a Homily for Proper 15B
Text: John 6:51-58
The first thing we notice about the gospel pericope we read this morning is that Jesus is still talking about eating. It seems as if he is always talking about food, doesn’t it? The manna, the bread, the bread of life. I am the bread of life. But Jesus takes it a step beyond. He talks about people eating Him. And he gets graphic. He talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood.
As if this weren’t enough, He gets all mystical and talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood and attaining eternal life and Jesus abiding within us and all of that. Let’s take a moment to recognize that what Jesus is saying is pretty freaky, isn’t it? Get over here and take a bite out of my arm! Really chomp down. Let me show you. Like this—just kidding. But we can see why this is confusing, can’t we? Why the Jewish leaders were confused.
What it takes to peel back the confusing bits of this is a pretty sophisticated mind, that we all have. We have to do a little dance with the text between hearing words like eat and know that Jesus isn’t literally inviting people to vampiricly feast on Him. And yet, He is saying something that is more than metaphor. He is saying something physical and real. For us to get there, we need to take a short trip through what they are hearing and why the Jewish leaders were so confused.
To start, Jesus doesn’t begin by implying a metaphorical reading. The Greek word He uses for eat implies a very physical act of consuming—like crunch. He is sending the hearer into a very physical realm. He is saying bite into it, taste it. Feel it in your mouth. The it just happens to be His flesh and blood.
As Russell Rathbun, a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota reminds us this week that “Leviticus 17 forbids the eating of blood or flesh containing blood; the blood of a slaughtered animal must be spilled out on the altar as a sacrifice to God.” The reason is because of what blood represents: life. We are not to consume the life essence of another creature.
There is a long history among many cultures around the world that believe that if we eat the flesh and blood of an animal, we gain their essence, power from them. We take them into us. Even today there is a small tribe of cannibals living on an island far from here (don’t worry) that ritually eats the fallen so that they may gain their power and preserve their life within them.
So eating the flesh and blood is forbidden among the Jewish people. What you do is drain the flesh of its blood so that you might ritually purify the flesh and offer the blood to GOD. And Jesus comes along and tells them, using physical language, to do to Him what they are not to do to any living thing so that they can have what they are not to have: another person’s life force.
This is why they are confused, still focused on the physical, literal when Jesus has been talking metaphorical for several verses already. Because He is tapping into a headspace in which they are bound to hear him literally. He is intentionally getting them mixed up in their brains. Why? Because He wants them to understand that He is talking about big, weighty, rule-breaking matters. And simply saying “here are the 5 things I want you to do to have a better life” won’t do it. He wants them to see and hear and feel it. “Crunch on me and let me in.”
Jesus seems to play up that emotional confusion, boldly flouting the law, and its intention by speaking about that internal piece, the eating, the taking in, and being transformed by the power of Jesus’s life force. This discussion comes to a crescendo as He once more makes a reference to the Exodus story of manna from heaven, which sustained the Hebrew people in the wilderness. And once again, He says that that food isn’t enough. I am food that can be what literal food cannot. I can give you Life +. Bonus life. More life. Incredible life. Juicy, crunchy life. GODlike life.
We ignore the boldness in Jesus’s assertion here at our own peril. Jesus publicly speaks of flouting an important Jewish law that is still practiced by many today, and He does so with very vivid and forceful language. He seems to want to gross them out; make them uncomfortable. He wants them to get that He is deadly serious about what He is offering: a true GODlike life. Life+ or Life 2.0. A life that is different than the one we were born into. And the way to do that is to become a spiritual cannibal.
When we hear this, we too are confronted by an idea that is uncomfortable and confusing if we are unused to Jesus’s style of messing with expectations. He wants us to be thinking literally and metaphorically at the same time. We are to hear and dwell on the idea that Jesus is inviting us to crunch on and chew Jesus and let Him transform us from the inside out.
Therefore, this isn’t for us just a story about Holy Communion: our physical act of chewing Jesus. It is much more. It is about the power of Jesus to transform us when we allow ourselves to be changed. This is about imbibing Jesus and becoming something new. To literally be changed. More than once. And it all starts with a taste.
A few years ago, Rose and I went wine tasting on the Leelanau Peninsula. The man pouring wine at the first place we stopped (which was a common first stop outside of Traverse City) gave us these important instructions. The host said that we should swirl the glass, sniff the wine and consume its scent, and then bring the wine into our mouths. Let it sit there a moment. Then swallow. He told us that much of how we taste comes through our nose and that to truly taste something, we must smell it and let it sit in our mouths before consuming.
The same for chewing and imbibing Jesus. To consume Him, we must taste, sense, internalize, and break the rules. As we sang last week, “taste and see that the Lord is good!”