith. In Christ love may look one way one day and another way the next, or one way with one person and another way with another. In Christ the rules may change, but the relationship is constant. Jesus is asking his disciples to consume him and his relationship with the Creator in such a way that he becomes an integral part of them; that we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us … that’s our authority … the law, the scriptures, the prophets are all secondary to that primary oneness with Christ. And that’s frighteningly difficult.
I sense a deep disappointment in Jesus as he accepts the disciples decision to leave him because what he says is “too tough to swallow.” I sense sadness, but not anger. I sense loss, but not condemnation. Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter answers for them, “Who else would we want to be with?” “Where else would we go?” They’ve already committed themselves fully to Jesus … there’s no going back.
I feel the same about bowling without the bumpers. I am a very bad bowler, but I know the sheer joy of bowling a spare or a strike without the padding. And as we “practice” our faith, as we keep our eyes on the goal … we align ourselves more and more with the way of Christ, the way of love … and our game gets better.
My nine-year old nephew never left the table during the lively adult conversation of faith and the origins of the universe. (another oops?) I said to him, “My hope is that you never stop asking questions, and that you ask lots of people. Listen to all their answers, but listen most to the words of your parents, your mom and your dad, because while all of us love you, they love you the most. And there’s one thing we all agree on. God is love.”