By the Rev. Darren Miner
Let me start out with a legal disclaimer: “All references to cannibalism in John’s Gospel were made by a professional metaphorist in a particular historical context; taking them literally may result in involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital.”
With that out of the way, let’s do a little review. 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. Today we hear more about bread. But it isn’t any kind of bread you can find on the shelves of Safeway! 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.
As I mentioned, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, one 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 possible. But it behooves us to consider for a moment just how disturbing Jesus’ metaphor was for his original audience.
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 congregation has 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 to eat his flesh would have had satanic connotations, for in Jesus’ day a common nickname of the Devil was “The Eater of Flesh.” And last but not least, 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. 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 among us, because every Christian knows that Jesus is talking about the bread and the wine at Communion.
Now, after two millennia, a lot has been written about the theology of Holy Communion. Even so, I think I can summarize 2000 years of doctrine in a single sentence: “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 are made the Body of Christ.
Now, brothers and sisters, there are costs to being the Body of Christ. But today, let me focus on the benefits. The catechism in the back of our prayer book lists three benefits of Holy Communion: “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.” But there’s more! 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 take the Blessed Sacrament for granted. 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 noted a great strength and steadfastness in the diligence one has promised.” 1 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, when we all say the Great Amen, I would ask you, who are the Body of Christ in the world, to gaze for just 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!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
1. From The Spiritual Life; italics mine.