August 15, 2021
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; 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?’ 53So 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. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This 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.’
Some background: This passage is the fourth installment of five in this sixth chapter of John from which we started reading on Sunday, July 25. Part of an extended discourse on Jesus as the bread of life, it began with the story of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. From there, John’s Jesus expounds on the meaning of this feeding and speaks of its implications for our lives. The feeding is, we discover, both a sign of who Jesus is and who he is not — another manifestation of the manna God rained down on the people of Israel in the wilderness. John’s Jesus maintains that those who eat his flesh, more literally translated, those who will “chew” his flesh will not die but live forever. ***
In today’s reading Jesus tells his followers, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This eating and drinking, he says, is to enter into the depth of a relationship with God and with others in the Christian community. What Jesus makes clear is that the relationship and the life He comes to bring from God is not a spectator sport, nor entered into simply by thinking about it. Instead, touching it, tasting it chewing it, consuming the flesh and blood — these are the earthy, real ways of engagement through which Jesus abides with us and we with Him.
Some people find this teaching difficult. Others find it off-putting. This was true for some around Jesus that day, many Jews and even some of his own disciples. They adversely respond to Jesus’ words based on the Law of Moses which says, “For the life of every creature — its blood is its life; therefore, I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Leviticus 17:14).
In Jewish theology, blood represents life. As blood is let and a creature dies, it loses its life. To Jews, blood belonged to God, because God is the source of all life.
Even today, this prohibition against consuming blood is so strongly ingrained in the Jewish psyche that even many secular Jews cannot bear to eat a rare steak or a juicy hamburger. Kosher butchers heavily salt meat to drain every drop of blood from it. It is why Jewish cooking relies on the slow braise and not the hot grill for its recipes. Well-done meat is the goal.
Contemporary Christians hear Jesus words about eating and drinking and think of Holy Communion. But the Gospel of John, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke has no account of the Last Supper. So, Jesus’ words to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” are as close as John gets to anything remotely thematic to that Holy Week event.
Jesus knew his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood would cause an adverse response in some people. He intended to make a connection between the Leviticus prohibition about the blood being life originating in God, and his own life being of God. When he says “you must drink my blood” he is saying you must take his life into the very center of your being. His life, like all life, belongs to God. In other words, in eating and drinking we take Jesus’ life into the very core of our hearts and we belong to God. By taking Jesus into us, we ascent to being in him and he in us as the verse proclaims, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (56).
Maybe put more succinctly: By eating his flesh and drinking his blood our hearts, minds and souls are fed with the grace of Jesus. By this eating and drinking, we are filled with His life and joined into the life of God.
This may be the most important dimension of Holy Communion: that we become filled with His life and joined into the life of God.
Just as Holy Communion fills us with the life of Jesus and joins us into the life of God, fellowship is created with those who commune together in the sacrament, for God is fully relational, communal. As St. Paul states in Romans (12:50), “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”
Normally and historically, our eating and drinking of Jesus occurs in community at Lord’s Table. For the past 18 months that practice has been disrupted. Gathering in faith communities has been challenged by the pandemic. Coming together at the Lord’s Table has not often been safe or wise in the matter of public and individual health.
So, a major change took place last year. For the first time in Christian history, the Lord’s Table took on virtual dimensions, apart from a community gathered physically together in worship. Clergy permitted us to commune at home in front of a screen, with our own manifestations of bread and wine. It was a questionable practice and one I found thin, hollow. It lacked the fellowship derived from the mutual indwelling of Jesus amidst the community eating and drinking together — a union of heaven and earth. Munching and sipping in front of a computer screen had the feel of snack time while watching an NFL game played in an empty stadium. There was no sense of being filled with the life of Jesus and being joined into the life of God along with the communion of saints. Frankly, it was not even a “Jesus and me” kind of moment that some aspire to experience in the Lord’s Supper.
Late last year my mom died from COVID-19. Being the surviving parent and still living in the house she and my dad had built in 1956, my siblings and I had the task of disbursing a household of goods. One of the items that landed in my home was mom’s recipe box. A double-wide box, it is filled with 3”x5” cards in her handwriting, along with ones she received from relatives and friends.
On one snowy Sunday afternoon in December, I sat down and went through the entire box, hundreds of cards. Looking at an array of recipes, I was filled with the presence of my mother along with my grandmother, aunts and so many of her friends whose recipe cards I read. Each one brought back memories of the saints that span my entire life.
In an essay titled, “Re-creating Our Mother’s Dishes,” theologian Boyung Lee writes, “Even though I was cooking by myself in the kitchen, I was in communion with many people to whom I was indebted for who I am, and to whom I am accountable.”
That’s how I feel when I make one of the recipes from mom’s box. I am reminded as I cook and bake, smell and eat that I am indebted to her and a community who provided for me, filling me with grace and life. I have a sense that they abide in me through the recipes of wonderful food.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
This is how it is when we take Communion and eat the meal of Christ’s body and blood. We are reminded of our identity as children of God. Through eating and drinking we remember Jesus’ gift of his life for our forgiveness. We are also accountable to the community with whom we gather at the table and from which we depart to share the grace and mercy received.
And finally, in this eating and drinking we get a foretaste of the feast to come, the time when we will abide fully with Jesus and all the saints in light eternal. The banquet of the heavenly realm.
“Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.’” v. 57