Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
19 August 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Enfleshed in the World
Based on St. John 6: 51-58
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
The words are shocking. Jarring. Disturbing. Disconcerting.
And they come from Jesus. Speaking to a crowd he says, “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.” This should startle us. It should make us uncomfortable. On Monday, the day I begin my scripture study for the week, I was struck by Jesus’ words, and even a little queasy. Jesus is saying we should eat his flesh and drink his blood – not quite words of comfort one would expect. As shocking as his words might seem to us, we have perspective and distance. His hearers had not yet witnessed the crucifixion. We celebrate the Eucharist when we re-member Christ’s crucified body and spilt blood, broken and shed for us, in the symbols of the bread and wine. But those who heard these words for the first time had no Eucharist meal to point to, but just heard the literal words. It would have been even more jarring and shocking that first moment Jesus said “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The Jewish people were forbidden to eat meat with any hint of blood. In Genesis, God commanded Noah, “Every living thing shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” To drink blood would have been an abomination to the Jewish people. Blood was saved from the animals to be offered in the temple to God. Yet, here Jesus says to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is no wonder that early Christians were accused of being cannibals, and even today some nonbelievers criticize the Church because of our communion meal where the bread symbolizes the broken body and the wine is the shed blood. British commentators Catherine McIlhenny and Kathryn Turner write that, “Here is a real flesh and blood man saying unless you eat this flesh and drink this blood, you cannot have life within you…it is small wonder that the Jews argued about what he meant. Was Jesus advocating some kind of cannibalism? Was he encouraging a satanic rite of drinking human blood? What did his words mean and how – in culture which honoured the body and held blood to be sacred – how could he mean what he said? Early Christians were indeed accused of human sacrifice – cannibalism – and the drinking of human blood as people heard snippets of their beliefs: “they meet to eat flesh and drink blood”. These accusations were cited as cause for persecution – after all, what civilised society would tolerate such behaviour?”
If Jesus had meant the words literally, we would all be cannibals and zombies. But he didn’t. He often spoke in metaphors and parables that would shock and jar persons out of their complacency. I’m reminded of William Sloane Coffin’s words, “We take the Bible seriously, not literally.” We take Jesus words seriously, not literally. So what is he saying here? Is this just foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper? I think Jesus is reminding us of the incarnation here. The incarnation is God taking on human flesh, being part of the world as one of us. St. John’s gospel begins with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” and continues on saying “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The Word became flesh. Jesus is reminding us that he is God enfleshed. When he tells the crowd that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood that they will have eternal life, he is foreshadowing that by his crucifixion, death and resurrection we will have everlasting life. United Church of Canada minister Rev. David Ewart says, “John wants us to SEE that God so loves this world of human flesh and blood that the Word, which created that Garden, became flesh and blood light, life, and truth in our flesh and blood reality. When Jesus invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he is inviting us to ingest God’s Word, to feast on God’s light, God’s life, God’s truth, God’s love.”
Love, light and life! Those are comforting beautiful words. Why didn’t Jesus use them? I don’t know particularly why, but Jesus felt the need to talk in a more visceral way, to challenge and shock. Perhaps if he hadn’t used such bold language it wouldn’t have even registered with the crowd. He’s talking about something new and different here. Something that won’t be comfortable for the society. Something that will challenge. Something that will shake up our regular way of thinking. He wants us to see that God is doing something new. He wants us to see how bold it is that the Son of God lives and walks among them and that he will even give up his flesh and blood, his very life for them, and for us throughout all time and space.
When we partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we make memory of Christ’s nativity, incarnation, life, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. We make memory that God took on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and gave it up for us, in order that we may live. By our prayers and the Holy Spirit, Christ is mystically and really present in the holy meal. By partaking of the bread and cup, we ingest Christ’s Spirit into our very selves. Rev. Karen Campbell, from the Church of Scotland, says, “In the consumption we are celebrating and entering into the life of Christ in all its forms. We are entering into salvation history and carrying the story on.” Christ wants us to participate in his very life – that is why he metaphorically says to consume his body and blood, which are powerful and potent symbols of life.
Christ wants us to see once again that he is more than yet another traveling preacher or powerful healer or fascinating teacher – but the very bread of life. For those that followed Jesus, they often struggled to afford to eat a bit of bread each day. Jesus says to them and us that his bread does not run out, and it comes without a price. Jesus Christ is the living bread, and when we eat of this bread we have eternal life. We have life that lasts beyond decaying buildings and bodies. We have life in God our very Creator.
How does Christ call our attention to this life? He calls us with words that are shocking. Jarring. Disconcerting. Words that shake us up and make us uncomfortable Christ calls us out of our comfort zones, out of the narrow, exclusive worlds that we have created for ourselves, to the vast, expansive, inclusive universe God is still creating. So listen for the words that challenge, that call you out of the ruts of the life that doesn’t really last. Listen for the words that lead to life eternal. Listen for the words that make you a bit queasy. Listen for the words that say God is here among us in the flesh. Listen for the words that say, “Take and eat, this is my body, this is my blood, for the life of the world.”
+To God be the Glory. Amen.
 Catherine McIlhenny and Kathryn Turner, Wellspring of Scripture, http://www.wellsprings.org.uk/weekly_wellsprings/year_b/sunday_20.html