Are you sure this is bread?
Old Testament Reading, for context: Exodus 11:4-6, 12:1-13
The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you away. 2Tell the people that every man is to ask his neighbour and every woman is to ask her neighbour for objects of silver and gold.’ 3The Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s officials, and in the sight of the people.
4 Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. 5Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. 6Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been nor will ever be again.
6:1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Gospel: John 6:51-58
51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
52 The Judahites then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ 53So Jesus said to 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. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
My great-great-grandfather built a farmhouse on a hill. I remember a Christmas Day, with what seemed like all that huge family gathered; his grandson was still there, all the aunts and uncles had come, and all my generation; the cousins I grew up with: This was us. We were... the Priors.
We know about these meals, don't we? Lots of families have a Christmas tradition, or a summer holidays at the shack tradition. It's part of being who we are. It defines us. It means we're Priors or Waldens... and not somebody else.
As a nation... Israel had a meal. A lamb was sacrificed and eaten by each family. They remembered the time of the escape from slavery in Egypt when the blood of the lamb was smeared on the doorposts and the lintels, and the Destroyer passed over the houses of the Hebrew people. And, at last, Pharaoh let them go. Eating the Passover was a part of being Hebrew, a part of being Jesus' people, a way of remembering who they were. It defined them.
And we might say to a visitor here, that something similar happens with Communion. It's related. But it's not just a remembering of that first Passover. When we eat the bread, it remembers Jesus. Living like Jesus, following Jesus, is what gives us life. Jesus died for us, and this means that death passes over us— it means death cannot touch us. We are free of the fear of death. Yes, we die, but death does not have the last word. This meal defines us.
And then... along comes John.
John, in the reading we have heard today, uses truly offensive language. I'm not sure we can appreciate just how offensive it must have sounded in its time.
In The Gospel of Luke (22), where Jesus says this is my body, Luke uses the word soma. John says flesh— sarx, which is rather more like saying, "This is my meat."
And drinking blood was about as blasphemous a thing as you could do in Jesus' community. It was not simply that what John says sounds like cannibalism. Drinking or eating any blood was an offence against God. Blood was life; it was not to be eaten; to drink blood was to desire to be equal to God.
"You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood," said Genesis (9:4). "You shall not eat...any blood," said Leviticus (3:17). "You shall not eat flesh and drink blood," said Ezekial (39:17).
And John makes all this even worse. Part way through our reading, he stops using the normal word for eating (like we'd eat our breakfast) and changes to the word we'd use for our dog gnawing on a bone at a BBQ— "unless you gnaw at the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (6:53)
In fact, a "flesh eater" was another name for a devil. (John Vol 1, Brown pp284)
Why on earth is John doing this!?
He's not trying to scandalise them. He wants to communicate something. I would not come here and preach in Pitjantjatjara; I want you to hear what I have to say, and to understand.
So, in the same way, John is talking about something his community already understands about Jesus. He is reminding them of something they have learned. He is urging them to recall what Jesus has taught them.
And I think it works like this:
With the Passover, the original Passover in Egypt, the freedom and the salvation of the people was bought by the sacrifice of the lambs... right? The blood of the lamb meant the Destroyer— the spreader of the plague— passed over the house— —
Pharaoh let them go, and Israel was free, because the first born child in every household was killed. (Exodus 11:1-5) The blood was simply a sign to the Destroyer to pass over that house. Freedom for some people was bought by the death of others, many of whom were innocent... not to mention the animals.
Can you see that you could eat Passover and gloss over the death of all those people— that you could... forget? Or not really care? And can you see that we could eat Communion, we could stand with our friends, remember God's love for us, and forget that Jesus' life was eaten by the cross— he died.
So when his community was eating Communion, and feeling good, and rejoicing in what God had given them, and at risk of forgetting the cost— I think John was saying, "Here, why don't you gnaw on Jesus' knucklebone?"
And they would say, "That's disgusting. That's awful— horrible!! We are being thankful. We are remembering his love for us. We are being a community of love, sharing the love together! How can you say this to us!?"
And John would say, "Well, why do you fight? Why do you gossip about each other? Why are you envious? Why do you exclude some people?" "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates their sister or brother, they are a liar.." (1 John 4:20) If John was using the language of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, he would say, "When you do these things, 'on your own you are crucifying again the Son of God, and holding him up to contempt.'" (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Our basic human problem is that we use violence to solve our problems. It begins in Genesis 4, just outside the gate of the Garden of Eden. Cain is not happy that God likes Abel's sacrifice more than his own, so he kills Abel— his own brother. We always choose someone to blame. We almost always seek a way to win instead of finding a way to work together with all people... and every time we do, someone loses. It always leads to violence somewhere down the line.
So when I hold the bread before you
when we stand in the circle of our sisters and brothers
and when I say, "This is the body of Christ..."
John's Gospel asks us
"Are you sure it is his body? Are you sure it is bread?
Or are you eating flesh and drinking blood?
Are you a murderer at heart— a devil?
Are you really living like Jesus
or are you still living in the world of violence?"
And this is where it gets really hard.
Because, of course, we want to say, "No! Of course not. I follow Jesus. I am not living in sin. I have left the violent old ways behind me!" And we mean it. We've worked hard on it.
This week, almost every politician in Canberra, is up in arms because Senator Fraser Anning called for a "final solution," that terrible Nazi euphemism which meant the murder of six million Jewish people. He was roundly condemned in both houses of Parliament— as he should have been.
But listen to this. This is Waleed Aly:
... here’s my problem. Take away that ghastly phrase and you’re left with a speech that sounds increasingly familiar in our public discourse. What, precisely, did Anning say that can any longer be considered radical? Is it the argument that all terrorists are Muslims? You can hear that just about every day...
Is it the idea of banning Muslim immigration? One Nation has long advocated that, and so have some of the Coalition backbench...
Or is it the idea of a discriminatory immigration policy? The Howard government was quite happy to slash African immigration on the basis of Africans’ alleged inability to integrate, an idea only recently spruiked by Tony Abbott... [and so on.] ...
Set against this backdrop, Anning’s speech is not a momentary aberration. It is a perfectly natural extension of the past decade or two of Australian media and politics....
When Anning spoke of a “final solution to the immigration question”, he monstrously borrowed Hitler’s phrasing in a way that is becoming increasingly popular in alt-right circles. But in doing that, he also handed the Parliament a chance to avoid its own complicity... (My emphasis)
Isn't it just the hardest thing to see when the problem is also us? Isn't it the hardest thing not to blame other people instead of dealing with the violence in us?
So what I think John's community was doing
each time they shared Communion
was asking themselves a very hard question—
a question about their complicity—
each time they looked at the bread:
Am I sure I am eating bread?
Or am I just pretending I am better than others...
so that , as the apostle Paul said,
[I] condemn [my]self, because [I], the judge, [am] doing the very same things, (Romans 2:1)
and so I might as well be gnawing at Jesus' real flesh and blood.
They used the bread to ask themselves the hardest question.
Remember how Jesus says in John 6
"unless you gnaw at the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you?"
I think they went to Communion
very deliberately, very graphically,
reminding themselves that they did judge,
they did condemn,
and that they were, sometimes, more devil flesh-eater than Christian.
And when we swallow that
when we confess that we are also like that at times
we finally have life in us
because we have stopped making excuses
and have repented
and begun to live another way.
And that... means death does lose its hold on us.
Let us look at the bread, next time, and at the wine.
And remember how we fall short— be honest.
And be assured that God loves us
and God rejoices that we
wrestle with the hard gristle of our humanity
and gives us life.
God will not let us go.
Amen (Andrew Prior 2018)
Also on One Man's Web
John 6:51-58 - Chomping in Church (2012)
John 6:51-58 - This Terrible Eating of Bread (2015)
John 6:51-58 - How could I drink blood!? (2018)