This morning we come to the end of the Bread of Life discourses that began three weeks ago with the feeding of the five thousand. Up until now, Jesus’ words have been reasonable as we are easily able to understand his use of symbolic language. This morning’s Gospel reading, however, is much harder to take as Jesus directly tells his followers that in order to find eternal life they must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Needless to say, our response to this passage is no different than those who heard these words directly from Jesus. In fact, the writer makes it clear, even those present questioned the validity of what Jesus was saying. 2000 years ago cannibalism was as taboo as it is today. For the ancient Jew Jesus’ words were even more repugnant as Torah forbids the ingesting the blood of any animal, let alone human blood.So how do we approach this most literal passage? Even as metaphor it remains difficult at best to understand.
Let’s begin by taking a step back away from this specific section of John’s gospel. Instead, let’s explore this passage within the context of the whole of John’s work.
We have to remember the four Gospels are as much testimonies of faith as they are biographies. Also, the Gospel of St. John is different from the other three Gospels. St. John’s emphasis is on the divinity of Christ over his humanity. This is because St. John was part of an early Christian sect known as the Gnostics. Gnosticism basically viewed earthly physicality as evil and during the years of their existence they chose to deemphasize the physicality of Jesus as the physical incarnation of God in an effort to highlight Christ’s divine nature.
St. John exerts this bias right at the start of his Gospel as he quickly establishes the divinity of Jesus with the following words;
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
What John does is associate Jesus with the Word of God. The Word of God is the creative element of the Almighty. In the Book of Genesis, all of creation comes into being through the spoken word of God.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
It is the Word of God which has created all things and is in all things and according to St. John, becomes incarnate, flesh and blood in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. And, through the words of Jesus, St. John, in a very graphic way calls his readers to dine, not on the physical flesh and blood of the incarnation, but on what is truly the flesh and blood of Jesus. . . the Word of God.
Through this discourse, the writer conveys both a foreshadowing of the crucifixion and a declaration by Christ as the extent to which God is willing to go to restore humanity to God’s original intent.
Which is of course, by giving us all of Godself as God willingly gives not just Christ’s body, but God’s very core to us as well.
In return, we are called to give our whole selves to God by literally ingesting the Word of God. In the collect for the next to last week of Pentecost, we give thanks for the gift of Holy Scripture, the Word of God, as we are instructed to read, mark and inwardly digest them. This prayer plays on Jewish tradition. When a child begins his or her study of Hebrew, Hebrew letters are traced in honey for the child to eat, because the Psalmist writes, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” St. Paul, during his sermon on Mars Hill in the seventh chapter of Acts states, “For in God we live and move and have our being.” And, according to the words of a modern church song, we declare Jesus to be, “ our all in all.”
What does it mean to make Jesus “our all in all, “ “the one in whom we live and move and have our being?” St. Paul instructs the Ephesians on the basics of Christian living. He gives them, and us today sage advice which includes not to letting the sun set on our anger, as well as direct instruction as to what good Christian behavior looks like. But I am not convinced ingesting the Word of God is about following a specific set of edicts. While, yes, this is part of it, and yet, in order to eat the flesh of God, we need to go deeper than this.
It is interesting, when Jesus teaches; his instruction tends to be general and thought provoking. Rarely does Jesus give direct and easy answers. Instead, he throws out pearls of wisdom that require one to sit back and mull over his thoughts for awhile. . . to literally ruminate or chew on his words. To those who wanted to be first among many he tells us “the first shall be last and the last will be first.” ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And when asked directly what he felt the most important commandment is, again Jesus does not go for the direct and easy answer, instead, he responds with, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
For me, what keeps my Christian journey exciting is the fact that neither Jesus nor the Bible provide easy answers. Instead, they provide wise counsel and offer a context within which to ponder and to unlock the wisdom of the ages as we seek guidance for the questions that weigh on us today.
It is when we choose to study and ponder scripture that we are in fact literally eating the body and blood of Christ. This is why the Church encourages all of us to read, mark and inwardly digest Holy Scripture, why we are encouraged to participate in the worship of the community where scripture is read and expounded upon on a regular basis. And this is why we are encouraged to meditate on scripture. Because, it is when we do these things that we dine on Christ’s body, and the hungers of life are satiated. Amen