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.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (NRSV)
Spirit and Life
My son asked me, just the other day, “Daddy, which is closer, Christmas or my birthday?”
“Christmas,” I replied.
“Well, then, I want the LEGO Ninjago Epic Dragon Battle set for Christmas.”
It took me a little by surprise that he’s already making his Christmas list, but I guess it shouldn’t have. It seems Christmas is always on the minds of children. It’s something every child looks forward to because of the possibility that they might get everything their little heart desires. It’s not only children, but most adults look forward to Christmas, too. Every retail store in the country looks forward to Christmas. That’s when business booms.
Christmas is the single most scandalous holy day of the Christian Faith. Oh, not because we’ve muddled the celebration up with material consumption and made it more about consumerism and commerce than about Jesus. My guess is we make such a big deal of buying and giving gifts so we can hide the scandal that Christmas is. Honestly, why would we want the truth to get out? Why would we want this word to spread beyond these walls? It’s somewhat ridiculous, after all, what we believe.
You do know what we Christians celebrate at Christmas, don’t you? It’s embarrassing isn’t it? I wish you were all sitting closer so I didn’t have to say the word too loudly. I mean, if a non-believer hears this they’ll think we’re crazy. It’s such a humiliating word. If you know what I’m going to say and you want to cover your ears, go ahead. Ready?
It’s mortifying, right? There’s a reason why the Church has described Christmas as The Humiliation of the Son. No wonder we sweep Christmas under the rug of consumerism. Who wouldn’t want to hide this doctrine? How can we claim something as ridiculous as incarnation with a straight face? The word literally means to take on flesh. God, who is Spirit, became human? Seriously? The Word of God, the Eternal Son, became a human being? God, took our human flesh upon God’s self and forever united human flesh with the Godhead?
This is where Christianity parts company with every other major religion. Islam says the very idea of the incarnation is beyond scandalous. God would never become human. God would never plant God’s self inside of a woman’s body and condescend to be born in humiliation. God is great! God would never humble God’s self like this. God nursed? God pooped? God was completely helpless as an infant? God has his diaper changed? Are you kidding? Incarnation, indeed! It’s scandalous! It’s offensive! Who can believe it?
Then this idea of incarnation gets drawn out even further. Here in John chapter six, this Incarnate Word is telling us that we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Word made flesh offers his flesh as food. It’s no wonder the disciples balked. They responded by saying, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
Then Jesus asked his own question. It seems almost impertinent, cheeky. “Does this offend you?” The word translated as offend is σκανδαλίζω, from which we get our word scandalize. Jesus is asking his disciples if his teaching scandalizes them. Another meaning of the word, other than offend, is cause to sin in the sense of accepting a false teaching. Does this scandalize you? Are you afraid this is a false teaching? Are you fearful I’m leading you into sin; that I’m causing you to stumble?
Even Jesus knew the incarnation is a scandalous idea. With no more than a few words, Jesus manages to offend and alienate almost every person in the crowd. It was so offensive, so scandalous, that many of the disciples stopped following Jesus because, yes, it scandalized them. Pagans ate flesh with the blood still in it, not the children of God.
In order to understand the meaning of the flesh Jesus will give for the life of the world, we need to consider what appears to be a contradiction. In verse 63, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The problem is that this feels quite the opposite of what Jesus said in verse 53, “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.” So at the same time, we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood or we don’t have life in us, but at the same time, it’s the spirit that give life because the flesh is useless, literally, profits nothing. But how can two seemingly contradictory statements both be true?
His words clearly point to Holy Communion. We are told clearly that he is the Bread from Heaven and the bread he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. We’re told those who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life.
At the same time, participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist doesn’t guarantee eternal life. Something else is required, something of the spirit. What is required for any of it to profit is believing. It’s interesting that the word faith never occurs in the Gospel of John. Instead, he uses the word believe.
For John, faith isn’t something you have, but it’s something you do. It’s something we live out. Believing in Jesus means that we accept, we believe in, the Good News of the incarnation, as scandalous as it might appear. If we don’t believe that the Word of God became flesh and made his abode among us, then we don’t believe in Jesus as he presents himself. We have to believe, which is a gift of the spirit. Remember, it’s the Father who draws us to Jesus. That’s the gift of prevenient grace. It’s a beautiful idea that we’re all here, not because we chose it but, because God has drawn us.
There’s something scandalous even in that idea, that we should be so touched, so loved by the God of all creation that we should be drawn anywhere or considered at all. It’s incredible, truly incredible, to think about what God has done for us.
And yet, so scandalous is the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood that we often miss what is, perhaps, the most important point of this eating and drinking. Did you pick up on it? “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We eat and drink so we can abide. Jesus invites us to be at home in him.
It makes us ponder the question of what home really is. The world is full of fears and fearful things. Soldiers in warzones long for home. Elderly in nursing homes long for home. College students might not admit it, but they long for home. The homeless long for home among people who won’t walk by, pretending they don’t exist. Abused children long for home where they are safe and loved, because sometimes home is not the place where we lay our heads down for the night.
We have to fend for ourselves in the world. And it’s often a hostile arena. Our culture tells us we’re in control of our lives. If we work hard, we’ll reap the rewards of that hard work. We’ll feel good about ourselves when we’re successful. Yet, we compete against each other for limited resources, and we’re all afraid we might come in behind and not have enough. The world is where fear often reigns. The world tells us we need more than what we actually need. We’re taught to never be content because no one should be happy with what we have.
And we treat each other unfairly, we treat other people with such utter disregard for their God-given personhood, worth, and dignity. If a person’s race is different from ours, or their sex, or their economic status, or their age, if it’s different from ours, we fall into the sin of disregarding them as less worthy than us.
Fear rules this world. Fear grips us in ways we can hardly identify.
The reason we long for home, no matter who we are, is because home is the promise of safety and security. Home is the place where fear doesn’t have the upper hand.
One thing I’ve learned is that home isn’t a building. Home is a community of people, whether it’s nuclear family, extended family, friends, congregation, club, or school. Home is a community. We’re at home with people who love us and take care of us as we take care of them. Home is where we abide.
When we eat his body and drink his blood, believing that he is the Word of God made flesh, the Incarnate One, then we have eternal life. In that moment when we choose to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, believing in him as the Incarnate One, it’s then that we abide in him, and he in us. It’s then that we find our home in the Christ who came to give his flesh for the life of the world. That’s when we choose life. That’s when we recognize that we are no better than any other child of God because of our life situation or the circumstance of our birth.
But this teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?
The thing is, this is where our choice matters. God has dragged us to Jesus. We must choose to turn away or to follow. When the Twelve chose to follow, even as droves of disciples turned away, they were drawn together as a community of faith. Being a community of faith isn’t about rules, creeds, mission statements, budgets, or styles of worship. It isn’t about looking alike, talking alike, dressing alike, or conforming to the majority opinion. It’s simply a willingness to follow Jesus Christ. That’s what makes a community of faith. It doesn’t matter who we are or how different we are from one another. When we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, we, as a community of faith, abide in each other. The root word of Communion and Community is the same. Holy Communion is more than a meal of bread and juice. It’s what we become as a community of faith. It’s something we live into when we find our home in the Word that became flesh. It’s what we are when we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ and abide in him, together, as he abides 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).