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 Jews 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.’ 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
You can listen to this reflection here
How do we understand John 6? When we remember that we are reading across two thousand years since its writing; when we discover that it is reflecting upon and doing theological commentary upon traditions perhaps another 1500 years old— not to mention the reshaping of those traditions during the Exile of Israel in Babylon— how do we read this stuff!? How do we make sense of it!? Can we make sense of it— I wrote, three years ago, "I don't think I can understand just how offensive Jesus' words are... [even though I know intellectually that] the crowd listening to Jesus would hear his words, "eat my flesh and drink my blood," as blasphemy, as an abomination, as a violation of a core belief about the Holy, and our proper relationship with the Holy. " (The words beyond the square brackets are those of David Ewart.)
There is another issue on top of this. We could lay out all the theological facts, the linguistic details, and the cross-cultural syntheses, that occur in John, and remain untouched. Read This Terrible Eating of Bread, for it gives some background to just how shocking Jesus' words were at the time; shocking even if you think John puts them into his mouth, but then understand that there is something else going on in this last section of John 6: there is an offer of revelation. An offer to enter into a new seeing of us; revelation means a revealing of something hidden, after all. This is not, I think, primarily a place of intellect. There is something here which can only be experienced; which, indeed, is given. We don't order it up like a meal on the menu. It appears before us, and the question is whether we will see.
I can't explain this to you. I don't understand it. It is done to me. I know only that I have been given to see it because I have not averted my eyes from the savagery which underlies this reading. What I have written below, attempts to open a way in.
"Meet the Ferrones... this everyday Australian family has set out on an extraordinary time travelling adventure." So begins each decade of Back in Time for Dinner, an infotainment-reality-TV-cooking-show blend which, nonetheless, displays moments of startling humanity. In the 1990's episode, the family are the guests of Chef Michael Tai, whose own family were refugees from Vietnam.
Michael takes Olivia, a delightfully unfiltered ten year old, to choose a fish, which he nets for her from the restaurant tank. She returns to the table, full of glee: "I got to pick a fish! I decided I would name it Jeff!" And then Jeff comes to the table, neatly sliced. "I'd like to take a moment to say a few words about our friend Jeff who sacrificed his life for our dining pleasure," says Mum Carol, discomforted, yet inured to life as we live it. (25:50 minutes in. A very small and poor quality clip)
But Olivia is horrified. Deeply shocked. Unable to laugh off the horror of what has been done. The family watch as Michael spoons the fish into the soup— "He'll taste delicious!" someone cries. No one notices Olivia's whimper, or sees the trauma on her face, and the hands over her ears: Horror.
What is our Olivia moment? When do we see; when do our faces contort in grief and horror at what we have done? Life all comes together for Olivia at that moment; this is revelation. Not in detail, not with full understanding or the insight to write an essay, but at that moment, Olivia knows: I chose Jeff. I singled him out— I named him. I killed him. I eat life.
Is this what John is doing to us? Did his community scoff at those Judahites down the road, laughing at their grief at the loss of the old temple rituals of sacrifice, and at all their barbarity? Does John offer them a reflection of themselves, when Jesus asks them, "Are you gnawing on my flesh? Are you— horror and anathema, drinking my blood?" Does he lay out for us the action which will one day give us that leap of unchosen intuition, that deeper conviction of sin, where it all comes together? Where, in horror, we realise I chose Jesus! I killed him. I eat life.
And will we eat him, or will we reject him?
Will I forget this, or will I remember? Later in the show, Olivia is unhappy about eating kangaroo, but then, forgetting Jeff, eats. Anamnesis, the words "Do this in memory of me," is not mere memorial. The words are understood to mean a recollection in which Jesus is in some way present, a recollection which has an understanding of what is happening, of what happened on Calvary— Will I forget this, prettify Communion with a lid on the loaf and neat cubes inside, or will I return to the horror? Will I remember who, and how, we still are, us people, and look at myself, face myself? Or will I take the easy path and just eat bread?
David Ewart remembers that earlier in Chapter 6, the crowd wanted to take Jesus "by force to make him king." (6:15) Do you notice that they do not want to make him king by force, which would imply they would use violence and force against Herod and Rome. They want to take Jesus by force to make him king. The violence will be against him. Their desperation for life would do violence against the very one feeding them; we reserve our greatest violence for the leaders and saviours who do not satisfy our hunger. When we take Communion, when we live as church, are we eating his body, living bread, or are we doing him violence?
The crowd has looked at Jesus through the distorted lens of their longing and seen "king." Jesus is asking us to reverse our gaze. To look through the lens of himself at our longing. And, to help bring our longing into clearer focus, he offers a second lens: LIVING bread. When we look at our longing through the lens of Jesus and the lens of LIVING bread, what do we see?
John wants us to SEE into Jesus, and through Jesus, that our real longing is not for kings, not for things that pass away. Our true longing is for things that endure, that are imperishable:
Light, truth, life, love, loyalty, kinship, abiding in God,
hearing and responding to God's voice / God's call.
There is something very deep here— a part of our conversion. Human culture seems to have its beginnings in making something of ourselves despite death. The work flowing from Becker and others suggests that "we engage in cultural heroics to "matter" in the face of death." Becker said "The hope and belief is that the things that man (sic) creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count." (Quoted here.)
It is true that we are afraid of death. Richard Beck says "you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do." This is too true. But there is something else: with that fear there sits the deepest grief. Not grief so much for our death, I think, but for our failings. Daniel Ben Judah wrote in the Yigdal, "Eternal life hath He, implanted in the soul." We are creatures who have intimations of glory; we have realised what we could be. Made in the image of God, we realise we can become Human like God, fully human. (See Walter Wink Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, pp102) Our king— that person we always seem to idolise— is our icon, our longing for glory, a pinnacle of our potential; we see something of who we could be. My fears of death are matched, even exceeded, by my grief at how poorly human, how little human, I have been.
It is almost too hard to bear this. Carol is suddenly horrified to see that Olivia is choosing the fish for their meal; her grief at Olivia's loss of innocence, at what life does to us, flashes across her face, but she deflects it with unconscious irony, a parody of the Eucharist, as she jokes about Jeff giving his life for our nourishment. Her deflection continues: "That soup is amazing." "Jeff's good as well," says Peter, her husband. It's too hard to bear; we need to stay alive.
I came late to Communion. It took a long time to touch me. I wrote to a friend about my sermon last Sunday, " 'the community that forms around the Lord’s Table' of our Communion services has caught me unawares. I think serving communion to people whose survival from one week to the next was not at all certain rather changed the nature of the event."
And as I wrestled with Ewart's suggestion that Jesus and the bread are lenses, I remembered what I do as I serve Communion; the actions which have allowed it to catch me unawares. We stand around the table, all of us, the front pew for those who must sit— we've brought the table close enough to that pew that I am at risk from the candle as I receive the offering each week— and I tear apart the huge loaf. And I tear out large, wild pieces, for each person.
When I hold the bread before your face, what do I see? I see pain. I see grief. I see longing. Sometimes I see fear. As I look at you, and at the bread, I see myself. It is not only lens; it is mirror. And I remember my bitterness, my failure, my anger— how small I am. I see all that diminishes and cheapens us, all that I want to hide. I see it because the bread between us reflects, as a mirror, that which I know of myself. It is the lens by which I see. It makes me face the shortcomings of my humanity. As I look into your eyes, I must look at myself.
The truth is, we would rather kill someone than look at ourselves with this clarity of vision. We would rather eat the fat around their kidneys than face our own internal devils.
I have a colleague who contemplates the Blessed Sacrament. I don't understand that. And yet the tearing, the standing together, the compassion— it has done the same thing. I look with horror at myself— I chose Jesus— and yet I find that I am still loved. Amen
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Notes and Questions for Bible Study
51I am – literally, I I am (ἐγώ εἰμι) the I am which always points us back to the revelation to Moses in the wilderness.
the living bread that came down from heaven. Count how many times living and life occur in these eight verses!
Whoever eats — (φάγῃ is the word used for eat. We φάγῃ our breakfast.)
of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ — What does the constant use of flesh say to us Christians who have always been suspicious of flesh? How many times does he repeat flesh?
52 The Judahites — (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) The Judeans, NOT the Jews.
then disputed among themselves — the murmuring of 6:41 which echoes the murmuring of the Israelites in the Exodus wilderness is now quarrelling between each other. Why might this be?
saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ — φαγεῖν to eat.
53So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man — ἐὰν μὴ φάγητε... if not eat
and drink his blood, you have no life in you. — Really, how do you think about drinking blood!?
54Those who eat my flesh — ὁ τρώγων μου τὴν σάρκα trogein is not simply to eat. We eat breakfast and we gnaw at the gristle on a bone... eat my flesh is not really an adequate translation. Paul Nuechterlein says "The lexicons make John’s choice of words here even more shocking as they allude to the fact that trogein is generally used of animals gnawing audibly on their food. It would seem to be a choice of words for “eat” to convey a more ‘primitive,’ i.e., less prim and proper, form of eating, the kind that might shock the majority of diners when dining “in good company.”'
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 — τρώγων : PAPart nsm, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits (Davis)
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 — τρώγων me
will live because of me.
58This is the bread that came down from heaven — the irony is that the manna did come down from heaven. Why did it not give life?
not like that which your ancestors ate, — the ordinary eating of ἔφαγον
and they died. The Message says: Your ancestors ate bread and later died. John might quibble with this. They ate and died has a certain Johannine ring about it: those who do not believe are condemned already ... (3:18)
But the one who eats — ὁ τρώγων... trogein, again gnawing.
this bread will live for ever.’
A note on Cannibalism (Thanks to Paul Nuechterlein)
Martin Copenhaver, in his Christian Century reflections on this passage (July 27, 1994, p. 719), begins with the story of a friend disillusioned with the church, who cites as an example an experience he had back in catechism class. Copenhaver writes:
He asked his teacher how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes in which they eat the body of the departed leader in the belief that by doing so they will manifest the leader’s powers. The teacher was obviously agitated by the question and responded, “What a disgusting suggestion! It has nothing to do with cannibalism. We’re talking about a blessed sacrament, not some primitive ritual. It’s completely different.” The teacher refused to continue the discussion.
I would like to propose that the mimetic theory of René Girard finally helps us to understand how that teacher was both right and wrong, i.e., how the sacrament is both similar and different from cannibalism. And how the difference, when paradoxically understood alongside the similarity, can make all the difference in the world to the believer who partakes of the sacrament. And I believe that this passage in John 6 means for us to partake of that paradox, using intentionally cannibalistic language (see the note above on the use of trogein to convey a more ‘primitive’ sense of eating). Jesus means to shock his listeners into hearing how their own more sophisticated sacrificial ways are not, in the end, different than the more ‘primitive’ sacrificial ways of cannibalism. The only alternative to the sacrificial ways of any human society will be to ingest the ways of the one who let himself be consumed by them. (Quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)
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