A week ago Sunday we heard this passage, and here it is again, Monday, Fourteenth after Pentecost, Proper 16. Jesus is saying “Eat me. Drink me.” This is ekstasis for the faithful, and a stumbling block for the world. And yet, he teaches us to go out and convert the world by his Word, and now by his Sacrament of his Body and Blood. How do we get from cannibalism to unshakable faith in the Holy One? If we are to reach out to that secular world we need to look deeply to understand how we got here. I’m afraid that guitars and camp songs will only go so far. We are co-conspirators with the Holy Spirit in this Godly challenge to convert the world, sent out two by two with a lot of dust on our Birkenstocks. We must teach how that shocking language of John 6 opens the door to Jesus, the Christ, the one who brings freedom from the burden of sin, and life eternal in the loving presence of God.
How do we explain this to ourselves? Perhaps telling our skeptical friend about how some primitive cultures use actual cannibalism memorialize their elders or to gain power from a slain enemy is not the place to go. And it is doubtful this fact had legs for either the Jews or Romans. Let’s start with bread. In a non-gluten, low carb society it is difficult to explain how important bread is as actual food. Ask any immigrant or first generation Arab about bread, and they will tell you how basic it still is in Middle Eastern culture.
When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” to the Temple priests and Jewish officials, it must have sent a shock through them. The showbread or Bread of the Presence is placed before the altar of the Holy One, and each week it is replaced with new bread. The old bread is divided amongst the priests and eaten, a meal shared with God, while the altar tables receive the new loaves, baked with ceremonial purity. In essence, the Bread of the Presence is resurrected and always before the people, before the altar of God. Jesus was saying, “I am the showbread. You will eat me and be nourished, and I will be back on the altar the same day.”
Jesus means to shock. It is a way to wake people up. Jesus switches words we have the Greek testament for John 6:51-58. Sometimes “eat” means eat, but sometimes the word used means to gnaw or crunch. And “eat” has some of the broader meaning that it does in English. To be consumed has deeper meanings besides eat or gnawed, although we still say we chew over a difficult problem. It means to take inwardly, to be totally caught up. When we first fall in love we are consumed by it in the other person. Similarly, “to drink in” means more than sipping fine wine. It is to become drunk on something, either a wine or an idea or the presence of another person. Again, in love we are drunk on the other’s look, smell, way of moving. And so when he says to drink his blood, he is also using the nuance of wine being red and blood like, and to drink to satiation often means to be drunk, overwhelmed by the wine. Leviticus 17:1 specifies blood from a sacrifice as an offering for atonement. And the cups of wine at the Passover Seder represent the redemption of Israel from slavery. Jesus is not only being shocking, but he is nailing his point, so to speak. This is hard stuff for the temple officials to swallow. These are good men, faithful in the ways that they have been taught, and men used to divine mysteries, but this is all beyond them. This is crazy talk.This is blasphemy.
(There is another word in Greek (ποινή) very similar to one of the words used for drink (πίνουν) and it means blood money, sacrifice, punishment. Any Greek scholars out there want to help out here? A pun, perhaps?)
Jesus reminds us that God gave the wandering Israelites nourishment with manna in the desert. But they strayed, again and again. In fact, one could say the whole of salvation history is one of failure, punishment, rededication, failure, punishment, etc. Jesus, holding himself up as the manna given to humanity by the Father, is saying that he will be that daily manna which sustained God’s people, in the Eucharist, by his body and blood, by the consumption of him as the showbread, by the death and resurrection he must go through, and will continue not only after our death, but now.
There are theological disputes about this reading. Is this John’s version of the Eucharistic Institution Narrative in the Synoptic Gospels, and therefore about the Eucharistic feast? Or is it a reminder of the death on the Cross and Resurrection? It is clearly both. One does not exist without entanglement in the story of the other. Mystical union is not a singular thing, but part of a unified tale of salvation, from Creation to Ascension, then, now, and forever, all at once, all the time. And in that complex lies incarnation, the incarnation of the world, of Jesus, and of us. It is real bread. It is real hope of the resurrection in Christ. It is real wine. It is real blood of salvation through Christ. Whereas the Israelites fell again and again, although we fall again and again in sin, the Holy Spirit given in our abiding in Christ offers hope that we don’t fall and when we do we are quickly turned from sin, forgiven, and brought back to right relationship. All that in a crumb of bread, a sip of wine.
But it is a crumb and sip which are itself breaking bread with the Lord of Life, with the Christ. Being with him and in him in us, and he now part of us, feasting at his Table. Yes, we can use this wisdom to reach out to the Body of Christ in the ekklesia, the congregation, the people around us. But it starts with that meal between each of us and the One who feeds us. That incarnate imagery of eating is again reflected in the imagery of marriage, the Bridegroom and the bride. The union of the two. The birth of faith, hope, love, eternity in that union. We are an incarnate people, and Jesus came to us incarnate, and in that food, that marriage, that teaching, that worship, we become sanctified, children of the Most High. So Jesus uses rough language to get it through to us. This is not airy sentimentality or difficult metaphysics. This is supper. This is the Table. This is the Kingdom of God.
Can this powerful story move the unbeliever? Perhaps we can reach them by our example of a good Christian life. But we won’t move them without deep wisdom about what we believe. Pop culture similes will only go so far. Preaching the Gospel must always circle back to “I am the Bread of Life.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.