51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (NRSV)
I usually try to start a sermon with a hook of some kind. It’s like any story. You have to hook people or they quit listening. But I don’t know how to do that here. I don’t have any really interesting cannibalism stories in my back pocket. Honestly, if Jesus’ words aren’t shocking enough to hook you, nothing I say will be either.
This is one of those moments where I’m tempted, where any preacher would be tempted, to tone Jesus down. I want to say it’s just hyperbole, it’s allegory, it’s metaphor, it’s anything but what he says. Never fear, Jesus is waxing poetic. He doesn’t really mean what he’s saying about the whole flesh-eating and blood-drinking thing. It’s just symbolic language. Very graphic, gross, disgusting symbolic language. Right?
Our Bible translators tone things down all the time. I could tell you some things Saint Paul says that aren’t nearly as pretty as the way translators smooth it out. He was crass and sarcastic. It’s why I love Paul. And this text is no exception to translators’ attempts to smooth things over. It’s the reason one of my seminary professors called Bible translators, “Spineless weenies.” Sometimes they domesticate the Scriptures instead of letting them say what they really say. They, and we, want the people in our Bibles—these characters whom we love—to sound holy in speech.
It ain’t always so.
One of the challenges of this text is that Jesus really does seem to mean exactly what he says about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The fact that he gives us a very hard teaching which is difficult to understand doesn’t give us license to dismiss it, make excuses for it, or smooth it over. The Greek text makes it very clear what Jesus means. It’s still not easy to understand, but at least we know he’s not speaking poetically.
Our English translations use the verb EAT throughout John 6. And up through verse 53, that’s a good translation. It’s the correct translation. The Greek verb there is φαγειν meaning to eat. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Then, in verse 54, Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” But this is where Jesus changes verbs. This is where to eat is a weak translation. Jesus makes it more graphic. It’s visceral. It’s like he wants us to understand, he wants us to be clear, that he’s not talking about something that’s merely symbolic. The verb here is τρώγων. It means to bite, chew, gnaw, crunch.
This is not dainty eating. This is sitting in a room full of children who are enjoying Cap’n Crunch cereal. This is what it would look like and sound like if you sat next to me while I was eating a rack of baby back ribs. This isn’t just the idea of eating, this is the physical act of chowing down. Jesus says, “Those who gnaw my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
This is annoyingly literal. This is bringing the yuck factor to a whole new level. So of course we ask questions. In this text, it’s the Jews who ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In verse 60, many of Jesus’ disciples question Jesus. They say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” It is NOT unacceptable for us ask the same questions. How? How can Jesus give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink? What does he mean by this stuff?
What makes this difficult is that Jesus doesn’t give us an answer. He gives us the teaching, makes a few reference points, and leaves us wondering how to make sense of it all.
One of the things that fascinates me about the Gospel of John is that there are always layers of meaning. It’s like the book is written on two levels at the same time. There’s what’s happening, and there’s what is meant. There are stories about people, but there’s always this spiritual meaning that subtly crowds its way into each story. It’s really incredible how people’s misunderstanding in the story leads to insight for us. When people get tripped up over something Jesus says, deeper layers of meaning open up for us.
Here, it’s obvious why the people stumble over Jesus’ teaching. You don’t eat human flesh. The very idea that Jesus could give anyone his flesh to gnaw on is disgusting. And blood? You don’t drink blood. In Leviticus 17, God commands that all blood has to be drained from slaughtered animals because blood is life. “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.” And then a few verses later God says, “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.”
Then Jesus is telling us we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood—his life—or we don’t have life in us.
This is why those who questioned Jesus balked at his words. They knew these texts. The teaching of Jesus seems to fly in the face of the teaching of Moses. It’s a continuation of Jesus’ teaching not fitting in with what they already know.
One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says this, “Since Jesus in this passage is talking to unbelievers and not to disciples, his motives are worth considering. Is he confounding them on purpose…? Is it because he does not want them to understand, or is it because he wants them to understand that what he is saying will not, by any stretch of the imagination, fit into their previous categories? Whatever they thought they knew about God, it is time to think again. It may even be time for them to give up knowing anything for a while, so God has room to do a new thing in them.”
The most popular verse of John’s Gospel is, by far, John 3:16. But the most significant verse for the whole of the Gospel is probably John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only child, full of grace and truth.” God pitched a tent on earth. God moved into our neighborhood. God tabernacled here. God resided among us. God may have descended into Israel’s Tabernacle in a cloud, but in Jesus Christ, God has become a human being. Eternity has broken into time, and won’t stop working until time becomes eternity.
This is about abiding. God chose to abide among us, and the depth of that abiding, the significance of it, is upped dramatically when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Our feasting on the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the flesh and blood of Jesus, joins us with the living Christ who lives forever. Only when we are joined to Christ can we live forever.
The Word of God became flesh for us. Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven so that we might eat and live. We are told to eat his body and drink his blood so that we will have life and be raised up.
When we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we do that. The bread and juice become for us the body and blood in a way that is a mystery. But God is really and truly present. So we eat. We chew. We gnaw. And we take God into ourselves.
But this eating is different from our everyday consumption. When we eat, our food is absorbed into our bodies and becomes us. We’ve heard the phrase, You are what you eat, but really it’s the other way around. What you eat becomes what you are. When we eat, we destroy what was eaten. For me to live, then, the form of another life must end. When I eat turkey, I don’t become a turkey. (Though I’ll admit that may be up for some debate). In reality, the turkey becomes me. My body destroys and absorbs it. We don’t abide with our food because when we eat something we destroy it.
But that’s not what happens with the body and blood of Jesus. This eating somehow becomes abiding. This is part of the holy mystery. When we eat Jesus, we are also consumed. We are taken up into the life of God and receive that life. Saint Athanasius said, “God became human so that humans might become God.” What he means by this very provocative statement is that the Word of God took on flesh because God intends for us to share fully in God’s life. God wants all of us, and God wants us to have all of God. Jesus came down from heaven with the intention of taking back everything that belongs to God. That means us.
It sounds scandalous that God would be so intimately available to us, that God would desire to abide with us, or that we should be invited to abide in God.
We are flesh eaters and blood drinkers. When we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, the Word made flesh, we abide in him, and he abides in us. This mutual abiding is both the invitation and the goal of God: to be so perfectly present with us that we can’t see where we end and God begins. When we share in this holy meal of flesh and blood, God’s life becomes our life as our mortality is consumed by the eternal and we abide in God, and God in us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted).