I like to call this passage from the Gospel of John, “Jesus’s Vampire Diaries.” In the first 52 verses of chapter six—all Jesus talks about is bread—he feeds 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, he calls himself the “bread of the life” and then, “I am the living bread” and after that, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We have been hearing about it for four Sundays and there’s one more to go—thank goodness the youth are sharing their experiences at the Youth Gathering next week instead!
In today’s text, Jesus goes from talking about eating his flesh as the bread of life, to drinking his blood—Vampire Diaries. He tells us to “drink his blood” for eternal life. I always find this passage a bit distasteful—sure it’s a metaphor as St. Augustine, St. Aquinas and Martin Luther all believed, but why does Jesus have to be graphic?
We can understand why they were so many who argued with him and balked at Jesus. It’s such a scandalous image for Jews since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was forbidden by the law in Leviticus 3 and 17, and Deuteronomy 12. Also, as a metaphor, drinking blood was not an image used for receiving divine revelation.
Furthermore, Jesus ups the ante in the way he talks about “eating his flesh.” In the earlier verses in chapter 6, Jesus uses a metaphorical word for “eat,” as in “I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.” But in this passage, Jesus uses a different word for eat, which means to eat physically, not metaphorically. And it’s noisy eating at that, almost like an animal—“to chomp” or “munch.”
Great. So now while we drink his blood, we’re invited to gnaw on his flesh. This was so offensive and hard to understand, that at the end of this chapter, in verse 66, many of Jesus’ disciples (outside of the 12) left and stopped following him.
So, why the offensive and graphic imagery, and why does John include it in his Gospel? Verses 55 and 56 give us insight into what Jesus is really after: “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
No one can deny that eating and drinking is necessary for physical life, and Jesus uses this fact of life to graphically show the depth of his abiding presence in us. Leviticus and Deuteronomy affirm that “the life of every creature is its blood” (Lev 17:14, Deut. 12:23). One scholar unlocked this passage for me with this insight, “In the physical realm one of the most powerful examples of shared life is eating and drinking—the laying down of life by a plant or animal, and the inter-penetration of life as molecules are transferred, thereby nourishing life” (InterVarsity Press Commentary).
First, a plant or an animal lays down its life in order for us to eat and survive. We don’t this about his very often, but sacrifice is the basis of the kosher food laws in the Jewish tradition. After eating meat, one must wait six hours before eating dairy. In St. Louis, we lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood for five years, and my neighbor across the street, Ellen, explained to me that keeping Kosher means you can’t eat anything without thinking about it—without acknowledging that a sacrifice has been made for us to eat, drink and live.
This adds meaning to our table prayers, does it not? We pause before we eat, not only to give thanks to God for food and sustenance, but to acknowledge that another part of God’s creation—plant or animal or both—had to sacrifice its life, for our life.
It’s no wonder that Jesus uses the imagery of eating and drinking to call us into an intimate relationship with him! We have the benefit of hindsight, hearing these words after his death and resurrection. In John, Jesus describes that his impending death will become the sacrificial food and drink which gives us life, here and now, and for eternal life! His victory over death restores our relationship with God and will raise us up to new life on the last day.
Secondly, when we eat and drink, our body is changed—"molecules are transferred, thereby nourishing life”—what we eat becomes part of us. Jesus sacrificed his life for us and wants that sacrificial love to transform our own physical reality, and how we experience daily life! Talk about, “we are what we eat!”
“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” These words provide John’s version of the Lord’s Supper. An activity that’s necessary for life—eating—is transformed into a meal that nourishes not just the body, but our soul, with a love that lasts for eternity.
Salvation encompasses all of life—physical and spiritual—so through Communion, we take Christ and his sacrificial, life-giving love, into our innermost being and let it change who we are today. We become what we eat, abiding in Christ as he abides in us. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” says Jesus. He wants us to see that this eternal life begins now, with our mutual indwelling.
In Proverbs, Wisdom invites us to this same table that foreshadows Christ. Wisdom beckons us to feast on the Word of God, allowing it to change us in our inmost being: “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Wisdom calls us to abide in God, to eat the bread and the drink the wine of God’s presence and understanding. With his graphic teaching, Jesus echoes this voice of Wisdom, calling us away from immaturity, discomfort (and vampire jokes), into insight and faith.
So, what does this kind of life look like? What does it mean today to feast on the wisdom of God, to abide in Jesus and he in us, to receive Christ’s sacrifice in our innermost being and let him change us so that we become what we eat and taste eternity? While some saints and mystics of the church prayed for a constant, conscious awareness of God, it’s perhaps better for us to reflect on moments of abiding in God.
When I was in seminary, I met a Melody, who was a couple of years ahead of me, and she shared an experience of Jesus’s sacrificial presence for her. Sitting with a group of female students, she shared her experience of being raped. When her assailant left, she was left lying on her back, under bushes, covered in dirt and shame and pain. And while she laid there, she thought, “Jesus knows what this feels like.” It was one moment, almost a fleeting thought, but she hung onto it, “Jesus knows what this feels like.”
Melody allowed the flesh and blood Jesus into her innermost being; abiding in him and he in her. Jesus’ sacrifice gave her body and soul life in that moment, reassuring her that she was not alone, that Jesus would walk with her in her pain, and that her life was not over. It was a moment of abiding in Christ, “Jesus knows what this feels like,”—a transfer of molecules that enabled her to get up and get help. Melody became what she ate—Jesus’ love and life for her no matter what—and it changed her experience of this tragedy and helped her to heal.
When was a moment for you that Jesus’ presence was experienced, when you were changed inside by love, and able to move forward? It could be a moment of unexpected peace amid turmoil, or a time when you felt really loved, or when you suddenly knew the right thing to do during a time of confusion, or a moment when you were in pain, but didn’t feel alone—moments of eternal life here and now.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” My husband likes to tell a joke whenever he eats eggs and bacon. “In an eggs-and-bacon breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken is involved, but the pig committed.”
Jesus Christ, our Savior who came to us in flesh and blood is committed—committed to sacrificial love and eternal life for us at all costs. Living in this kind of spiritual relationship with the indwelling Christ, is physical, it’s communal, it’s participatory, it’s experiential—it must be all of these things, or we couldn’t become what we eat—Jesus Christ’s body in the world.
For God’s presence in, with, and around us to be real and abiding, God gives us all our senses to make his love tangible—to eat and drink, to taste and see, to touch and feel, to hear and smell, to share and love—not alone, but together as God’s people who embody this committed Christ to one another.
That’s why, two weeks ago, we smelled baking bread as we heard about Jesus as the bread of life. Last week we looked at visual images of a quilt and prayer shawls to see what Jesus as living bread can look like during a crisis.
This morning, Jesus invites us to have true food and drink, to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that he will abide in us and we in him. Instead of serving one kind of bread, Tim and I will have large trays with all kinds of bread—seed bread and cranberry bread, muffins and donuts, whole grain and pita, even vegan and gluten-free breads!
As the body of Christ’s sacrifice is offered to you, pick a bread that tastes like soul-food and salvation, love and wisdom, life and nourishment. Pick a bread that helps you taste and see that the Lord is good. Come forward and ask Jesus to enter your innermost being, abide in him as he abides in you.
And then watch, watch for that holy “transfer of molecules” this week, giving you a new experience or insight, into Jesus’ presence and love for you. Come to the table of Christ, where you will become what you eat, embodying Christ for the world.