By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me start out with a disclaimer: I’m a vegetarian, and a rather squeamish vegetarian at that! So right off the bat, I have some personal issues with today’s Gospel reading from John and its references to cannibalism. Be that as it may, I’ll do my best to give a fair assessment of Jesus’ teaching.
For the last few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about bread: the bread of life, living bread, the bread that comes down from heaven, and so forth. As a lover of bread, I was right on board with that metaphor. Today we hear more about bread. But we ain’t talking Oroweat! For today Jesus explicitly identifies the bread from heaven with his own flesh. And he claims that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life.
Of course, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, once might even say sacramentally. And latter-day Christian preachers have a tendency to gloss over the repugnant flesh-and-blood metaphor and to start speaking about the Holy Eucharist as soon as humanly possible. As a squeamish vegetarian, I too am tempted to take this route and bypass dealing with the disturbing metaphor of cannibalism. But my training in biblical studies just won’t let me do that.
So, just for a brief while, let’s consider Jesus’ metaphor, as well as the original context of his teaching. Jesus had just finished feeding the 5000 and then walked across the Sea of Galilee. He then entered the synagogue in Capernaum and started preaching a lengthy discourse about bread—but not just any kind of bread! For this bread is Jesus’ own flesh. He tells the faithful Jews in that synagogue that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Now, this speech might have made some sense in the context of the Last Supper, but the Last Supper is a full year in the future. Not surprisingly, the congregants have no idea what he’s talking about. Even Jesus’ own disciples are confused, and some are so shocked and repulsed that they leave off following him as disciples.
Frankly, their dismay is understandable for a variety of reasons. Let me enumerate just a few. First, the very idea of cannibalism would have been as repugnant to first-century Jews as it is to us today. Second, the consumption of any kind of blood is expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses. Third, Jesus’ suggestion would have had satanic connotations, for in Jesus’ day a common nickname of the Devil was “The Eater of Flesh.” And finally, the word that Jesus uses when he instructs them to eat his flesh is not the normal Greek term for eating; it is the word used when animals feed. In other words, Jesus is telling them to devour his flesh like an animal. So, it’s not surprising that some of Jesus’ disciples fell away. What’s surprising is that any stayed!
As is often the case in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as speaking in a kind of code. Usually, the code is explained privately to his disciples, but not in this case—at least, not yet! In this case, it will only make sense a year later when Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper. For, according to the Synoptic Gospels, it is only then, at that communal meal with his closest disciples, that Jesus finally explains the meaning of his difficult teaching in Capernaum the year before. Given that his audience in Capernaum, including his disciples, could not possibly have understood his true meaning, why did Jesus present them with this difficult teaching? We can only surmise. But one thing is clear, only those who stuck with Jesus for another year would ever come to know what Jesus really meant. And only they would have the opportunity to experience the eternal life promised them by their Lord. So perhaps Jesus’ teaching was a test of faith.
But things are different for us Christians today. We have it easy. Jesus’ disturbing metaphor fails to shock all but the most squeamish, because every Christian knows that Jesus is talking about the bread and the wine at Communion. For us, this once-difficult teaching is no longer a test of faith, as it may have been for the original disciples. When we hear Jesus’ teaching, we know quite well that he is not advocating some form of satanic ritual cannibalism.
With 2000 years of hindsight, there is quite a lot that we can we say today about Jesus’ eucharistic teaching—and believe me, quite a lot has been said! But to put it in a nutshell, Jesus is saying, “You are what you eat.” By taking the bread and the wine of the Eucharist into our bodies, we also take Jesus Christ into our very selves as well, and in a mystical sense, we become the Body of Christ.
At the time of the Reformation, the hot questions of the day were: 1) Are the bread and wine actually transformed? and 2) If so, how does the transformation take place? Theologians had a field day attempting to explain this mystery. The Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, based on the philosophy of Aristotle, explains how the bread and the wine cease to be bread and wine when the priest says the Words of Institution in the eucharistic prayer and how they become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, despite all appearances to the contrary. The more radical Protestants taught that there is no real change in the bread and wine. Any change that takes place is in the believer who faithfully receives the sacrament. And as was often the case in such disputes, Anglicans opted to split the difference and take a middle path, the so-called via media. The traditional teaching of Anglicanism is that the bread and wine are still bread and wine after the consecration, but that Christ is really and truly present in the sacramental elements and that Christ is made present to a communicant who consumes them in faith. So, while affirming the reality of the sacramental mystery, Anglicans have abstained from trying to explain precisely how that mystery takes place. When Queen Elizabeth the First was a prisoner of her sister, Queen Mary, and was being examined by a Roman Catholic priest about her belief in transubstantiation, she reportedly replied:
’Twas God the Word that spake it.
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it
That I believe and take it.
For Anglicans, that rhyme serves as a sufficient statement of eucharistic doctrine to this day.
Finally, we come to the question of “so what?” What does it matter if we do or do not take Communion on any given Sunday? What do we really get out of it? According to the catechism in the back of our prayer book, “the benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.” According to Jesus’ own words, those who continue to eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him, will have eternal life, and will be raised on the Last Day—more than enough reasons to be a regular and faithful communicant!
And yet not all Christians are, in fact, regular and faithful communicants. The problem as I see it is that we don’t always feel an immediate effect from Communion, and so we are tempted to doubt the efficacy of the Sacrament altogether. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian Orthodox saint, wrote: “The fruit of Communion most often has a taste of sweet peace in the heart; sometimes it brings enlightenment to thought and inspiration to one’s devotion to the Lord; sometimes almost nothing is apparent, but afterward in one’s affairs there is a noted a great strength and steadfastness in the diligence one has promised” [from The Spiritual Life; italics mine]. The effects of Holy Communion may be quite subtle. They may be quite gradual. But, trust me, they are quite real!
So, today, at the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer, I would ask you, who are the Body of Christ in the world, to gaze for a moment in adoration upon the Body and Blood of Christ made present in the Blessed Sacrament. And then, in the words of our parish motto, come and be fed!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.