St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Beth Christianson
With the verses of our Gospel lesson today, we have come to the end of this extended side excursion through John chapter 6. Why, in the midst of a year where we are reading through Mark’s gospel, have we spent the whole month of August on this one chapter of John’s gospel?
Part of the reason is the way the Revised Common Lectionary, the schedule we use to plan our Sunday morning Scripture readings, is designed. The RCL is organized on a three-year cycle.
In year A, we read through the story of Jesus’ life in Matthew’s gospel. In year B, we read Mark’s version of the story. In year C, we get Luke’s. John doesn’t get a year to himself. Instead, we get sprinklings of John in amongst the other three gospels, particularly in Advent and Easter. So over the course of the three years, we get about as much of John as we do of the other three.
John is unique from the other gospels in the way he constructs his narrative. The other three have Jesus giving mostly short speeches, interspersed amongst his parables and the stories of where he went and what he did. John’s gospel also has stories of Jesus performing miracles and telling parables, but he also has several extended discourses or sermons, like this one we’ve been reading in John chapter 6, which is commonly called the Bread of Life discourse. Some of the really important events in Jesus’ life, like his baptism and the actual meal at the Last Supper, which are described in the other gospels, are not mentioned in John. Instead, he builds those themes into these long discourses. The Bread of Life discourse is Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching in John’s gospel.
So we spend this time on the Bread of Life discourse at this point in Trinity season because it comes in John’s gospel at about the same point in Jesus’ ministry as we left off in Mark’s. Jesus has been travelling around Galilee, and he has huge crowds of people following him because of the miracles he’s been doing. And the hard, uncomfortable message of this sermon Jesus gives in the synagogue in Capernaum, after the feeding of the 5000, becomes the first hint for his crowds of followers that Jesus’ ministry means something else, that he has a different purpose, than what they have been assuming. That is the explanation for their reaction to him, as we’ve just heard, and this becomes a turning point in Jesus’ early ministry.
And so we are here at the end of this controversial speech, and we see how the crowd reacts. But what are we, in the 21 st century church, to make of all this talk of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood?
There is a story in the Old Testament about King David which concerns the time when he was fighting the Philistines, who had occupied his native town of Bethlehem. Among David’s fiercely loyal fighting men he had three in particular who were renowned for their bravery and their readiness to do whatever the king might ask. When he and his men were pinned down one day, David longed for a drink, and said out loud how much he would like to have water from the well at Bethlehem — which was of course inaccessible due to the Philistines. But that didn’t stop his three heroes. Off they went, broke through the Philistine army, got water from the well at Bethlehem and brought it back to David.
But David didn’t drink it. “God forbid,” he said, “that I should drink the blood of these men, who went at the risk of their lives.” He didn’t want to be seen to profit from their readiness to put their lives on the line for him. Instead, he poured the water out on the ground.
One of the best-known of the many Jewish regulations about food and drink was that blood was absolutely forbidden. The whole point of kosher butchering is that no blood should remain in the animal and so risk people eating or drinking it. And this, of course, was why David used the phrase to make his point. To drink that water would be the equivalent of drinking blood. He would not, should not, could not do it.
But the fact that Jesus speaks of “drinking blood” in this setting gives us an all-important clue to what he means in this extraordinary sermon in John chapter 6. If you want to profit from what I’m doing, he says, you must “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood.” If you do this, you’ll live forever; i will raise you up on the last day. In the light of the David story, we can confidently say that the deep meaning of this passage is not that those who believe in Jesus should become cannibals, still less that they should, in “eating” and “drinking” him, break the Jewish law against consuming blood. What Jesus means is what David meant. David refused to “drink” the blood of his comrades — that is, to profit from the risk of their lives. Jesus, as the true Messiah, is going further than David went. He will put his own life at risk — indeed, he will actually lose it; and his comrades will profit from that death. They will “drink his blood.”
Now of course it would be possible to “spiritualize” the language of eating and drinking so that it only means an inner, non-physical thing. It is tempting to make it mean Eucharist as meditation, celebration, and grateful contemplation. So much less risky, right? Meditation, celebration and gratitude are important in the Christian life, but John insists here, as does Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, that the “eating” and “drinking” in question must include actual physical eating and drinking. Indeed, in verses 54-58 the word for “eat” is a very solidly physical one. It was often used by Greek speakers to mean something like “munch” or “chew.” Think of a cow eating hay, the jaws working, the noisy crunching. It seems as though John deliberately chose a word which rules out any temptation his hearers may have to assume that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.
Now, John as the writer of the Gospel, and we as its 21st century audience, hear these words of Jesus and think of the Eucharist. This is not a connection Jesus’ immediate audience in Capernaum could have made. It’s not a connection that can be understood until after Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension. John the Gospel writer understands Jesus’ language here to refer to the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament in which Jesus‘ body and blood are, in a mysterious way, offered to believers to be eaten and drunk. John the disciple, as a member of the crowd in the synagogue that day, could not have had that understanding.
John’s Gospel does not describe the actual meal at the Last Supper, just as he doesn’t describe the actual baptism of Jesus. But this is not because he thinks it doesn’t matter, or that he wants to play it down, but because he thinks it matters so much that it’s important to see it as affecting the whole gospel story. So here, after the feeding in the wilderness, where Jesus’ action with the bread was described in words very like those used at the Last Supper itself, we find this long discourse in which Jesus declares that in order for him to be truly united with his believing followers, it is necessary for them to “munch” on his flesh and drink his blood.
Those who do this will be people of the true Exodus. In the original Exodus, the ancestors of these Israelites in Capernaum, had eaten the manna they were given, but they still died. This manna, this bread-of—life which is Jesus himself, is given, and given to be broken in death, so that those who eat of it may not die, but have eternal life in the present and the future, and be raised up on the last day.
Here, then, is some of the deepest New Testament teaching about the Eucharist. The focus of this teaching is on sacrifice and shared life. These are inseparable since there is no sharing of life without the laying down of life. The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is the pouring out of his life for the life of the world, bringing forgiveness. That sacrifice also shows us the deepest reality about God — his love — and about life: all true life is sacrificial. Life is a matter of exchange: my life for yours, yours for mine. In this sacrificial web of exchange we find the communion, the community, of the Godhead. At Eucharist we receive into ourselves, into our bodies and souls, the life-giving power of God, and precisely by eating and drinking we proclaim the Lord’s once-for-all death until he comes.
Obviously, this teaching is unclear to these people. They do not understand Jesus’ identity, nor do they catch the allusion to his death, let alone the way the Lord will provide for his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The people in the synagogue that day do not respond favourably to Jesus’ message. “This teaching is difficult,” they said. “Who can accept it?” It wasn’t that Jesus was talking at too abstract a level — though no doubt there were some who found their heads spinning after all this. It was more that what he had said made a huge hole in their worldview, and when that happens some people prefer not to think about it anymore. If you go to a meeting where someone demolishes the way you’ve been brought up to think, and offers you instead a way of looking at the world which, though convincing, will be extremely costly, you may well find good reasons to be somewhere else next time the preacher comes to town.
At this point in verses 62 and 63, the explanation for how the whole thing fits together is given by mentioning two things: the ascension of Jesus, and the Spirit. “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” At first sight this seems only to confuse an already complicated set of problems still further. But these are the keys to unlock the puzzle.
The mention of the ascension of the Son of Man is designed to say: maybe you need to come to terms with the fact that the one you are now dealing with is equally at home in heaven and on earth. He is a citizen of both. He is, after all, the Word made flesh. The flesh by itself, of course, would be irrelevant, as verse 63 says. But when the flesh is indwelt by the life of God, of the Word who is God, it makes sense to speak of it in the way Jesus has just done. Though the ascension as an event remains mysterious in John’s gospel, it is clearly important for John to affirm that Jesus’ body, not just his “spiritual” life, was and remains the place where the Word took up permanent residence.
Jesus has more to say about the Spirit as the gospel progresses. Here he is warning against a purely physical interpretation of his words about eating and drinking. He is urging his hearers, as he has been doing all along, to go beyond a one-dimensional understanding of what he is doing and saying (for instance, a desire to follow him to get more free bread) and to break through to listen to the Word within the flesh. For this, they will need the Spirit to help them. Without that, they will remain in unbelief.
In the end, it is the Twelve who remain. They are prepared to say out loud that Jesus is God’s Holy One, his Messiah. He is the one who is not only speaking about God’s new age, the age to come, but is, by his words, already bringing it into existence: “You’re the one who has the words of eternal life.” The Twelve stand as representatives of the faith, the belief, that Jesus has been looking for: the recognition that in him, his words and deeds, Israel’s God was at last bringing into being the new Exodus, the great movement that would set the whole world free from sin and death.
While this passage is very clear that God is the initiator in all our encounters with him, it also speaks of our human responsibility. Jesus says in verse 65 that “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” But at that point, we still have the choice to accept or reject the gift God is extending to us. Verse 64 says Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him, a reference to Judas. In a chapter that so strongly affirms the necessity of divine initiative, here we have another note regarding the importance of faith. Even Jesus’ choice for someone to be a member of his inner circle of disciples is not going to save that person unless one has faith. Judas had the most intimate access to Jesus; he had one of the best seats in the house for seeing God revealed in the flesh. But he lacked humble trust and love for Jesus as Jesus actually was. The human heart is capable of seeing God in his great beauty and of rejecting him. Indeed, all of us are capable of such betrayal, as our sin testifies. What is our inner disposition? Have we found in Jesus the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life? Do we actually live our lives as those who believe the truth? Have we met God in such a way that we can trust his character even when we do not understand his words and deeds?
“This is a hard teaching,” the people said. “Who can understand it?” Jesus replies, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” The bottom line for us is that we stand with the Twelve: “Lord, to whom would we go if we left you? You have the words of eternal life.”
As we come to the Eucharist today, look past the familiarity of the words we hear and speak, and instead chew over them carefully in your hearts, just as we chew carefully the bread that is Jesus’ flesh, and the wine which is his blood. Amen.