Sunday August 19, 2018
Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Scripture: John 6:51-59
CC BY-SA 4.0
In our Story for All Ages earlier in the service, we talked about what it means to say "You are what you eat." What is the difference between eating apples and eating jellybeans? What is the difference between drinking water or drinking Pepsi? What might it mean if we could eat and drink Jesus?
True story: a couple of years back when I was at the Atlantic School of Theology, I took a semester-long course on the Gospel of John. Our homework on the first week was to read through the full gospel of John and choose a passage of 10 verses, give or take, that we were going to “adopt” and work with for the rest of the semester. We could pick any 10 verses. Now, since I am an auditory learner, I learn better by listening than by reading; and so I decided that instead of reading the Gospel of John, I was going to listen to the Gospel of John on the Bible app that I have on my phone. So that week I had a long car drive, and at the beginning of the drive I plugged my phone in to my car sound system and began at Chapter 1.
When I got to Chapter 6, I listened to the story about feeding the 5000 people that we read three weeks ago; I listened to Jesus talking about how he is the Bread of Life like we’ve been reading for the past two Sundays. And then I came to this week’s reading and I had an almost visceral, gut reaction. Instead of the nice, metaphorical Bread of Life, we have Jesus saying four times in a row: “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood.”
This passage that we read today jumped out at me. What – is Jesus promoting cannibalism? How is this any different than the brain-eating zombie movies; and blood-drinking vampire books that are so popular these days. And so this passage that we read today is the one that I chose to explore for the rest of the semester.
The most obvious interpretation that comes to mind is that this passage is teaching about the meal that we call today Holy Communion or the Eucharist. The sacrament where we offer each other the bread and remember that Jesus said, “This is my body, given for you. Each time you do this, remember me.” The sacrament where we share a cup of grape juice or wine and remember that Jesus said, “This is the cup of the new promise in my blood. Each time you do this, remember me.”
Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” – (you are what you eat) – “so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Remember back to how Chapter 6 of John’s gospel begins – Jesus is facing a crowd of 5000 hungry people and a bunch of confused disciples, “then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (John 6:11). Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is no story of the Last Supper in John’s gospel; but many people believe that this miracle of feeding 5000 people is John’s equivalent. The wording is so similar – “Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying…” vs. “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated.”
And if this miracle is meant to echo the meal of Holy Communion, then everything that follows in this chapter can be understood to be teaching about the meal of Holy Communion.
But if that’s the case, why does Jesus need to use such graphic language, and believe me, it’s even more graphic in the original Greek – our English translations have toned it down a bit! In the original, the verb that is translated as “eat” doesn’t mean eat as in consume, but refers to the physical act of eating. It might be better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.” “Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
When we celebrate Holy Communion, we don’t just distribute spiritual bread and spiritual wine. We don’t say, “Imagine that you are eating bread and remember Jesus.” No. We use real, physical bread. We actually chew or gnaw on the bread that we have been given. Communion is a physical meal. As I said last week, God thinks that our physical selves are so important that God became a physical being, “the Word became flesh,” in the person of Jesus Christ. Matter matters. The physicality of our Communion meal matters.
The idea that a god would become human – not just appear to be human or pretend to be human, but actually BECOME a human is a sacrilege to many if not most religions; and then add to that the overtones of cannibalism that one of our central sacraments includes, and it is indeed a scandalous message that Christianity proclaims. I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, the very graphic language here in John’s gospel might reflect the early church’s attempt to define themselves against the world around them. Maybe along the lines of, “the rest of the world considers us to be cannibals, so let’s embrace this language and use it to define ourselves.”
But I also think that there is more to this language than just the shock value or how we identify ourselves as a community. If we turn back to the question I asked at the beginning – how is this reading or our celebration different than flesh-eating zombies or blood-drinking vampires? – I think that the answer is in the effect. The end result of vampires and zombies is death. The end result of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus is life.
Really, what we talked about in our Story for All Ages is the core of the message. We are what we eat. If we were to eat only junk food (like in that documentary that came out several years ago, Supersize Me), our bodies will eventually become junk due to the lack of nutrients. If we eat Jesus, we become Jesus. We are being transformed by our faith. We are being turned into the Body of Christ – the very flesh of Christ.
Our faith isn’t just something that we can haul out on a Sunday morning then pack back up again at lunchtime. What we do together is transformative. We are being shaped by our worship of Word and Sacrament for everything else that we do during the week. We are changed people. The thing about eternal life is that it isn’t just for after we die. The changed life, the abundant life begins in the here and now.
There is an ancient communion practice that goes back to shortly after the Gospel of John was written. After the bread is broken, the following words are said: “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” You are what you eat. We become what we eat. There is more to the bread than what we can see. Eternity is present in the here and now. Thanks be to God for the Bread of Life!