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.