Pentecost 12/Lectionary 20B, John 6:51-58
Let’s do a little thought experiment to begin. Imagine that you have no acquaintance with Christianity, that you are hearing today’s gospel reading for the first time. Imagine your gut reaction to these words of Jesus recorded by John: “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)
There may be a couple of words that come to your mind when you hear about eating flesh and drink blood: cannibals and vampires.
So it is that the radicality of Jesus’ discourse found in John 6 deepens in provocative extremity. Indeed, those encountering Jesus’ teaching back in the day raised the undeniably natural question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Great question. Jesus’ teaching in John about flesh eating and blood drinking might be softened, depending on the Greek word used for flesh or body. I suppose the Greek might have been ‘soma,’ from which we derive the English word somatic – this is a word that might suggest body in a more philosophical or spiritual manner. But no, the Greek word in John is ‘sarx,’ that is, a Greek word that really does refer to flesh and blood in a literal sense.
The use of this particular Greek word makes Jesus’ teaching in John even more radical: how can mortal flesh, flesh that ultimately dies and decomposes, make for eternal life? How can such literal flesh be the source of living forever? How can such flesh be true food, and blood that is also made from ‘sarx,’ be true drink?
Moreover, mortal flesh is associated with sin, the law, the rule, of corrupt human nature. How can the locus of such sinful, broken mortality be the womb for giving birth to a resurrected life without sin and mortality?
Well, in Jesus Christ, the word of God became flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth. That’s the whole point. The word chosen in the Prologue to John’s Gospel is the word that has to do with mortal flesh, ‘sarx’. It’s not the spiritualized, philosophical word for body.
To help make the point, recall that Paul writes this in 2 Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
God’s descent into flesh in Christ is the source of our liberation from the sinful, mortal claims of the flesh. In Christ, flesh is redeemed. In Christ, flesh finds resurrection. In Christ, mortal flesh finds eternity.
In eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood, sacramentally speaking, we also eat and drink Christ’s cross, Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection, incorporating into ourselves all that Christ is, all that Christ did, and all that Christ does.
That’s the divine truth that John focuses on, such that Jesus’ flesh is indeed true food, and his blood true drink.
Unredeemed mortal flesh wants a good lunch. In the resurrected flesh that makes for eternity in Christ, we get much, much more than good eats.
But it’s all so mind-blowing. Today, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, happens to fall on the day of commemoration of Mary, Mother of our Lord. Perhaps this coincidence helps us make some further sense of all of this flesh eating and blood drinking in today’s gospel from John.
Think of human pregnancy, giving birth, the bond between mother and child, the bond between Mary and Jesus. There’s a lot of sharing of flesh and blood in the whole wondrous process of pregnancy and giving birth. This is common human experience that’s not so very far off the flesh eating and blood drinking described in John’s gospel.
There’s a whole lot of orality in the early years of human life. The child at the mother’s breast involves in significant ways eating and drinking the flesh of their mother. What is mother’s milk, but the creation, the fruit of her flesh, her sarx? That nutritious milk finds its way from mother’s bloodstream into our bloodstream for our health and vitality and growth.
We don’t think of cannibals and vampires when we see the beauty of the enfleshed bonds between mother and child.
Our union with Christ in the Eucharist is more in keeping with the fleshy maternal bonds between mother and child than the sordid visions of horror films that depict cannibals and vampires….
All of which does indeed bring us to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, where we confess that we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Still a great question, the metaphysics of which Martin Luther never sought to solve or explain. Rather, Luther emphatically insisted on faith in Christ’s promise and its fulfillment: this is my body, this is my blood. Trusting this promise to be true.
So, we are left with the wonder of it all, the mystery, that in faith our simple meal at the sacramental table is the fulfillment and enfleshment of Jesus’ promises made throughout John chapter 6. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
It strikes me that the first reading for today from Proverbs makes for a great invitation to Communion: Wisdom “has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant women, she calls from the highest places in town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (Proverbs 9:2-6)
Thus, we lay aside the drunkenness of mortal flesh and in Christ, in the Spirit, we are enabled, empowered, and moved to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [ourselves] singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts, giving thanks to God, the Father, at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)
Thankfully singing our songs, we prepare both sacramental and ordinary tables to feed a hungry world with the bread that still comes down from heaven, even Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, as we give birth to this divine word anew like Mary in our lives of loving service to our neighbors. Thanks be to God. Amen.