Proper 15, Year B
If you had a friend who went to a retreat, a revival, maybe even a house of worship and came back telling you that the speaker had said:
“I am the living bread come down from heaven.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life”
“my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
“…whoever eats me will live because of me.”
“Whoever eats this bread will live forever…”
If your friend heard someone say all that, would you let them go back to that retreat, that revival, that house of worship? Would you go with them? Would you stay for coffee hour? No! Because gross, right? And yet it was Jesus himself who said:
“Very truly, I tell you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”
Friends, I’ve been taking communion for the better part of my life. I’ve broken the bread and said, “This is my body.” I’ve poured out the cup and said, “This is my blood.” But hearing Jesus talk like this in John chapter 6, hearing him hammer home over and over again the idea that we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a bit much, even for me.
Jesus sounds like a cross between a cult leader and Nosferatu. He sounds like a voiceover for a hybrid reality show on Netflix you might like because you watched the Great British Bake off and American Horror Story. You know? Something like: “Nailed It, with Jesus Christ.”
Beware his red velvet cupcakes.
I hear Jesus’ words about flesh and blood and I feel the same dislocation as Nicodemus who wondered how he could crawl back into his mother’s womb to be “born again.”
I feel the same confusion as the woman at the well who wanted Jesus to give her his “living water” so she’d never be thirsty again.
And I feel the frustration of the crowds around him now, people who have been following Jesus since yesterday when he miraculously fed 5000 people – following him not so much because he was a great preacher but because they’re hungry and they want to eat again.
Jesus has just declared before them all that those who come to him will never go hungry, those who believe in him will never thirst! And it’s all a bit much. I mean, I know he’s not being literal – because that’s impossible – but he’s certainly being visceral. I think he wants our attention, and with all this talk of flesh and blood, he certainly has it.
The question is whether he can hold it long enough for us to figure out what he’s really trying to say. And I’ll be honest, this passage is hard to understand. It’s going to require some actual theology and Biblical study. But hey, I’m game if you are. You want to follow me down this rabbit hole? Alright then, fasten your seat belts, lean back and let’s take a look at the big picture.
As I said, just yesterday on a hillside near Tiberias, Jesus had fed 5000 people with nothing more than five loaves of bread and two small fish. It is a sign that recalls another miraculous feeding in the Bible. Can anyone tell me which one?
The Israelites eating Manna in the wilderness. Bingo, somebody get that person a prize.
The feeding of the 5000 recalls the Israelites eating manna in the wilderness.
And that’s important, because you see the interesting thing about miracles in the Bible is that they are rarely just about the literal miracles themselves. They are almost always about something more. In the case of the manna, it says in Deuteronomy 8:3, “Remember…how the Lord…humbled you, causing you to hunger, and then fed you with manna…”
(Why did God do that? God did that)
“to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but by” – what?- “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
“Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
God feeding manna to the Israelites in the wilderness was not just a way to keep them alive, but what we might call nowadays a teachable moment.
Out there in the wilderness the Israelites learned to trust
that God was with them and for them, that God would feed and sustain them, that they belonged to God and God belonged to them.
They learned that apart from God they would die, but that if they listened to God and followed God; that is: if they were true to the word of God, obedient to the commands of God, in line with the wisdom of God – then they could make it through.
“Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
The Word of God is as necessary for our survival as bread. So far so good.
Now think back to the beginning of the gospel of John. You all know it, even if you don’t know you know it, because you all go to church on Christmas Eve.
“In the beginning was the” ? – the “Word!,” yes – and the Word was with God and the Word was God….the Word became” – what?- “flesh and dwelt among us.” Or as it says in The Message translation, “The Word became flesh, flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
Who is this Word?
According to John, the life giving Word we need even more than bread if we are to survive, is no longer limited to the pages of scripture, the warnings of prophets, or the wisdom of priests.
The life giving Word has become flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. The life giving Word has come to us. God has poured the fullness of God’s love and wisdom into the person of Jesus, because God knows bread is not enough. We need something more to survive and thrive in this world.
So Jesus, the word made flesh, offers himself for us: his life, his teachings, his actions and example, his heart, his mind, his body and his soul.
The phrase, “flesh and blood,” according to David Lose, was a Hebrew idiom for the whole person. When Jesus offers us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink
what he is really offering us is every last bit of himself.
And yes, the words are shocking. Honestly, it just sounds gross, doesn’t it? But if you take a baby step back, you have to admit the idea of equating eating with learning is still something we do.
To this day we “take in” new information, right? We “ruminate” on ideas. We “stew” or “chew” on problems. Learning something new can be “a piece of cake” or an “acquired taste.” Some stories are best taken with, “a pinch of salt.”
When our Anglican siblings read scripture they pray for the grace to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” I’ve always loved that. But maybe you don’t. Maybe, by this point in the sermon, you’re thinking that the gospel of John really “isn’t your cup of tea.” Maybe you’re thinking that between Jesus and John they really should have come up with a more palatable way to phrase all this. (I could do this all day).
But I won’t because there is still one more twist to this strange passage and I want to point it out to you before I close… a little food for thought, if you will. (OK seriously, I’ll stop now).
I think it we’re honest, one of the reasons these words about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood make us so uncomfortable is that they sound like they are all about death, right? After all, you can’t eat the flesh of something or drink it’s blood if it’s still alive.
Jesus’ words today also recall the words of institution we repeat when we remember his last supper with the disciples, and I know those words can sometimes make us uncomfortable too.
You may have noticed that a lot of pastors, myself included, come up with all sorts of euphemisms when we offer people the body and blood of Jesus. We much prefer to say things like the bread of life or the cup of salvation.
The idea that something must die in order for something else to live may be the most natural idea in the world, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it or that we want to dwell on it.
And yet, here’s the interesting thing: in the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t say these words at the end of his life, right before his arrest and death on the cross. In the gospel of John, Jesus uses that time during the last supper to get down on his knees and wash his disciple’s feet.
No, these words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood come right smack dab in the middle of his ministry while he is still very much alive.
Jesus hasn’t just come to die that we might have new life and have it abundantly, Jesus has come to live, that we might see, mark, and inwardly digest what an abundant life really looks like.
“How ya like me now?” says Jesus. Yeah! He’s getting up in our face. He’s challenging us. The Word has not come all this way to play nice with our delicate sensibilities. Jesus comes, offering us all of himself, that we might receive him in his entirety, take him in, and know what it is to live in God and for God and with God – not someday when we die – but right here, right now.
In the words of Will Willimon:
We will not be able to comprehend (this Jesus) by sitting back, comfortable in the pew, and cooly considering him as if he were an abstract, disembodied idea.
Incarnation means that we must get up, come forward, hold out empty hands, sip wine, chew bread… His truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume him, to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being… He wants all of us, and he wants us to have all of him.
His life – his whole life – lived for ours. Our whole life lived for him.
It’s a rather terrifying invitation.
If a friend of mine went on a retreat or to a revival or even to a house of worship and told me that there’s a man out there who wants me to eat his flesh and drink his blood that I might know what it is to truly live, I’d probably tell her to steer clear.
But there is no friend.
There’s only you and me and this Jesus.
I hope you’ll stay for coffee hour.