John 6: 56 - 69
The Rev. Peter Faass
For the past three weeks, the lectionary has given these “I am the bread of life” passages of Jesus. We have heard much about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. In today’s reading, he tells his followers, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
These passages can be off-putting, especially when they come so relentlessly every week. They certainly were to some of Jesus’ disciples. In today’s reading, we hear that, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ Such was their offense that many walked away from following Jesus.”
We, too, can find these teachings difficult and be offended. Our being off-put often derives from our literal understanding of these sayings. They sound cannibalistic, making them seem grisly and gross.
Those disciples of Jesus’ who adversely respond do so for a different reason: their objection is based on the consumption of blood taboo in the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 17:14 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.”
In Jewish theology, the 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 of course cannot but help think of the Eucharist when they hear these passages. Our Eucharistic Prayers use this blood and body/flesh language. “Sanctify [this bread and wine] by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son.”
John has no true institution of the Last Supper occurrence as Matthew, Mark and Luke do. These “eat my flesh and drink my blood” passages are as close as it gets, but they get the point across.
I think Jesus understands that his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood will cause an adverse or visceral response in many. He also hopes that some will take the deep meaning of the Leviticus prohibition about the blood being life originating in God, and understand how he is applying this understanding to his own life. When he says, “you must drink my blood” he is saying you must take my life into the very center of your being. My life, like all life, belongs to God. In other words, we must take Jesus’ life into the very core of our hearts and become transformed. By taking Jesus into us, we ascent to being in him and he in us, therefore abiding in one another, as the text says.
Maybe put more succinctly: By eating his flesh and eating his blood we feed our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus. By doing this, we are revitalized by his life until we become filled with the life of God.
This may be the most important act of the Eucharist: feeding our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus in the sacrament of his body and blood, so that we become filled with the life of God.
Ideally, we do this as a community. Just as the Eucharist creates fellowship with Jesus, fellowship is created with those who commune together in the sacrament. 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.”
In the Eucharist, our fellowship derives from the mutual indwelling of Jesus and the believer. The greater community is formed from those who share in Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine with each other.
I love to cook. Some of the recipes that give me the greatest pleasure are the ones my mother and grandmother passed on to me. When I make a big pot of thick pea soup with ham, or am at the stove frying up Dutch apple pancakes, I am filled with the presence of my mother and grandmother. We abide in each other through this meal I am preparing and then eat.
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 cook my family’s heirloom recipes. I am reminded as I cook, smell and eat that I am indebted to my forbearers for who I am. I am also accountable to them as a person, because they have given me life literally, and through our cultural heritage and family lineage. I better be faithful to those sacred recipes correctly that they passed on to me, or look out!
This is how it is when we take Communion and eat the meal of Christ’s body and blood. We are reminded of who and whose we are. We remember we are indebted to Jesus through whom we receive authentic and eternal life. We are also indebted to all the communion of saints with whom we have shared this meal over the years. We are accountable to them as well, to continue to take the life of Jesus into us – into our very hearts – and to the live the life God calls us to.
John 6:51 - 58
The Rev. Peter Faass
How many of you are familiar with On the Rise Artisan Bread and Pastries in Cleveland Heights? Awesome place, right? On the Rise is like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet for me. The authentic French baguettes, the epis, the rustic Italian loaves, the cinnamon and raisin bread, that gorgeous round cardamom bread that looks like the sun, the spectacular olive loaf, the Challah, the Pullman.
I haven’t even mentioned the croissants, tarts and cookies! It is dangerous to let me loose in there. I’m told to pick up a baguette for dinner and I come home with an armload of breads and desserts for an army. If bread is the staff of life, On the Rise is its genesis.
On the Rise is opening a kiosk in the new Van Aken food court across the street this fall. Our current food desert in the district is going to turn into a cornucopia of deliciousness.
Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Of course, he wasn’t speaking of On the Rise, but sometimes I feel like I have entered into eternity when I eat their food.
Jesus speaks of the bread as his body. “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.” He continues, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.”
The Gospel of John is filled with Jesus making these metaphors:
Of course, Jesus is not literally any of these things (Biblical literalists take note):
He metaphorically functions as these things in our lives when we follow him. He is the door through which we gain authentic life when we pass through it. He is the light that guides us through the dark places in life. He is the Good Shepherd who watches over us through thick and thin. He is also the bread of life which, when we eat it, gives us eternal life.
When Jesus says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is not being literal either. This is not some grisly cannibalistic ritual we are engaged in, despite some accusations to the contrary. The bread represents his body, his flesh.
In the prologue of John we are told, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is the incarnate, or in-the-flesh Word of God. Jesus came to earth so that through his spoken and lived word, he could show us how to live as children of God. So, in the context of John’s theology, when Jesus tells us that we must eat his flesh to gain eternal (or authentic) life, we are in fact called to eat and live the received Word of God that he gives to us.
If we are to distill it down to its essential core, the Word Jesus gives us is summed up in the words of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the distillation of the Law to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one self, and the new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the rest is, as they say, commentary.
To eat Jesus’s flesh is to eat and live these words; they are the Word that he incarnates. The Collect for the Sunday closest to November 16th speaks to this understanding eloquently. In it, we pray, “Grant us so to hear . . . read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures], that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
When we do this, it causes a paradigm shift in our lives, moving us away from a way of life that is life-denying to a way of life that gives us authentic, and as Jesus says, eternal life. By that, he means eternal life here and now, in this moment.
Earlier, I mentioned that the Van Aken district is currently a food desert. That’s a bit of hyperbole. There are some great places to find good food within a short distance from here, although you need to drive to them. That situation promises to resolve itself soon with a wide array of food and drink options across the street. But food deserts exist, literally and metaphorically. In many urban areas like Cleveland, people do not have access to grocery stores that offer good, wholesome, life-giving foods. Options are limited to fast food and junk foods, which are readily available but not wholesome. Consistently eating these foods causes obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. They are life-denying foods. That’s a literal food desert.
There are also metaphorical food deserts. These are deserts where the food of nutritious words are in short supply. The only words available are fast, junky and degrading.
These are metaphorical deserts, but they are no less arid and no less life-denying than the literal ones.
In a commentary on John’s bread passages, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry asks, "How is it that God is trying to feed the world, not on fast food, but on gourmet [food] that gives life?"
When food that's readily available is not healthy, how do we feed the people of God? And more importantly, how is the Bread of Life trying to feed us?
I believe we can transform this current metaphorical food desert by eating the bread that is the Word of Jesus’ flesh. It is through eating, inwardly digesting and living on this bread that the Church offers gourmet food - not fast food - to the world.
This is how God wants to feed the world. This is how The Bread of Life Jesus feeds us, and then has us feed others so that we all gain the promise of eternal life.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.