The choice of words and direction of the debate Jesus is having with his followers described in John 6:56-69 are confronting and difficult to digest. There is no way we can wriggle out with polite metaphors or simple explanations. We need to resist the temptation to slide through the difficult bits. The crowd around Jesus wanted to reduce the Gospel to food distribution and political power (6:15, 26) but Jesus was more radical than they expected. Let’s hear it again:
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. John 6:56
This is the bread that came down from heaven…but the one who eats this bread will live forever. (6:58)
What might this mean when Jesus invites us to eat his flesh? In previous weeks as we’ve explored John’s gospel, we have been invited to connect the feeding of the five thousand with the five loaves and two fishes, with the gift of manna in the exodus wilderness. (6:31)
John has reminded us, this is the season of Passover (6:4) so the connections between the stories are being piled up by him and Jesus. So perhaps we should start with reminding ourselves about the significance of Passover. Just as Paul insists the Eucharist should be understood in relation to the traditional Passover practices, here in these Gospel verses, Jesus presents himself as the sacrificial offering fundamentally affirming God’s covenant with God’s people, leading to their liberation. Paul says:
Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor.5:7-8)
Jesus hammers home the message. He repeats the phrase, ‘eat my flesh and drink my blood’ four times. The fifth time, he adds the promise:
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. (6:57)
Of course, even apart from the horrific thought of cannibalism and drinking human blood, Jewish law forbids consuming the blood of animals. The Torah teaches:
You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. (Lev.17:14; cf. Deut. 12:23)
This much is obvious. When Jesus is speaking of himself as ‘flesh and blood, he is referring himself as a living creature, a truly human ‘son of man’ and significantly, the Messianic God-sent ‘Son of Man’.
John’s reason for reporting Jesus’ words in their most raw form is to help us understand salvation. These words are used later and are essential for the church’s core theological doctrines of incarnation and atonement. The work of Christ for salvation is accomplished in flesh and blood from birth to death. Into our flesh and blood existence, God sent God’s Son to redeem all those who will receive him. To ingest Christ is to welcome God’s atoning sacrifice into our whole being.
Sent by God in flesh and blood, Jesus is the very Word of God. While Jesus as logos resonates with Greek thought, Hebrew tradition opens another possibility for consideration of those words: ‘whoever eats me will live because of me’. (6:57) To ‘eat’ Jesus is to devour, digest and be nourished by God’s Word. Here Jesus evokes not only Moses, manna, and Passover, but Israel’s prophets. Jeremiah prayed:
O Lord….on your account I suffer insult. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name. (Jer.15:15-16).
God said to Ezekiel:
Do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you….eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel….Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was a sweet as honey. (Ezek. 2:8, 3:1-3)
Because Jesus is God’s Word incarnate, to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ allows us to discover life’s meaning, and to receive life itself, what the Synoptic Gospels call the kingdom of heaven. Feasting on the Word is the Way to have eternal life, Jesus promises: ‘and I will raise them up on the last day’. (6:54)
In considering Jesus’ words in this dialogue, is also to spend time considering what it is to eat well in our dietary habits, and then to think about how this is abiding in Christ. Jesus says those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him, and he abides in them, which suggests the church’s communion with him, is both like and unlike eating. When we eat, we consume, we absorb the food into our bodies. We destroy the identity of thing being eaten to give ourselves life.
If we think about eating Jesus, we are clearly not simply consuming and destroying. We take him into our bodies by faith, the living reality of his person remains intact. At the same time, he takes us into himself without dissolving our distinct personality. By participating in the eating and drinking of Jesus, we are neither absorbed nor do we absorb Christ, but we abide together in a life-giving relationship. The grace-filled presence of God is not made scarce, diminished, or consumed. It is abundant, abiding, eternal and inexhaustible.
Jesus is not consumed as a religious commodity which we have by right, by belonging to believers. Here, to consume the Eucharist is an act of anti-consumption. Here to consume is to be consumed, to be taken up and participate in something larger than ourselves, and in which our identity is secured. The church’s celebration of the Lord’s supper is the sign and seal of our participation in this greater reality. However, our nourishing relationship with Christ existed prior to and apart from the sacrament because of the faithful abiding of the One who came down from heaven.
The discussion was so graphic and difficult, Jesus’ followers chose to walk away. Jesus would have known the consequences of what he was saying. We might ask why he was being so confrontational and frank in his words and in his explanation. Is he going out of the way to offend them on purpose, or to confound them as he did with Nicodemus and the rich young man? Does he deliberately not want them to understand, or is it because he wants them to realise and understand what he is saying will not, by any stretch of their imaginations, fit into their previous understanding of God, the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever they knew about God, it is time for them and us to think again. It may even be time for us to give up knowing anything for a while, so God has room to do a new thing in them and us.
As we contemplate Jesus deliberately provoking his listeners who were trying to tame him, understand him, own him and categorise him, we can see the followers walking away. (6:66) Numbers of followers around him shrank instead of growing.
One writer, Lamar Williamson calls this the ‘sifting effect of the gospel’. He points out Jesus lost a lot of followers, not only those offended by his teaching or because they found it too difficult to understand, but perhaps some who had stayed because they had no better place to go. When Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked: Do you also wish to go away? Simon Peter said,
Lord, to whom can we go?’ There is no where else to go. (6:68)
When I think about my own failures and difficulties in living each day in Christ, I am reminded there is a difference between the person who repeatedly fails to follow Jesus but returns and keeps trying with God’s grace, and the one who makes a positive choice to abandon Jesus completely. For Peter and for each of us, our experience of living closely with Jesus daily, means all other choices are overwhelmed and have no attraction anymore. Where else can we go? No one else can give us life. As Peter said:
You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know you are the Holy One of God. (6:68-69)
Williamson, L. 2004: Preaching the Gospel of John. Louiseville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. P. 88)