“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” John 6:51 NRSV
“If any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever” John 6:51 KJV
We are losing something in translation! Our version of the Bible quotes Jesus as saying, ‘them’ and ‘those’ as he talks to the crowd. Jesus doesn’t say ‘them’, he uses the word ‘auton’, it means ‘him’, not ‘them’. In the desire to use inclusive language, the translators have lost Jesus’ emphasis on the need for an individual response. It is not ‘them’ it is ‘him’ to whom Jesus speaks; to individual hearts, to individual lives, for it is only individuals who can decide in their hearts that they will believe.
‘ ἐάν τις, ‘if any’eat of this bread’, says Jesus. ‘If any’, it is a matter of choice, it is a matter of personal decision.
‘If any’ tells us much about God; it tells us much about the Church; and it tells us much about ourselves.
‘If any’, you, me, the man in the street, the lady on the bus, the most unlikely, the most ungodly, God will relate to any of us directly. When we think about God it maybe as a powerful, terrifying figure, but he is also a God who is immanent, a God present, a God there, at all times in all places. ‘If any’ is a statement that this is an accessible God, that this is an approachable God. ‘If any’ is a statement that God does not discriminate: if any respond to God, God will respond to him or her. The story of Jesus is the story of God being present to anyone who chose to listen to him, ‘if any’ believe, that person has God alongside.
‘If any’ tells us about a God who is near and who is prepared to be a close friend, it tells us about what the church should be like and what it shouldn’t be like. The first Christians had trouble with this idea of ‘if any’, they were Jews and they expected anyone who wished to join them to become Jews. ‘If any’ was not an idea that fitted in with their Law, they were the chosen people and as far as they were concerned membership of God’s people was not open to ‘any’. Paul has to write to the early churches a number of times to make the point that they couldn’t carry on with their old attitudes
What we see when we look at church history is that as the centuries passed the church slipped back into the old ways of thinking, the church liked to have power, it liked to have influence; bishops were like princes. They weren’t going to accept that if any received Jesus into their lives those persons would have a place in heaven. Far from it! To have a hope of a place in heaven you had to be subject to the rule of the church, you had to receive the sacrament as the church had shaped it; you had to accept everything the hierarchy said. If you refused, it wasn’t just a religious matter, it was against the law of the land and you could end up being burned at the stake for heresy. So much for Jesus’ words to the crowd.
The church’s official teaching was that outside of the church there was no salvation. In times when people lived in daily fear of death, the idea that you would face eternal damnation if you were not on good terms with the church was a very powerful threat. It made the Church very influential and very, very rich.
What happened in the 16th Century was that some people started reading the Bible and saying, ‘hold on, Jesus didn’t say all these things’. ‘If any’, says Jesus, he looked for faith. Jesus didn’t say that you had to do and that you had to believe all these extra things.
At the heart of the Reformation there was this one simple point, is being a Christian open to any? Or is being a Christian a matter of accepting all the rules and regulations of the Church and accepting the authority of Church teaching in every part of your life? Jesus says if any eat of this bread, he will live forever.
‘If any,’ tells us about God. ‘If any’ tells us about the church. ‘If any’ tells us about ourselves. Being a Christian is not about belonging to the church; it is about our own personal faith in this God who takes on our flesh and walks among us and dies and rises again. ‘If any’ does not refer to the church, ‘if any’ refers to individual people. ‘If any’ tells us that we are responsible for our own decisions.
Personal faith, personal decision, ‘if any’ implies making personal choices. In a society where, until twenty years ago, the church had been used to handing down its verdict on anything and everything and having people accept that verdict, ‘if any’ is a troubling idea.
Much of our society has had to grow up very quickly. For so long church teaching was accepted without question. Morality was whatever the church said was moral. Authority was not challenged. Now it’s all changed, the church is just one voice among many and people must make choices.
Being a Christian for most people has meant being a church member, often in a way similar to belonging to any other organisation. This is not what Jesus expected. Jesus looked for people who took their own decisions, who responded to him and who lived their life in the light of their faith in him.
‘If any’ is a statement by Jesus that he recognises our dignity as individual people. ‘If any’ is a sign that he respects our right to make our own decisions. ‘If any’ is an indication that we are going to be called to account for our own lives.
‘If any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever’. What we each have to ask of ourselves is, ‘am I one of one of the ’any’?