Cancel culture, a phrase now popular enough to make its way into the dictionary, is defined as the practice of withdrawing support (or cancelling) public figures after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. In terms of ways to disagree, cancel culture looks more like mob-think or herd mentality than it does a conversation. But like cheering for your home team in any sport, it’s easier to be lenient on the rules when the person or idea getting cancelled is someone on the opposing team.
The Bible helps us find our bearings within our cultural moment not because it tells its readers what to think or do in pithy proverbs, but instead, in its unrivaled ability to take us behind the curtain of what’s happening around us to reframe the lens with which we interpret our circumstances. In the gospel of John, we’re given a picture of this when a pre-internet crowd attempts to cancel good news for good.
The chapter begins with Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000 people on a mountainside. Admittedly, it’s far too easy to relegate this story to the department of “one of those miracle things Jesus did once.” But in John’s gospel, far from being left in the dark, the reader is given direct access to Jesus’ playbook. We’re told why he miraculously fed this enormous crowd, and perhaps even more significantly, why repeating the miracle — or, at the very least, scaling his method to feed more mouths — doesn’t seem to be his highest priority.
Let’s Make Him King
Following the feeding, the crowd seeks to seat Jesus into a position of power based on his obvious ability to meet the immediate, physical needs of the people:
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
In order to understand why Jesus would withdraw at what appears to be a pivotal moment, we have to zoom out a bit within the story. A crowd receiving bread from heaven is a familiar theme in the Old Testament (see here, here, and here). Each instance further reveals a growing sense of what it means to be human, namely, we’re built for much more than just having our physical appetites satisfied. More than this, these accounts expose a hidden but very present, underlying problem within the human heart. Psalm 78 equips us with the theological categories of how sin and unbelief work against us: despite being led by a pillar of fire at night, watching the sea stand up like a wall, and eating the bread of angels, the people of Israel still can’t see past their own belly buttons. The love of self far outweighs love for God and neighbor. Not even seeing miracles can fix it.
Tuning back to the story at hand, we see the crowd seeking to make Jesus king on their terms — based on what they perceive to be the biggest threat to their wellbeing. But these needs, though important, have an expiration date and have proven to not be the biggest problem in light of biblical history. Jesus is withdrawing from the crowd because he’s seen this film before, and he didn’t like the ending.
From King to Cancelled
When the crowd finds Jesus, they’re told to not work for food that spoils, but to instead simply receive bread which is given and that endures to eternal life. This creates confusion within the crowd who begins to converse about how to be on the right side of history. “What must we do to do the works God requires?” they ask. It’s a confusing response to being told they would be given this bread. The natural born legalist in all of us approaches the Bible in the same fashion. We hear of God acting in a way that brings about that which we can’t do, and our immediate response is… “tell me what to do.”
This bread isn’t like that though. It isn’t something we can achieve or earn. There isn’t a ladder tall enough to reach the heights of where its stored. Instead, its bread that comes downfrom above. Despite their unwillingness to listen, Jesus patiently unpacks what he means, explaining how “the work of God is to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).
The crowd moves from interest and inquiry into a place of resistance due to an inability to fit what Jesus is saying into their narrative. In response to their resistance, Jesus continues to move toward them, laying more of his interpretive cards on the table:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
John 6:47-51, 53
At this saying, the line is crossed and the crowd’s offense moves from grumbling into sharp disagreement until many turn back and no longer follow him. Their actions speak for themselves: “why can’t you just meet our ‘real’ needs, Jesus? Why are you over-spiritualizing this and making it about your body and blood? If you’re not going to take care of our problems, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Before we throw stones at the crowd for missing it, it’s helpful to consider how recently and how often we stand in their shoes. Many of us have worn this posture more often than we likely admit, questioning God in the midst of our pandemics: “Don’t you see the real problems we’re facing? If you’re able to do more, why won’t you?” Maybe some of us have turned back and no longer followed.
Cancelled for Our Cancelling
In response to the grumbling and our complaining, Jesus asks his listeners:
Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you — they are full of Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.”
We take offense because we trust ourselves at the helm. We think we’re ok on our own. But Jesus didn’t enter time and space to bring a workout program for us to fix the world. He is here to make straight lines out of broken sticks — to undo the cosmic effects of sin on everything that exists.
The wages of sin is death writes the apostle Paul. This “wage” functions less like a paycheck and more like the principle of water making things wet on contact. The world we know and the bodies we occupy have all been marred by sin and are therefore drenched with death. This death is on display when we seek to cancel what we disagree with, don’t like, or find offensive. We want to bring it to an end. Jesus comes to offer true life to our existence which has only known and been acquainted with lifelessness.
The crowd cancels Jesus by walking away from him to never follow him again. In a few short days the religious rulers will ultimately cancel Jesus by nailing his hands and feet to a wooden cross until he suffocates to death. He allows this to happen in order to drain the flood of death in which we’ve always been swimming through his broken body and shed blood. Here is true life. According to Jesus, the cross is where we are taught by God, hearing him clearly (John 6:45).
Instead of eternally cancelling us for sin, God cancels himself in our place, so that we could taste life that lasts in the here and now and in the world to come. As his church, we break bread and drink wine together to remember, worship, and be amazed by Jesus, who put on our death in order to overcome it. This is the “work” that is best understood as belief. Take and eat the good news that can’t be cancelled.