August 16, 2015
Jesus says, “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.” Hearing Jesus inviting the crowd to “eat of my flesh” is a little creepy, isn’t it? It’s especially disturbing to note that the verb here translated as eat is really closer to “gnaw” or “chomp on.” It makes me think of animals or even cannibals. It had to be very upsetting to the original listeners too, especially since many in Jesus audience were good Jews. Levitical laws prohibited Jews from eating the blood of an animal. Imagine their reaction, then, to the idea of eating human flesh! And sure enough, just two verses down from today’s reading, many followers will leave because of what Jesus says here.
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, to reflect on what they’ve always been taught were right or wrong. Following Jesus 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 assume that a meaningful life comes from acquiring more, not giving up what little we have? Remember Jesus and his disciples picking wheat in the fields on the Sabbath day, even though everyone knew that was against the law? Or that time when he said it didn’t matter whether people followed the rituals of hand washing or not? Jesus touched people with leprosy and hung out with a shady crowd. Sometimes shocking metaphors help us to consider and reflect on what laws are really important in our relationships with God and with creation.
But maybe this is about more than just startling his audience into assessing their choices. We are taught in the church that in sharing Holy Communion, we are joined to the essence of God: that God takes on our burdens and we take on some of God’s goodness and grace. And we understand that we are taking on one another’s hurts and joys too, because in the moment of consuming the bread and wine, we say we are discerning the Body of Christ, which is us, the church. Maybe what Jesus is talking about here is deeper than a shocking metaphor. Maybe it’s an invitation to be in communion.
That’s why it’s worth noticing here a stark distinction between John’s Gospel and the other three Gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is a scene at the Last Supper before Jesus is arrested and executed in which he breaks the bread and tells his disciples to eat it and to drink wine in remembrance of him. From that event, the church has established the practice of Holy Communion. But John’s Gospel does not have any of that story. In John’s Gospel, what Jesus does at the Last Supper is wash his disciples feet, and tell them to do that for one another in remembrance of him.
With that said, it seems to me that THIS moment in John chapter 6, when Jesus tells his disciples to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, is when he institutes the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel. It is not a private meal on a fearful night before Jesus is arrested and executed. It takes place in broad daylight, in a huge crowd, fairly early on in Jesus’ ministry. This not the night before his death. This is not the last supper. This is a feast in the midst of life—his life and his follower’s lives. It is a feast OF life, and Jesus is begging people to partake of it.
Remember how John’s Gospel begins? It starts with the idea that in Jesus the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. In Jesus, God is INCARNATE. And that is the right word to use in this text. If you speak any Spanish, you might recall that the word for meat or flesh is carne. Here Jesus is telling the world that he is God in the flesh, God with skin on! Taste and see! God is not in some far off heaven, waiting to sweep us away there when we die: no, God is here, among us, making our lives matter, asking us to think about what sustains us, and inviting us to share his everlasting life. Now. Today.
And with that in mind, I can’t help noticing that Jesus, who has been saying all along that he is the Bread of Life now says he is Living Bread. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that, but I can’t help thinking that this is a solid reminder that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us. He is not just our savior when he is hanging on a cross, nor even when he rises again. Jesus’ death is not what saves us. It is his life that saves us, his flesh and blood. Jesus has been the Savior all along!
This opens a new door on what it means to worship, a new way to be in relationship with God and with each other. Now we can rest in the fact that we are already saved, and that frees us up to live and love in the same radical way Jesus did! The Word is with us, full of grace and truth, and we have been invited to celebrate that with a feast that knows no ending!
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider