August 16, 2015
One afternoon, more than 30 years ago, I picked up my son from his day care center. It was a good preschool, and we all really liked my son’s teacher, Miss R. As I pulled up to the entrance, I saw my son visiting with his teacher, and it was obvious they were both enjoying the conversation. I signed him out, thanked Miss R., and we headed to the car.
As I buckled him into his seat, I asked, “What were you talking about?”
“Oh, I was just chewing the fat on Miss R.,” he said.
Apparently, he had just learned a new idiom. Almost. It would take a few more repetitions before he could use “chewing the fat” appropriately, and apply it to his everyday life with confidence. In today’s reading, John gives us the chance to learn a gospel truth by repeating something we’ve already heard, so we can apply it to our everyday lives with confidence.
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51-58)
Here we are in week four of this sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and it’s a hard slog, isn’t it? Wading through John’s repetitions, I see my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Kidd, waving her red pencil and shaking her head, saying, “Redundant, redundant, redundant!”
Just how much more do we really need to hear this? How many more times must Jesus say, “I am the true bread from heaven” and “feed on me”? Apparently, John thinks we need to hear it again, and again. Only this time, the message is getting more intense, more graphic, and more alarming. In fact, Jesus is getting downright disgusting.
Our reaction might be very much like that of the little girl who suddenly found herself paying close attention to the Communion liturgy one Sunday. As the pastor recited the words of institution, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you; take and drink, this is my blood, poured out for your sins,” the little girl interrupted the somber moment with a very loud, “Ew, yuck!”
And then there’s the more personal question about this reading: “So what? What does all this repetition about bread and flesh and blood have to do with my life in the here and now? How do these words, full of symbolic meaning 2000 years ago, matter in my present situation?
The Judeans who are listening to Jesus are becoming more agitated, too. Last week, we heard them grumbling among themselves. This week, the grumbling has turned into an argument. Not only has Jesus claimed to be sent from God, now he insists that anyone who believes he is God’s Son must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Judeans are repulsed by this idea. Beyond the images of cannibalism, consuming blood of any animal violates Jewish dietary laws. What Jesus is telling his listeners to do is not only disgusting, it’s illegal, immoral, and unethical. It’s just plain wrong.
And it gets worse.
English translations don’t always make it clear, but Jesus starts using more grotesque language partway through his answer to the arguing Judeans. “In verses 49-51, Jesus had spoken about “eating” the bread from heaven, using a very common word (esthio). In verse 53, however, Jesus switches to a less common word, trogo, a … word that has a connotation closer to “munch” or “gnaw.” It is a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does. The [noisiness] of the eating, however, is not the important point; this is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It is eating as though life depends on it, because it does.” (Brian Peterson)
This is where Jesus gets to the heart of his message. Unless we take him into ourselves urgently, desperately, gobbling him up and gulping his life blood, we are dead. “Unless you do this,” he says, “you have no life in you.” It really is a life or death matter to claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In Hebrew tradition, it is the blood that carries the life force of any living being. Unless we take Christ’s life force into ourselves, we die.
John’s gospel doesn’t give us The Lord’s Supper. There is a final meal with his disciples, but it isn’t a Passover meal, and Jesus does not speak the words in John’s gospel that we hear in the other gospel stories. He does not say, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Take this cup and drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood poured out for the remission of sins. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you remember my death until I come again.”
Instead, John gives us these words about Christ’s flesh and blood in the context of chapter six, long before the Passion story. This is a passage that begins and ends with life-giving bread. In John’s gospel, the words we say at Communion are less about remembering Christ’s death, and more about taking his life into ourselves.
“Jesus says he is the living bread — catch that? The key word here is living, not dying. … this same [word] will be used to describe the Father later in this passage, “just as the living Father sent me” (6:57). What difference does this make? Jesus as the bread of life is connected to the living Jesus, not the dying Jesus. Rather than offering himself on the night he was betrayed, he offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his ministry.” (Karoline Lewis)
It’s all about life, and according to John, eternal life means abundant life (10:10). Throughout this passage, Jesus’ concern is less about getting us to understand and more about getting us to eat. Jesus isn’t making explanation so much as he is making a promise. (Craig Satterlee)
This life isn’t something you can postpone until the future. It’s your promise in the present. This life is the promise of unity with God, abiding in God as God abides in you. This isn’t a memory of what Jesus did in the past, or a dream of what he will do at the end of time, but life lived fully in this moment, receiving “grace upon grace” (1:16).
This is what it means to eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the here and now. As we consume him, taking his life force into ourselves, this is what Christ promises us: full life in the present, and to be raised on the last day (v 54), to abide in Jesus and have Jesus abide in us (v 56), to live because of Jesus (v 57) and to live forever (v 58).
Next week, we will conclude this march through John 6 with Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really is. All the conversation since Jesus fed the 5000 four weeks ago has been about bread – explaining, defining, and naming it. But Jesus hasn’t really been talking about bread at all. He’s been talking about his own identity.
Ginger Barfield writes: The point missed in the feeding sign was who Jesus was. The sign was to point to Jesus. Instead they got full of food and went back to how things were before. They went back to the literal level and missed the depth and riches that were right in front of them. …
But another miracle was in that first text. Embedded there was the short story of the disciples’ simple recognition of Jesus in the dark once they heard his voice. That voice was enough to take away their fears. No grand miracle. Just a simple recognition of who Jesus was. …
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Son of God, sent from above, to feed the world for all time. Jesus is he who sustains the world in a way that makes living possible. Jesus is the one who speaks and we know he is here.”
As we chew on this awareness of who Jesus really is, we must also hear the demand he makes on all who believe. There can be no half measures, no lip service. It’s all or nothing. Life, or death. We must gulp him down and become part of him as he is part of us, or we die. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this the “hard, deep call to obedience.” Jesus wants all of us, just as he wants to give us all of himself. It’s a full commitment to life in Christ, and Christ in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less will do. Let us pray.