Jesus said: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
We love hearing these words. They make sense to us, because we have 2000 years of tradition and teaching about them. In order for us to understand the impact of Jesus’ words in this section of the Bread of Life Discourse – which we have been reading for the last several weeks – we need to consider how offensive it was to many of Jesus’ listeners.
Jesus tells the crowd, which includes some Jewish leaders, that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. I can almost hear the collective gasp as they reacted to this comment.
If we watch TV shows about cultures from around the world, we see some interesting, and strange things. Some cultures consider it an honor to slaughter an animal and bite into the warm, fresh heart and liver. It is a prize food for the designated leader, or the special guest. Some cultures drain blood from live animals and drink it. In those places, such traditions may be essential to their health.
The ancient Jews rejected such practices. While Leviticus requires animal sacrifice, and describes the rituals of pouring the animal’s blood on the altar, the consumption of that blood by humans is strictly forbidden. This rejection of drinking blood continues into our culture today. Most of us consider such practices as taboo.
Scripture tells us why this is taboo. Blood gives life, and only God gives life, so humans are not to drink blood. Blood is also holy – because it gives life – and only God can declare holiness. So, from ancient days the Jewish tradition was to drain all blood from any animal before they cooked it. They wanted to be sure they never ate any blood.
Many times in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks with many layers of meaning, but his listeners don’t readily understand it. In this case, Jesus is referring to himself as the flesh and blood we must eat. He is speaking in metaphor, but those gathered to hear him – remember this is the end of the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – don’t know that at first. And, at this point in the story, even if the people understood that he was speaking in metaphor, they would not have known he was going to die.
As John tells the story, this is the closest we get to the Lord’s Supper. In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – there is a meal in which Jesus uses the bread and wine of Passover as symbols of his body and blood. He gives Passover a new meaning. But in John, Jesus dies on the day before Passover starts. He dies on Golgotha at the same time as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed and prepared for cooking.
Jesus is the Lamb who was slain, and when we eat the bread of Holy Communion, we eat his real flesh. As the lamb’s blood was drained, we drink his blood when we drink the wine of Holy Communion. Put that way, we might feel a little squeamish, a little sense of the taboo. Even today, Jesus’ words can seem radical.
But our text, the end of Jesus’ discourse, doesn’t allow us to dwell on that. Instead, Jesus moves us on to the benefit of eating and drinking him. When we eat and drink the bread/body and wine/blood of Jesus, we have eternal life, we will be raised on the last day, and we will live forever.
Eternal life in John’s gospel has two meanings – life in this world in relationship with God, and life in the next world with God. Our relationship with God does not end with our death, because God has power over death.
Life in relationship with God in this world is demonstrated by Jesus throughout the book of John.
It means God wants the best for us, as shown by the wine made by Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana.
It means having our faith reborn as Nicodemus learned; sometimes we need that every day.
It means having our thirst for God satisfied, and discovering that a relationship with God fills us to overflowing, as the unnamed woman at the well learned.
It means seeing God and the world around us with new eyes, as the blind man learned. It also means that there are those around us who will refuse to see.
It means hope that there is life after death, resurrection, because God has power over death, as proved by Lazarus.
It means having Jesus’ Holy Spirit abiding within us at all times.
It means being nourished and filled with God’s grace – undeserved forgiveness – every day.
It means having Jesus’ spirit flow through our bodies, all the way into our fingers and toes, every time we taste a little bread and drink a little wine.
... Communion wafers are a convenient way to receive Jesus’ body, but I really like that we serve real bread most of the time. I want you all to have enough Jesus that you have to chew a bit, to really have the sense of taking in the love and forgiveness that Jesus brings us.
This morning, as you eat and drink the bread and wine or juice, take the time to feel the textures, taste the flavors, and imagine the nutrition, love, and forgiveness of Jesus flowing through your body.
Please pray with me: Bread of Life, fill us with life, and love, and hope, and faith. Amen