Lord, to whom can we go?
Sermon preached at Enmore, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 26th. August 2018
Reading: John 6. 56–69
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
The context for this passage read as our Gospel this morning is Jesus’ teaching following the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus used the feeding of the crowd as a launch pad for an extended discourse about the bread of life. In the course of this conversation, some of which takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus makes several remarkable claims. He declares: “I am the bread of life.” He tells the crowd that he is the living bread come down from heaven, and that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. He also says that the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. In saying these things, Jesus has claimed that the food he offers is superior to that which Moses offered in the wilderness because his food endures for eternity. But Jesus doesn’t stop there he continues by saying that “My flesh is the real food and my blood is the real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”
To most of us this is a difficult passage: two thousand years after these words were uttered we still wrestle with them and we can sympathise with the followers of Jesus who said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it.” But in fact the statement, ‘this teaching is difficult’ was not a comment on how hard it was to understand but rather how difficult it was to accept. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, ‘It is not the parts of the Gospel that I do not understand that cause me difficulty – it’s the demand of that which I do understand.’ That was the problem for Jesus’ first hearers and remains a problem for many today.
The language Jesus uses in these verses is strange and confronting to us but would have been less strange to a first century audience, familiar with animal sacrifice. Sacrificed animals were not usually burnt in their entirety. Although the whole animal was offered to the god only a token part was burnt on the altar. Part of the flesh went to the priests and the rest went to the worshippers to make a feast for themselves and their friends within the temple precincts. At that feast the god himself was thought to be a guest. In fact, once the flesh had been offered to the god, it was believed that he or she had entered into it, so that when the worshipper ate it he or she was literally eating the god. So when Christ spoke of eating his body and drinking his blood this would not have seemed so foreign especially to Gentile hearers.
So how are we to understand this passage today? As usual in John’s Gospel these verses can be understood in more than one way. At one level the flesh of Jesus is his complete humanity. John in his first letter, spells it out: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” John’s prologue also makes it clear: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In Jesus we see God taking human life upon him, entering into the messiness of our world, experiencing our joys, sorrows and temptations. In Greek Orthodox Christology, it is affirmed that Jesus deified our flesh by taking it on himself. To eat Christ’s body is to feed on the thought of his humanity, to know that he has gone before us and understands what it means to be human.
Jesus also said that we are to drink his blood. In Jewish thought the blood stands for the life and one of the best known Jewish food laws was the prohibition against consuming blood. The aim of kosher killing of animals was to ensure that no blood remained in the animal so that there could be no risk of eating or drinking it. The reason for this law was made clear in Leviticus where it was stated: “the life of every creature – its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: 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.” (Lev.17.14) The Jewish people believed that God was the source of all life, so life was sacred, holy. The life force of the creature was its blood, so blood was regarded as holy and was not to be consumed but given to God.
When Jesus said ‘You must drink my blood’ he was saying you must take my life into the very centre of your being. How do we do that? It happens when Jesus moves from being an external figure to be studied and discussed and becomes part of our life. He moves from the head to the heart. To drink his blood is to receive the benefits of his sacrifice: it is to allow Christ’s life to fill our own lives and we then are the recipients of his eternal life.
As Christians when we read John chapter 6 we are inevitably reminded of the Eucharist. Alone amongst the Gospel writers, John gives no account of the Last Supper. John has Jesus meeting with his disciples on the night of his betrayal and washing their feet. The context for John’s Eucharistic words is the feeding of the five thousand – the picnic on the hillside where a small boy provides the five loaves and the two fish. For those who believe, for those who recognise that Jesus is the living bread there is a sense in which every meal is a sacrament. John refuses to limit the presence of Christ to the right ecclesiastical environment and the formal liturgical service. Every meal, however simple, especially when eaten in the company of other believers reminds us of Christ’s presence with us, the living bread come down from heaven.
Very early in the history of the Christian community it became the practice for Christians to break bread together and drink wine whenever they gathered together. Some critics of Christianity thought this a weird practice which smacked of cannibalism but believers were undeterred because they hung on to the words of Jesus, ‘This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ They believed those words to be true. Aquinas wrote: “What God’s Son hath told me, take for true I do, truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” Today the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist or the Mass or the Lord’s Supper whatever term we wish to use remains one of the rituals which all Christians have in common even though our different traditions offer a variety of explanations for what we are actually doing. At the risk of being simplistic let me suggest three things we do when we obey the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
First of all, we remember. We remember the night when Jesus died and he met with his fearful disciples. He told them to drink the cup of wine because it was his blood of the covenant which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. He also said that he would not drink that cup again until that day when he would drink it new with them in his Father’s Kingdom. On the night when the world was about to plunge into darkness he offered hope. So when we eat the bread and drink the blood we remember what Jesus did for us. He died so that we might be forgiven and our relationship with God could be restored.
The second thing we do is to feed on Christ. In a mysterious way that no theologian has ever been able to adequately explain, when we eat the bread and drink the cup we are spiritually fed. We take his living bread into our bodies and we are nourished by it. By participating in that act of eating and drinking we show that we abide in him and that Christ is the source of our life. Communion gives us strength for the journey. In the Eucharist we enact who we are and open ourselves to God’s presence.
The third thing we do is to look forward. We look to that day when we shall be gathered with all God’s people to feast with God in his kingdom, when the new creation is brought to perfection. The earthly feast is a foretaste of the heavenly one. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus promises his followers that in his coming kingdom they will eat and drink at his table.
Some 70 years ago, Dom Gregory Dix wrote a now famous book called The Shape of the Liturgy. Speaking of the words of Jesus, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ Dom Gregory wrote:
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it, to extreme old age and after it…Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; … one could fill many pages with the reasons why people have done this and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all week by week and month by month on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this for the holy common people of God.
We are fed in the Eucharist but this sacramental feeding is also a tangible reminder of our need for continual spiritual nourishment. Jesus said: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.’ John uses the word ‘abide’ to express the ongoing nature of our relationship. Abiding with Jesus is a life- long process which involves learning to trust him and walk with him. And on those occasions when following the way of Jesus seems too difficult and we are tempted to walk away, we remember the words of Peter, “Lord to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life.”