Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephes. 5:15-20; John 6:51-60
May the Holy Word be a light for our path and a lamp for our feet, and the truth for which our hearts yearn. Amen.
Four scripture readings: One from the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures; a Psalm in response; an Epistle reading; and a Gospel reading, the fourth assigned from this sixth chapter of John in as many weeks. What did you hear in them? What was difficult?
Now, I know I have an advantage over you since I have worked with these texts all week. But I was very aware that several of these teachings are very difficult for me: first, from the psalm: I know that the hardest thing for me is to “Keep your tongue from evil”. I have a sharp tongue and it reveals a judgmental streak in me that indicates an egotistical arrogance, and a selfish sense of personal perogative. The second most difficult teaching in these readings, for me, therefore, would be the injunction to seek peace and pursue it, for I like to stir up controversy and argument, out of that same place in my personality, no doubt, that has difficulty bridling my tongue.
But imagine, if you will, that you had never read or heard the Gospel of John, and had no basis to understand the language that Jesus uses. It’s a theological bombshell, and offensive. In fact, it was so offensive, even when the words were first written, that it deepened the horror at the gall of this itinerant preacher amongst his own people, and caused some of the crowd who had been following him about, to stop and turn away. The “teaching is difficult” to say the least: Jesus’ claim that he IS the “bread that comes down from heaven” is provocative enough, but becomes outrageous—to both ancient and modern ears, and for differing reasons that we don’t have time to explore—that he says: “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” I have a family member who cannot hear these words, nor watch a celebration of the Lord’s supper, without thinking that there is something here that alludes to cannibalism.
This passage prompts a short detour, therefore, into some Bible study and into the field of historical theology, for these words have been fighting words, ever since they were, perhaps spoken, but at least since the Fourth Gospel writer put them in the mouth of Jesus. Most scholars doubt that Jesus actually said these words. They represent a theological articulation of who Jesus is, for this writer of the Gospel of John.
First, for the first readers, John’s Gospel was “…written for insiders, for the beleaguered little group of believers whose allegiance to Jesus has brought them to the crisis of separation from their neighbors and families, “the Jews” who now hate them.” [Meeks, Wayne. “Exegetical Perspective”, John 6:51-58, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, pp. 357-358]
As Jews themselves originally, they would hear an allusion to part of the most important events in the history of the Hebrew people—the Exodus, and the wilderness wanderings when there was no bread, but the manna that came down from heaven, and no meat, or flesh, to eat but the flesh of quails that were provided, miraculously. They are reminded of the “craving” of the Israelites in Moses’ time, when they demanded flesh to eat. Wayne Meeks in his commentary on the John passage, says that many of the ancient manuscripts of John 6:52, omit the word “his”, and so read “How can this man give us the flesh to eat?” thus making the allusion to the Exodus experience more direct. Professor Meeks notes that “It is absurd enough that he promises to give his own flesh instead of the flesh of quails; now he [also] speaks of drinking blood. Even leaving aside the cannibalistic sound of it, the notion transgresses one of the most fundamental taboos in the food laws of Israel.” [Ibid., p. 357] Leviticus 17:10-14 says: “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” If you have a Bible with you, look again at the words of Jesus in John 6:51-60: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood you have no life in you.”…
This was a bombshell for the Jewish community, outrageous and offensive because of their holy law. Thus, the first arguments over these words were between Jews and Jewish Christians.
But let’s take this historical exploration a bit further: how many of you have heard the word “transubstantiation” and know what it means? Most Catholics or those with some Catholic background and education probably know the word, and understand that it means the “divine mystery” whereby the substance of bread and the substance of the fruit of the vine, be it wine or grape juice, are changed into the real substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus. From the early days in the life of the Christian community, it seems that the elements of the Lord’s Supper conveyed to the believer the body and blood of Christ, or, in later theological terms, the real presence of the risen Lord.
In about 150 C.E., Justin Martyr wrote of the Lord’s Supper: “Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise we have been taught that the food which is blessed by prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
In other words, the early church leaders argued intensively that Jesus was the incarnation, in the flesh—which is what the word incarnation means—of God’s very Being. Thus, to “eat his flesh and drink his blood”—which we have already seen from Leviticus represents the life force of a creature—is to take the eternal, the holy, God’s very being into the self. Two more historical notes: The earliest known use of the term “transubstantiation” occurred in about 1079. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council used the word transubstantiated in its profession of faith. And in 1551, the Council of Trent (in response to the growing Protestant Reformation) officially defined, with a minimum of technical language, that “in the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
Transubstantiation was a divine mystery that occurred when the priest spoke the words of institution, how on the night when Christ was betrayed, he took the bread and gave it to them and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And the cup likewise, after supper, saying: “This is my blood in the new covenant”. In ancient times, blood was often used to seal a covenant (an agreement between two parties). Or, for some other portions of the ancient church, it occurred in the prayer of consecration by the priest, known as the epiklesis, saying, “now may this bread and this wine become for us the body and blood of our Savior.”
A result of all this was that the consecrated bread and wine became the eternal presence of Jesus in the midst of the people. It could not be handled by sinners, nor could crumbs fall to the floor, lest someone walk on the body of Jesus. The left-over wine could not be throw out, but had to be consumed by the priest. No one wanted Jesus to be thrown into the sewers or gutters. Today, the bread and wine—known as the host, meaning Jesus as the host of the table—are kept in a tabernacle on the altar at most Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Some Catholic Churches even have chapels of perpetual adoration of the host.
Along came the Protestant Reformation and controversy around these words and their meaning exploded once more. In one of his sermons on John 6, Luther said: People are “…to investigate what He was driving at with this peculiar speech. What could He mean? Is one man to devour the other? Surely this cannot be the meaning.”…Luther argues that when Jesus in verse 51 speaks the words, “My flesh” it is the “my” that defines the “Flesh”, not the reverse. This not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made”, he noted in his typical earthy fashion.” [Morse, Christopher. “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 3, p. 356] Luther calls the Lord’s Supper a “sacramental union”, because, he said, “Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament.”
Another reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, who was of great influence on the founders of the Christian Church, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, believed that the “sacrament is purely symbolic and memorial in character”, arguing that this was the meaning of Jesus’ instruction, “Do this in remembrance of me.” So, on the communion table in most Disciples’ churches, the words: “Do this in remembrance of me” are carved into the front board of the table. Zwingli and Luther both abhorred the superstition that surrounded the elements of communion. For Disciples, the communion of which we partake is not understood to be “transubstantiated”, but rather a symbolic remembering. But even that word: “remembering” means to member again, to re-flesh something. And we have always said, that “where two or three gather together in Christ’s name, there he is in the midst of them.” Thus, in a convoluted way, even we Disciples who believe that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance, also affirm the “real presence” of Christ in this sacrament.
History lesson is over, and now I have only a few words left to squeeze into my allotted time, so let me conclude with this word of interpretation.
Yes, the Gospel is scandalous and offensive. To think that God has come to us in the life of Jesus—and perhaps in other lives as well—suggests so many different ideas that we are almost overwhelmed with possibilities. It means that God, the Holy at the heart of being, is not unchangeable, immutable. It means that God can be touched, and did touch, and does still touch creation. An incarnated God made flesh means that God desperately loves the creation and human beings so passionately as to give up God’s self in sacrificial love for us. And sacrificial love becomes the means for the salvation, or the wholeness, or the fulfillment of the destiny of earth and human souls. This suggests that such a God is available to all, that such love is available to all—not just to the few who participate in some secret ritual or who possess some powerful gnosis, knowledge, or only to those who rightly believe or rightly behave, or even to those who partake of rightly consecrated bread and wine.
These strange offensive words of Jesus, from the theological standpoint of the writer of the Gospel of John, for whom Jesus is the word made flesh, proclaim that Jesus intends to have all of us, body and soul. His truth wants to burrow deep within us, to consume us as we consume the bread and wine symbolic of God’s ultimate sacrifice of love, and for it to flow through our veins, to be digested, to nourish every nook and cranny of our being. This God is so scandalously, intimately available to us, and whoever knows this, knows what it is to live in eternity’s sunrise. The life stronger than death that God gives to the world in what happens with Jesus Christ always comes to us in the flesh. Indeed, “this teaching is difficult”, and the world has not wanted to accept it, not then, and not now, when people want to make God some puppet-master off in some other sphere of being. So may we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand, and the desire to taste the wisdom that God sets before us. Amen.