26th August 2018
“Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring something of a rabbit hole. As I’ve mentioned before I have a certain interest in hoaxes and conspiracy theories. For some reason on occasion I like to step into a worldview completely different to my own and see what it’s like to see the world in a different way. If nothing else, this gives me the opportunity to re-evaluate my own beliefs and to sharpen up some of my thinking about why I believe what I do.
So to cut to the chase. I’ve been listening to a flat earth podcast. Only a decade ago the number of true believers in the flat earth theory was estimated to be a few hundred worldwide. However, thanks to the internet, the numbers of flat earthers has been on the rise. The internet has given the idea of the earth being flat a new lease on life, with hundreds of websites, discussion boards, social groups and YouTube channels dedicated to proving that the earth is flat.
When I first starting listening to some of the flat earth arguments and ideas, I was interested, and found that some of the claims they were making were not that far-fetched. Their approach was to encourage the listener to enquire more deeply. And so I listened more and more and more and before I realised it I found that I was listening to conspiracy theories which denied climate change, denied the existence of the moon (let alone any humans ever landing on it), suggestions that the world is run by the illuminati and so and so forth. What began with some gentle questioning of scientific principles quickly spiralled into ideas too paranoid to be taken seriously. That said, I got a long way down the rabbit hole before deciding it was time to climb out again.
Since then, I have taken a certain amount of delight in telling people some of the ideas I picked up from the flat earthers. Sure enough, when I have teased people by telling them I now believe that the earth is flat I have provoked some fairly strong reactions from people. In fact I was tempted to kick off my sermon today by simply telling you that I had become convinced that the earth was flat. I deleted that opening because I became concerned that if any of you took me seriously it could prove catastrophic for our weekly attendance.
A deeper question that arises for me, is why people are drawn into conspiratorial thinking at all? The answers to that are many and varied, but there are some broad themes that help us get a handle on this phenomenon. Firstly, conspiracy theories often arise as a way to make sense of the chaos of life. When tragedies occur, it is natural to want to understand why something happened. Our need to create meaning from events can lead us to place blame where no blame belongs. It can be easier to think that a bombing was perpetrated by a government to further a political ideology than to accept that a lone individual simply made a serious of awful decisions. One of those explanations helps some people to feel less helpless, which makes the more convoluted explanation more attractive.
A problem that effects all of us is what is known as the confirmation bias. We typically like to believe that we objectively analyse the world and reach rational conclusions. In reality we often overlook a great amount of information and tend to focus on things that sit more comfortably with the ideas and attitudes we already possess. This is why, try as I might, I can’t actually get on-board with the idea that the world is flat. And this is also why people who really believe that the earth is flat, cannot accept established scientific consensus.
Over the last several Sundays we have heard Jesus speak about being the bread of life over and over again. The intention of this prolonged focus on the bread of life is to draw us more deeply into the experience of Eucharist that is such a central aspect of our weekly worship. There is a whole lot of orthodoxy to be explored regarding the presence of Christ in the elements of communion and how the Eucharist nourishes us for the work of transforming the world around us.
But the detail of from today’s reading I wish to pick up on is not the part when Jesus restates once again that he is bread of life, but rather the response of those who were listening to this particular discourse. There were those who upon listening to Jesus felt his teaching to be difficult and ultimately decided to follow Jesus no longer. An important detail is that these people are not described as the crowd, but as disciples. The word disciple suggests those who had followed Jesus for some time, people who were close to the inner circle. For some reason Jesus felt this particular part of his teaching was so important that he was prepared to push some of his followers past breaking point. Throughout the discourse it is clear that Jesus was becoming increasingly frustrated with those who were listening.
So what is really going on here? Jesus’s frustration with his followers really begins with his concern regarding their motivation for following him. The ministry of Jesus was based around three things. The first was his ministry of healing. The second was the ministry of sharing food. And the third was his teaching. We can see why people were attracted to the movement by the acts of healing and the ministry of sharing food. If you were part of the movement, you might be healed, you might be fed. But for Jesus these ministries were not an end to themselves, they carried deep messages about the love of God and the way God would have us transform the world for the better. The outward ministry was intended to guide people towards a deeper understanding of life, the world and our place in that world. The only way such things could be understood was to engage deeply with what Jesus said.
The entire discourse on Jesus as the bread of life could have another title. That title would be, you’ve seen the healing, you’ve eaten the meals, and you still don’t get what this is really all about? To make his point Jesus pushes beyond metaphorical action into metaphorical language. The bread is my flesh, the wine is my blood, my words are spirit and life. In a world where there was strict prohibitions regarding food and how it is to be consumed, Jesus jumping into cannibalistic ideas can be seen as a deliberate attempt to put a cat amongst the pigeons. What Jesus said, just didn’t fit within the worldview of some of his followers. Only a handful of disciples, who were open to changing their understanding of the world, remained.
What was controversial in that time, is what we could call orthodox today. When we say that Jesus is the bread of life, when we share in communion, we are not put off by literal thoughts of cannibalism. We understand that this is a metaphor, the Jesus, the bread of life, is the one who sustains us. That by listening to Christ’s teaching, by striving to interpret the Gospel in a way that responds to the needs of our world, we are opening ourselves to new ways of thinking, new ways of bringing God’s love into this world.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant