Today’s passage from John is a bit disturbing. It sounds a bit like the monsters that we scare ourselves with, such as vampires who live by sucking out people’s blood. And so, over the years, Christians have tamed this section of John and said, “Well, of course Jesus is talking about Holy Communion here.” And that is well and good to hear the echoes of our practice of Holy Communion in today’s Gospel reading. But, for a moment, I would like us to take off our Christian ears, and hear these words of Jesus with first century Jewish ears. And in order to do that, let’s first hear these words of the Torah. First, from Genesis 9:3-4, as part of the covenant that God made with Noah after the flood: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” And, from Leviticus 17:14: “For 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.” So, those of you who like to eat rare beef—that’s off-limits according to Jewish law. Now, let’s hear these words of Jesus again, this time as Jewish people might have heard 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.” As Jewish people hearing those words for the first time, we would have been repulsed and horrified: not only does it sound like Jesus is talking about cannibalism, but he’s also talking about violating a sacred law from the Torah. We would have thought he was insane, and, if we had been following him up until this point, we would most likely have turned around and left him.
So, now that we have heard these words with Jewish ears, let’s put our Christian ears back on, but without forgetting how Jewish ears would have heard Jesus’ words. As Christians, then, how do we deal with these words of Jesus? How do we talk about these words to those outside of the Christian faith? Is Holy Communion the only way that we eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood? Or is there another meaning to Jesus’ words besides that of Holy Communion?
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: John is a strange gospel. The other three gospels, while differing from one another, do have the same basic outline of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Not so with John. And so, I wrestle a lot more with John than I do with the other gospels. These readings that we’re getting in these last few weeks are a prime example of what makes John so different from the other three Gospels. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus instituting Holy Communion during the Passover meal that he ate with his disciples, John instead talks about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet during the last meal he ate with them. As we have seen for the last several weeks, John has Jesus talking about being the bread of life and how we feed on him not at his last supper before he died, but instead right in the middle of his ministry, after he has multiplied the loaves and fed the crowds. And so, instead of the bread that is his body being associated with his death, John shows Jesus giving us the living bread, himself, right in the middle of his ministry. We thus need to rethink what eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood mean in the Gospel of John—and it’s not necessarily what happens when we receive Holy Communion.
The key to understanding what eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood mean can be found earlier in this chapter that we have been reflecting on. When Jesus was beginning his discourse on the bread of life, the people asked him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus’ response: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Belief in Jesus is very important in John’s Gospel, so important, in fact, that sin in this Gospel is not defined as violations of a moral code, but instead is defined as unbelief in Jesus. So, I think that, while we may hear echoes of our practice of Holy Communion in today’s reading from John, what Jesus really means here is that, to eat his flesh and to drink his blood is to believe in him as the Son of God. And believing in Jesus as the Son of God means to have life, and to have it abundantly, from the time of our baptism through the time that we die, and into eternal life. Abundant life means that our eternal life starts here and now in this place and at this time.
Beyond that, though, what does it mean to have life in abundance? There are many smaller congregations throughout the country, who, when in danger of closing down permanently, will say, “We just want to survive.” But there is a difference between surviving and thriving. Surviving is to hold on to what you have and to hold it close to you because you’re afraid that if you give it away, then you will be without. We can live that way, but it won’t be much of a life. Thriving, on the other hand, is to trust that God will provide in such abundance that we can give of what we have just as abundantly, thus ensuring that those around us have every opportunity to experience God’s abundant provision just as we have, and trusting that God will continue to provide. By giving us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink, by showing us that he is the living bread from heaven, Jesus shows us that we, too, can give ourselves away and still find life eternal in him.
When I speak of having life in abundance, and of giving ourselves away, and of thriving, this includes material possessions, but is not limited to those material possessions. I’d like to share with you a story of something that happened in my travels during the last few weeks. When I was traveling through Montana with my parents, we stayed in Whitefish for a few days with a college friend of my father’s. He took us up to Glacier National Park early one day, and we drove up the Going-to-the-Sun Road before it got too terribly crowded. We found a parking spot at the top, and decided to hike up through the Alpine Meadow. Let’s just say that that boardwalk trail did not look as hard to hike as it was. The steps climbed higher and higher through the meadow, and the combination of being out of shape and the high altitude was getting to me. At one point, I stopped to catch my breath, huffing and puffing, and there was an older gentleman sitting on a little ledge nearby with a sketchpad, drawing the scenery. My parents and my dad’s friend were telling me I should stop—I must have sounded really bad with the huffing and puffing. I wanted to go further, but realized that I couldn’t make it. The gentleman who was sitting there sketching invited me to sit next to him and wait while my companions continued traversing the boardwalk. Frustrated with myself and nearly in tears, I sat down and began speaking with this gentleman. He gently drew me into a conversation about what I did and where I was from, and I found myself beginning to forget my frustration and to speak eagerly about what I had been called to do here in Powell. I then found out that he was a physicist from Minnesota—an experimental physicist—retired, and had journeyed to Glacier with some of his friends. We were having a nice conversation when my parents came back—not having made it much further themselves before the altitude got to them, I found out!—and I eagerly introduced my new friend, Bill, to them. We went our separate ways and will probably never meet again. But in that moment, Bill gave of himself to offer me the hospitality and the pleasure of his company, and I experienced, as the Gospel of John says elsewhere, grace upon grace. For here I went from feeling badly about myself because I did not have the physical stamina to complete this high-altitude walk to feeling cared for simply because I was who I was. That, friends, is the abundant life that God promises when we feed upon his son, Jesus.
For Jesus is present whenever we give of ourselves to make another person feel loved, simply because that person is who she is, without trying to improve upon her. Chances are, the person sitting next to you already knows his faults, and wants to hear that God loves him regardless. When we feed upon Jesus, that is, when we believe that he is God’s Son who loves us and who gives us life abundantly, then we naturally show that love to those around us who need to hear it. We show the love of Jesus when we give of ourselves to pray for, to visit, and to help those who are sick and those who care for those who are sick. We show the love of Jesus when we give sacrificially of ourselves to feed and clothe others who are in need, thus demonstrating the abundant life that Jesus brings. And we show the love of Jesus when we warmly welcome the stranger who is huffing and puffing, gasping for air, inviting her to come and rest for a while.
In our Old Testament lesson today, we hear the personification of wisdom saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Jesus issues us the same invitation, “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.” Come, eat of this bread, for it is not, in fact, as cannibalistic as it sounds. Come and gain strength from hearing Jesus’ words, and partaking of the bread and of the wine that are his body and blood. Feel the love of Jesus echoing through every word you hear, every scent you smell, and the bread and the wine that you taste. Feel him giving you his life. And then go, share that abundant life with all of those you meet. Amen.