August 15, 2021
Sunday between August 14 and August 20 inclusive
Proper 15, Ordinary Time 20
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 6:51-58 The Message or John 6:51-58, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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You gotta love those Lectionary gals and guys. Here we are at the height of BBQ season (at least those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and they give us this text about eating Jesus' flesh and blood.
A text that has been at the centre of 2,000 years of controversy and division among the followers of Jesus as they have tried to faithfully understand just what they are chewing and sipping at the Eucharist / Holy Communion / Lord's Supper.
So instead of preparing a sermon appropriate for relaxed summer shorts and sandals we're gonna have to put on our heavy duty work boots and hard hats.
Before we get into the more gory details of flesh and blood, let's pause and ponder the first 5 words:
I am the living bread
What does this mean? How is bread "living?" How is Jesus "bread?"
I have not met a single person who believes Jesus means he has become a loaf of bread; that he IS a loaf of bread, really, actually, substantially. (Though the outlines of a great Monty Python sketch come to mind when I consider the possibilities.)
What Jesus does mean is that there is something about bread that he is - and something that he is not, since he is LIVING bread.
Jesus is speaking to a large crowd that sought him out; that came into the wilderness to find him; that made a pilgrimage to see him instead of going to the city of Jerusalem for the Passover; that were fed by him from only five fish and two loaves of bread; that have wanted to take him by force and make him their king.
In other words, Jesus is speaking to a crowd that have felt the pangs of some deep longing within themselves and glimpsed the possibilities of some true satisfaction in Jesus. But as so often happens, they have mis-placed their longing. They have placed their longing on "king." Jesus wants them to see that their true longing is for "bread," LIVING bread.
The crowd has looked at Jesus through the distorted lens of their longing and seen "king." Jesus is asking us to reverse our gaze. To look through the lens of himself at our longing. And, to help bring our longing into clearer focus, he offers a second lens: LIVING bread. When we look at our longing through the lens of Jesus and the lens of LIVING bread, what do we see?
John wants us to SEE into Jesus, and through Jesus, that our real longing is not for kings, not for things that pass away. Our true longing is for things that endure, that are imperishable:
- Light, truth, life, love, loyalty, kinship, abiding in God,
hearing and responding to God's voice / God's call.
The bread of this life - even the miraculous manna of the wilderness - makes possible only life that is perishable. Yes it feeds us for today, but one day, we will all die no matter how much of the bread of this life we have.
Does the bread of this life truly satisfy all that we long for?
If so, then we had better party hearty today - for tomorrow we die. But if not, then Jesus offers himself and LIVING bread as lenses to help us direct the gaze of our longing toward that which truly satisfies.
Aside. At a time when bread was 50% of the calories eaten each day by the peasant folk who were Jesus' followers; and each day's food was earned that day; and was just enough to survive for a day; bread was life. But that life was a struggle, and that life ended in death. This is not the bread nor the life that Jesus is.
So, however it is we understand Jesus to mean that he is LIVING bread, that is how we ought to understand what he means by eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
Which is to say, Jesus does NOT mean that we are to understand these as literal, actual, material, factual, and substantial. "Eat my flesh" and "drink my blood" are lenses through which we are to SEE the relationship Jesus wants us to have with him and the One who has sent him, the One who abides in him.
As I've said before (following Malina and Rohrbaugh), in John, the stress is on the life and death importance of SEEing Jesus, believing INTO him (not just believing ideas ABOUT him), and ABIDING in him (and he in us, and him in the Father, and the Father in Him). In John, ABIDING is the key, code word for describing the relationship Jesus wants us to have with him - and with the One who abides in him.
John wants us to hear the word, "abide," as being as viscerally real as "flesh" and "blood." And to hear the words, "flesh" and "blood," as dynamically real as "abide." Abide is a verb. It not a material substance. It is not an essence. It is a dynamic relationship.
who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in them.
Understood literally, these words are gory and shocking. And indeed, as we will see in next week's lesson, caused many of Jesus' followers to leave him.
Which ought to caution us: Those who try to understand these words literally, substantially, materially don't get it, and are not following Jesus' teaching. These words are lenses. They are meant to correct our vision so that we might truly see what it is that will feed / sustain / nourish / develop into maturity our deep longing.
Once again Malina and Rohrbaugh provide some helpful background about Jesus' use of "flesh" and "blood". (Pages 133 to 136)
Even today - as then - "flesh and blood" could be used to refer "this life," "human beings," "our bodies."
But Jesus' words, "eat my flesh and drink my blood" are shocking. If taken literally - which they should not be - they are cannibalistic. Yuck. But even if taken metaphorically as lenses, they are still shocking.
In Genesis 9:3-4, God explicitly forbids Noah and his family (and thereby all humans, because in the Biblical story they are the only human survivors of the flood, and all humans are descended from them) from eating blood:
Every living thing shall be food for you;
and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
Malina and Rohrbaugh then point out that in Leviticus both blood and the flesh of the kidney and its surrounding fat are ritually dedicated exclusively for God: the blood is thrown on the altar; the kidney and its fat are burnt. They comment:
Thus, the prohibitions of fat and blood (from human consumption) single out those organs ... that serve as the seat of life. Life is from God alone and belongs to God alone. To ingest fat or blood is to strive to be like God.
Thus, the crowd listening to Jesus would hear his words, "eat my flesh and drink my blood," as blasphemy, as an abomination, as a violation of a core belief about the Holy, and our proper relationship with the Holy. These words of Jesus are akin to the words of the snake in the Garden tempting his listeners to eat a forbidden fruit; to violate a God-given commandment; to violate the sacred ordering of creation.
But Jesus is not the snake in the Garden. (Genesis 3) Rather he is the serpent lifted in the wilderness who brings healing of ancient wounds. (See John 3:14 referring to Numbers 21:8-9)
From time immemorial, we of human flesh and blood have lived with the wound of being cast out of the Garden; cast out of our natural, birth-right, created, easy intimacy with God who walked and talked with us as the evening breeze cooled the heat of the day.
But John wants us to SEE that God so loves this world of human flesh and blood that the Word, which created that Garden, became flesh and blood light, life, and truth in our flesh and blood reality.
When Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is inviting us to ingest God's Word, to feast on God's light, God's life, God's truth, God's love. To let them ABIDE in us, so that we might ABIDE in Jesus - and in the One who ABIDES in Jesus.
When Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he invites us to be healed of our ancient wound and to live once again in ways that truly satisfy our deepest longing - our longing to live in ways that truly reflect our love affair with God.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, pages 134-136; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See link below.
John 6:51-58 (NRSV)
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."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 6:51-58 (The Message)
51 I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self."
52 At this, the Jews started fighting among themselves: "How can this man serve up his flesh for a meal?"
53 But Jesus didn't give an inch. "Only insofar as you eat and drink flesh and blood, the flesh and blood of the Son of Man, do you have life within you. 54 The one who brings a hearty appetite to this eating and drinking has eternal life and will be fit and ready for the Final Day. 55 My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 By eating my flesh and drinking my blood you enter into me and I into you. 57 In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me. 58 This is the Bread from heaven. Your ancestors ate bread and later died. Whoever eats this Bread will live always."
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.