Red: Understanding the Hard Sayings Of Jesus - Week One: "Eat My Flesh & Drink My Blood"
This week we are launching a brand new sermon series, entitled "Red: Understanding the Hard Sayings of Jesus," a series that I hope both challenges and inspires us to learn more about what it means to follow Jesus, to be a Christian.
Let me begin by asking you a question: What do you do when you hear something that absolutely rocks your world? And what I mean by this is when you hear a truth, a new idea, something that when you hear it, you feel the reverberations of what you've heard deep inside your soul?
What do you do when you hear something that challenges the way you thought about the world? About God? About everything?
I was at a conference for pastors and went to hear a talk by author and Christian activist, Shane Claiborne, who was promoting his newest book: Jesus For President. Shane is one of those Christians that make us all look bad. He developed a heart for the poor, so he gave up everything and went to live in one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia with a bunch of his friends. There they minister to the poor, the forgotten, the addicts, prostitutes, neglected, hungry, homeless, you name it.
At any rate, I went to hear Shane speak, and he was talking about forgiveness. He told the story of an Amish community that was rocked by tragedy when a young man burst into a schoolhouse and killed several young Amish girls before killing himself. The community was wracked by grief and the funerals were unbelievably hard. But what amazed the world was how all of the families of those slain girls purposefully attended the funeral of the killer, comforting his grief-stricken family, forgiving him completely.
I sat there with tears running down my face. And then Shane said this.
"Imagine after 9/11 if we had done what the Amish did. What if we had publicly forgiven our attackers, blessed their families with our forgiveness, given up our need for revenge, and shown them grace. Imagine what kind of message that would have sent to the world."
I didn't want to hear those words, to be honest. I wanted to hold on to my anger. The last thing I wanted to do was to forgive the people who had perpetrated this mass murder and changed our world forever.
I watched as several pastors got up and walked out in a huff. I just sort of sat there stunned, not knowing what to do. There was something so true about what Shane was saying, but I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want it to be true.
We've all had this happen at one point in our life or another. We hear a sermon, or a lecture that offers up something that goes against everything we thought we believed, and we know that if we embrace it, we're going to be changed forever. Or maybe a mentor or friend shares a straight up truth with us and we don't want it to be straight up truth, we want to relegate it to straight up opinion, and brush it off.
When I read the red letters of Jesus in the Bible, I sometimes feel the same way. When I say red letters, what I mean is that in many versions of the Bible, all of the things that Jesus says in the Gospels and in the first chapter of the book of Acts are printed in red. The red letters of Jesus stand out. Most of them are so beautiful, and inspiring, but I have to be honest here...
Some of the red letters of Jesus are just off the wall. Some of them are so outside of my understanding of how things should work that I am tempted to gloss over them, ignore them...
So what do we do when Jesus words are hard to hear? That's the focus of this sermon series--a series that will take us all the way through the month of October, and hopefully will inspire and challenge us to see ourselves, Jesus, our faith and maybe even the world differently.
We're going to begin our journey through some of the hard sayings of Jesus by studying a passage from John 6:53-66--a passage where Jesus says to those who are gathered to hear him that if they "eat his flesh and drink his blood" they will have eternal life:
53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed,[a] and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”59 These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.
60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” 61 When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.” 66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.
This story occurs right after Jesus miraculous feeding of the 5000 where he multiplied bread and fish, and kind of cemented his notoriety among the people who lived in the Galilee. In fact, many of them follow him, presumably with their friends this time, eager to have him perform another miracle. This time they want him to feed them with manna, like Moses did their ancestors in the wilderness. The rumor was obviously that he was a new Moses, possibly a leader who could lead them out of bondage and to prominence as they believed their prophecies foretold.
So Jesus turns to address the crowds who are gathered and he says something so completely and obscure and offensive that it defied their imagination. Literally translated, Jesus says at least four times during this discourse, "You need to gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood." The words "eat" and "body" which are present when Jesus commands his disciples to continue celebrating the meal "in remembrance of me," are no where to be found here. Instead we get gnaw and flesh, along with the drinking of blood.
Jesus informs those who are listening that doing this will bring you eternal life and that he will abide with you when you do. This is a very intimate, personal verb that honestly connects with the very personal and intimate words gnaw and flesh. These are earthy words, filled with the weight of human-ness.
The words are often incredibly offensive to the Jews who are gathered there. The earthy way Jesus proclaims this new teaching makes it almost impossible for them to bear. With the prohibitions against the presence of blood in what they eat, and the shocking language of gnawing on flesh--they lose their minds and start murmuring. The word that's used there is the same word that is used to describe what the people of Israel did when they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years with Moses.
Then many of Jesus followers leave, because they couldn't take this new teaching, it was too much for them. They couldn't possibly embrace it because to do so would mean that would be devaluing and casting aside beliefs they had held for hundreds of years, and throughout multiple generations.
Even the twelve disciples seem a bit off. When Jesus asks them if they are going to leave, too, Peter sounds a bit desperate in his response. "Where else would we go? You have the words of life." Some scholars have read this as if Peter were saying it with clenched teeth. I am not so sure, but I do know that he was probably feeling a bit anxious.
What Jesus did was introduce an idea that turns out everything they thought they knew. It didn't fit any of their other categories.
In a nutshell what Jesus wanted them to understand was this:
"Nothing on this earth can satisfy your hunger and thirst. "
Jesus was teaching them: "All the things you have been taught about what gets you right with God, all of those hoops that you were told you have to jump through, the ceremony, the regulations, the laws---all of that was preparing you for this moment, for an encounter with me."
And further he wanted them to understand--what they weren't getting--was that belief in Him, in who he was, and what he had come to do in order to redeem and reconcile all of Creation to God.... that was the only way to satisfy the kind of hunger and thirst that this world cannot quench.
The only way to experience eternal life both now and forever, Jesus was saying, is when you enter into a close, personal relationship with me.
It's kind of obvious that for Christians this passage of Scripture has a lot to say about Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, the Mass or the Eucharist--whatever you prefer to call it. The connection to Communion is right there in front of us. "The Body" and the "The Blood" which are symbolized in "The Bread" and "The Cup." And we use the same kind of language to describe what we are doing when we celebrate the Lord's Supper. We speak of the bread as Christ's body and the wine as Christ's blood.
What happens when a child is confronted by the strangeness of these words? I remember I was kind of freaked out by it when I was young. I have seen some children refuse to receive communion and shy away when it's passed because they were frightened it really was pieces of flesh and a cup full of actual blood.
So when did we stop taking it so seriously? Have we spiritualized Holy Communion so much that it's more of an afterthought than a life-changing, awe-inspiring, "strange" moment of heaven touching earth?
Even the early Church struggled with this in those first centuries as some Christian communities stopped celebrating the Eucharist because they couldn't bring themselves to believe that God would actually take on human form and allow himself to actually die. They so despised the earthiness of it all that they couldn't bring themselves to embrace it.
I have another question to ask... What happens when you eat something? I mean what actually happens to what you are eating when you eat it? Think about your favorite food in all of it's glory. I am picturing Chicken and Waffles from the Metro Diner in Jacksonville, chased down with a huge Coke and followed by dessert--a chocolate chip yo-yo from Publix. Pardon me a moment while I weep in a mixture of joy and sorrow.
What happens when you eat that favorite food? You retain your form when you eat it--unless you eat what I just described or food like it and never exercise, of course. But essentially you retain your form, but you do so by destroying the identity of whatever it is that you have eaten. You absorb it into yourself, and you do not lose any of yourself as you do it.
This is the way things are. This is what the people who heard Jesus that day knew as immutable truth. Eating and drinking are essential to life. So are the ways that you eat and drink, according to their covenant with God. The way to God is found through religion, and not just any religion, our particular religion, kept in our particular way. They did not lose their identity when they consumed this law, this way of being, this way of understanding God. In fact, their identity was probably the most important thing to them.
But what Jesus was offering was something radically different, which is what made it so offensive. With the Eucharist, to consume the elements, to embrace a life following Jesus, is to be consumed. There's no dissolving of Jesus in this earthy, intimate moment. And there's no dissolving of us, even though we are consumed by the love of Christ through the power of God's Holy Spirit. What we experience is a oneness that cannot be expressed completely in mortal language. The words of St. Francis come closest, "Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I rise..."
This is the beauty of God taking on human form and becoming one of us in order to save all of us. Jesus was filled with God's power and Spirit, but was still completely human, an incredible symbol of just how much God loves and honors his children, whom He created. And in turn, Jesus declares to us, "The only way to truly become the fully alive human being that you have always been destined to become is when you give up your notions of identity apart from me."
Quenching your spiritual hunger and thirst is impossible without a close relationship with the Son of Heaven--who became "flesh" and moved into our neighborhood. So when he invites us to "eat" and to "drink," when we use earthy materials like bread and wine, when we gather together and we receive these elements we are affirming what Jesus himself affirmed first: We matter, You matter, Creation matters, Matter matters... these things become sacred when they point beyond themselves to the great sacrifice that was made.
And even though the elements of our Communion seem to be firmly planted on earth, they (and we) transcend all of that because when we partake in the Eucharist, we are declaring unequivocally that Christ abides with us not only now, but in all times and places.
And we are reminded once again as we eat the bread/the body and drink the cup/the blood that nothing on this earth can satisfy our hunger and thirst.
Only Jesus can satisfy those longings. Only Jesus. It's always been Jesus. It will always be Jesus. Jesus before us, Jesus behind us, Jesus, within us, Jesus all around, and through us. Only Jesus.