This Terrible Eating of Bread
Week of Sunday August 16 - Pentecost 12
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.’
52The 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.’
I don't think I can understand just how offensive Jesus' words are. Seven times it says we are to eat him. And four of those occasions also refer to the drinking of his blood. Our life depends on it!
...if you do not eat the flesh of the son of humanity, and drink the blood of him, you do not have life in yourselves. The one chewing my flesh and drinking my blood has life eternal and I will raise that one up at the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
Eating flesh was forbidden. It was associated with vultures (Ez 39:17) and evildoers (Zech 11:9). Drinking blood was equally offensive. "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). John Petty
David Ewart says
Malina and Rorhbaugh … point out that in Leviticus both blood and the flesh of the kidney and its surrounding fat are ritually dedicated exclusively for God: the blood is thrown on the altar; the kidney and its fat are burnt. They comment:
Thus, the prohibitions of fat and blood (from human consumption) single out those organs ... that serve as the seat of life. Life is from God alone and belongs to God alone. To ingest fat or blood is to strive to be like God. Page 136.
Thus, 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. These words of Jesus are akin to the words of the snake in the Garden tempting his listeners to eat a forbidden fruit; to violate a God-given commandment; to violate the sacred ordering of creation.
Consider what they said: "Life is from God alone and belongs to God alone. To ingest fat or blood is to strive to be like God"!!! What happens when we eat this flesh and drink this blood? John has Jesus saying "… the one who eats this bread will live for ever." This is surely to be God-like. Life forever and/or eternal life is repeated three times in these six verses! We are being called to be God-like, to let go of something of the humanity in us which leads to death.
The scandal of these words from Jesus is so great that at the end of this chapter it seems only the twelve disciples remain with Jesus.
6:66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ 70Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’
Where is the devil? "Not in Judas," those disciples who turned back might cry, "but in Jesus!" because
… in the Aramaic tradition …"the eater of flesh" is the title of the devil... The drinking of blood was looked on as an horrendous thing forbidden by God's law… Its transferred, symbolical meaning was that of brutal slaughter (Jer. 46:10)" (Raymond Brown The Gospel According to John Vol 1. pp 284)
What are we doing when we come to the table at Communion? There is something terrible in the words.
We take care with our Communion at Hare Street.
We come to stand around the table together— all of us.
There is a place for those who need to sit, and room for walking frames. We do not begin until we have made room for everyone.
We stand together willingly, we who are so depressed we can hardly come, we who doubt, we who sometimes stink because we talk too much, we bitch, we drink too much, we are resentful.. and try to remember that all this is the same wounding that comes with being human.
I go up into the pews and invite visitors to come forward and be with us— "Or would you like me to bring the bread back to you?" I ask.
We give the large chalice to a person or family who is especially pressured on the day, while the rest of us use the little glasses.
We emphasise that this compassion and sharing together is to be the beginning of our sharing in life away from the table:
So as we do in this place
what you did in an upstairs room,
send down your Holy Spirit on us
and on these gifts of bread and wine
that they may become for us your body,
healing, forgiving and making us whole;
and that we may become, for you, your body,
loving and caring in the world
until your kingdom comes. (Adapted from an Iona liturgy.)
But what are we doing if we skip over the horror of Jesus' words, and ignore the gnawing of flesh off bones and the violence of drinking blood? What happens if we are not horrified— terrified— by these words?
I say in another post
Why then would God send his son as a sacrifice?! Does God want this? What sort of God is God if that is all that can be done? One author (Gil Bailie) says
Who is it that demands the sacrifice? Is it God? Is it God who has his fist in the air, shouting, "Crucify him!"? Who demands that Jesus die? The crowd. The mob. Us…
All [the ancient] religions existed to take away the sins of the world. How did they do it? Every once in a while they dumped all these sins on someone and ran them out, or strung them up -- and felt righteous about it.
This is what Australia did to Lindy Chamberlain. The night of her conviction for murder I was packing shelves in the Alice Springs Coles, not long before heading to theological college. People burst into cheers of heartfelt approval as the radio newsreader made the announcement. Feeling righteous was hardly an adequate description of the hatred which was heaped upon her. Aboriginal stories, and any common sense observation of the behaviour of dogs, let alone dingoes, knew that the taking of a baby was a most plausible event. But we needed a scapegoat.
The thing about this event on a tired night in a cold supermarket was that it was a sudden energising, galvanising communion! There was joy. Righteous joy together. Justice was being done at last. The evil ones— that monster of a woman— were being punished. Maybe, even, relief. And history shows us how wrong we were… again.
The least we can do at Communion is shudder at the language, and reject it; that is, determine to love, and to hard-question our love, so that it may not be subverted into unconscious hatred. For that night in Alice Springs was a joyous communion of hatred.
My first conclusion.
I began by saying "I don't think I can understand just how offensive Jesus' words are." I don't think I can understand how horrific, terrible, and indeed, satanic, they sounded to that first audience. But I can understand the violence done to Lindy Chamberlain. I stood appalled among the mob, powerless to speak, unable to articulate the scapegoating fervour which was seizing people; I could not have told them how what seemed so right was so wrong.
Although I still can't do the event justice in words, I realise something of the Gospel had infected me. Something revolted me. Something had sensitised me to the violence. I think we open ourselves even more to that saving sensitivity when we learn the violence of Jesus' words. We can further embrace the paradox of the Eucharist and its healing.
A second conclusion
Our culture is endemically violent and scapegoating. But we are largely blind to this. It means we have trouble not thinking the Girardians are pushing their system of interpretation where it doesn't really fit. Let me explain
We can read words like these from Heim's Saved From Sacrifice, (pp. 57-60) and think we are beyond such stuff:
It is the Eucharist that needs to shed light on such acts of sacred ritual; for example, the 'little couple' who are killed, roasted, and eaten in the Papua-New Guinea ritual are innocent like Jesus is innocent. They are fodder for the machinery of sacred religion, precisely the machinery that John 6 and the Eucharist are meant to unveil, as they also spiritually (and bloodlessly) feed us for God's Kingdom of mercy and life. While the language and imagery of cannibalism is used in the Eucharist to unveil the sin of sacred violence, the point is lost, I think, if we aren't also grateful that it is bread and wine we are eating when many of our ancestors have truly gnawed on human flesh and drank human blood.
It's not really relevant to us, we can think. We don't do this. We've come beyond this. And so when I read Paul Nuechterlein, who alerted me to Raymond Brown's comment about the "eater of flesh," his interpretation of John 6 can seem forced.
According to Raymond Brown [John, The Anchor Bible], the Aramaic phrase (transmitted through Syriac) "eater of flesh" is the title of the devil. This passage is most often taken as a reference to the Eucharist, and it no doubt is, to some extent. But shouldn't the first reference be to the cross? If "eater of flesh" bears a Satanic reference (and doesn't the switch to trogein1 support a Satanic reference?), then should we be first thinking about the Eucharist in this passage? Or should we first think of the cross (e.g., as a self-sacrifice to the Satanic powers), with our understanding of the Eucharist thereby deepened by our understanding of the cross? (My emphasis)
Yet I think it's not that Nuechterlein and Girard are forcing interpretations upon us. It's that we have domesticated our violence. We are blind to it. We do not understand that our stories "cover… [our] violence from view," as Nuechterlein says somewhere in the same article.
In the last couple of weeks Australia has been overrun with helicopter jokes— Bronwyn Bishop drying her clothes etc.— in appropriate outrage at the excesses of The Speaker's expense account. We've won. She's been forced to resign… and a whole lot of other politicians will be spared the same scrutiny. She was a scapegoat. She was the innocent victim in the same sense as most who have been caught up in scapegoat violence: just one more person in the wrong place at the right time to bear the sins of many more of us. Why her and not some other politician— plenty have been named, but only she has paid the price. How many of us who laughed at her, and enjoyed her downfall, and even thought it was a good thing because it will rein in the pigs at the trough— how many of us have been generous in our expense claims, slow to declare new income, less than scrupulous in our keeping of receipts, enjoyed at the boss's expense meals we would not buy if it were us paying, done the shopping in the work car…?
Social media and talkback radio are awash with blaming and shaming. For every pretty kitten, or cute puppy, there is an outraged exposure or shaming of someone over something. There is a description for this: it is the deflection of blame, the lightening of conscience, and the building of "community" by choosing a scapegoat and, at least metaphorically, killing them.
While the language and imagery of cannibalism is used in the Eucharist to unveil the sin of sacred violence, the point is lost, I think, if we aren't also grateful that it is bread and wine we are eating when many of our ancestors have truly gnawed on human flesh and drank human blood.
I suspect we will struggle to understand just how grateful we should be if we do not in some way cultivate an appreciation of the violence of our passage in John 6. If we keep a lid on the violence (look for the lid in this post) and domesticate the Sacrament, we will put a lid on our healing. We will fail to see the horror from which the Communion saves us. We may even become part of a communion which is evil— even use our own service of the Sacrament as a weapon against others.
Some time ago, I asked the Communion steward to stop half slicing the loaf as she dresses the table. I do not wish to lose that small shudder I feel when I wrench the loaf apart, or the untidiness that means it tears awkwardly and spills across the table, and sometimes onto the carpet. We tear out large untidy chunks of bread for each other.
We could see Jesus in John to be saying, "I am choosing this death of violence to show you what happens to people. I am going to it so that you do not have to go. You understand now, what is happening. You can stop. You can love, instead."
But if let myself forget the violence, or if I make Communion pretty, and domesticate it, I will allow the violence to domesticate me. I will not see what Jesus has done. I will not be free of the violence. I will become part of it. My celebration of sacrament will become its own violence, instead of being healing and love.2
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!
- Trogein is the Greek for chomping… it's a change in the text from the normal word for eating. "No longer is Jesus talking about simply "eating" (esthio) flesh, which would have been bad enough. Now, he refers to chewing or chomping (trogo) it. It's as if Jesus were saying, "Oh, you thought 'eating flesh' was bad. Listen to this." (John Petty)
- For example
"If Christ's self-sacrifice is not seen to be a showdown with the sacrificial institutions, then the theme of self-sacrifice becomes a justification for creating more powerless victims.
Isn't this precisely what has happened throughout Christian history? Christian women, tragically, have been frequent victims of this ruse. They are encouraged to follow in Christ-like self-sacrifice for the sake of their families, which is often more simply a sacrifice on the altars of male-dominated society (see Bondi 1994). Monks and Christian ascetics have fallen prey to this miscomprehension through the ages. Modern pastors and others in the helping professions are also vulnerable to it. This is not to say that Christ-like self-sacrifice can never be a positive thing. My point is that it is a dangerous choice if it is made without the Christ-like knowledge of the sacrificial institutions which are always looking for willing victims." Paul Nuechterlein