August 19, 2012
Remember a movie about a plane crash in the Andes called “Alive” or “Survive” or something? It first came out in the ’70s, but I think there was a remake recently. Anyway, it’s based on a true story of a few survivors of a plane crash who ate the flesh of the victims in order to stay alive. Remember that? Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read today’s text from John. That and vampire movies.
In today’s reading Jesus tells his critics, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” What Jesus really talking about in this text? Is he truly saying that in order to have eternal life we’re supposed to, well, have a Savior Sandwich for lunch? Umm … eew.
Now I know that, as Lutheran Christians, we do not read the Bible literally. We are well acquainted with Jesus’ use of metaphors, and can see them as graphic descriptions intended to illuminate a concept. I’m sure we’ve all heard various interpretations of this text —that eating of Jesus’ flesh really means recognizing Him as the only begotten Son of God and—or that consuming Christ happens for us in the reading of the Word. More obviously, eating and drinking Jesus’ body and blood is what we say is going on in the Lord’s Supper. We are absorbing into ourselves the gifts of God’s nature, and we are sharing in one another’s gifts and sorrows, weaknesses and dreams. In the Eucharist, our own flesh and blood is transformed so that we can be little Christs in the world.
But why does Jesus choose this particular metaphor? Certainly Jesus gets the same message across using other less gruesome metaphors, like the much prettier vine and the branches of John 15:4. So why this one? Why cannibalism?
Of course, I have no idea what Jesus was thinking, but here are two ideas about why he might have chosen this shocking metaphor. First of all, Jesus knew that by saying something this shocking, he could weed out the unbelievers. Hearing Jesus invite the crowd to “eat of my flesh” had to be very upsetting to those listening. This would be especially true as many in his audience were Jewish. Levitical laws prohibited Jews from eating the blood of an animal. I imagine their reaction, after a little gagging, was “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?”The idea of eating human flesh was against the laws of nature, and against the laws of God. Just two verses down from today’s reading, many disciples leave because of what Jesus said.
We were also reared to be horrified by the concept of drinking blood and eating flesh. But Jesus is reminding his followers, in a vivid way, that following him might mean going against things they’ve always been taught were right or wrong. In Jesus, God is INCARNATE. And this new form of God is opening a new door, a new way to be in relationship with God and with each other. And some of what’s asked of us may go against the social norm. Following Jesus Christ is not easy. It is not conventional. To live as the kingdom of God is to be asked repeatedly to do things that seem a little crazy, or at least a little uncomfortable.
Remember Jesus asking his followers to give up everything they had to follow him? Does that seem normal to those of us who have heard that a meaningful life comes from acquiring more, not giving up what little we have? Remember Jesus instructing his disciples to eat the wheat in the fields on the Sabbath day, even though everyone knew that was against the law? Jesus sometimes used shock to make his disciples consider and reflect on what they were really being asked to do and be.
Although we’ve been hearing Jesus’ lengthy metaphor about the Bread of Life from John’s Gospel for weeks now–and you’ve heard it through the voices of various preachers–it might help us to remember it’s all one long sermon. And additionally, it’s useful to keep in mind that all this talk about bread comes immediately after the apostles have seen Jesus perform amazing miracles, including feeding a crowd of about five thousand with some dinner rolls and two fish. That evening he had walked on water. Then he had asked a storm to cease and it did. All of those events would have been fresh in their minds, so perhaps the apostles are on a bit of a Savior high. Why shouldn’t they expect a man who could feed a multitude and calm a storm be able to make their journeys smooth and easy?
Jesus probably knew the disciples were starting to think they were in for the good life. He also knew He wouldn’t be around forever. Jesus knew those who called themselves by his name would have to carry on without Him and His endorphin-producing miracles. He needed to jolt them into realizing that following him and doing what He was asking them to do – going out to live His love—might seem easy, but wouldn’t be. Sometimes their ministry wouldn’t be well received. Sometimes it would be dangerous and difficult for them. Look at how it turned out for Jesus! Perhaps Jesus needed them to acknowledge that they might have to give up their lives delivering the message that all people are precious in the eyes of God. Maybe they needed to be jarred a little.
I did not personally see Jesus walk on water or feed the multitudes. I’ve learned mostly from the stories of others what kind of God it is I follow, but I also need to examine how these stories make sense in my own life, in our modern context. And in one of the stories that I’ve always heard, that has been pivotal to Christians forever, is the story of Jesus asking his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. So even though this is off-putting, I think we ought to examine the metaphor more closely for our own time, just as Jesus’ disciples did when he first said it.
On the surface, the request is that we take on Jesus’ own essence, the very stuff of which he is made. Why? Well, cannibalistic societies ate the bodies of those they conquered in order to gain the strength of their enemies. They thought by eating their enemies’ hearts they would gain their passion, and by eating their muscles, they would gain their strength, by eating their brains, they would gain their wisdom. Symbolically, I do like the idea of taking Jesus’ passion and strength and wisdom into my own body. Especially when I start to consider what it is Jesus is asking us to do–to stand up for the equality and worth of all people, regardless of race, gender, age, sexuality, religion, or tax bracket. And advocating for dignity and well-being of unpopular and suspect factions of society. To sacrifice our own self-interest by serving others.
Why does Jesus ask us to do these things? Because after Jesus ascended into heaven, what the world knows of Jesus is us, the church. WE are His body and blood, his hands and feet and voice on this earth. We are the Light of the World. We are the Gospel-bringers and the Hope-bearers. We are God’s ambassadors, representing God’s gracious acceptance to all we meet.
God knows that there are people out there who will not like what we have to say. People who will treat us badly for trying to tell the truth in love, or trying to change a system that works for people with power at the expense of people with no power. But still the Gospel of God’s love needs to be proclaimed, for the sake of the world and for our own sakes. We have been baptized into the family of a God who spent more time with the sick and disenfranchised than he did with kings. We are called now to step up and be agents of change just like Jesus was. Jesus, who was willing to do the most uncomfortable thing imaginable: give up His own life for people who didn’t even know they needed Him.
And for work like that, we need sustenance. So whether or not we understand the metaphor of eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, whether or not it makes us uncomfortable, whether it bothers us to take on not only Christ’s character, but also the issues and blessings of the people around us—no matter how much it offends our sensibilities and our intellect, let us stay with Jesus. In spite of how scary or crazy it seems, let us be nourished for the tasks ahead by drawing near to God and to one another, and feast at the table where he is host and guest, meal and message. And as we leave here today, let us boldly carry away from this holy communion a burning compassion for all that God loves. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider