The gospel lesson today reminds me of a story I am sure I have told you before. Two friends, Joe and Fred are sitting in a pub watching the eleven-o’clock news. A report comes on about a man threatening to jump from the 20th floor of a downtown building. Joe turns to Fred and said, “I’ll bet you ten bucks the guy doesn’t jump.” “It’s a bet,” agrees Fred. A few minutes later, the man on the ledge jumps, so Joe hands his friend a $10 bill. “I can’t take your money,” Fred admits. “I saw him jump earlier on the six-o’clock news.” “Well, me too,” said Joe. “But I didn’t think he’d do it again!”
The reason this reminds me of the gospel lesson is that we have been talking about Jesus being the living bread that came down from heaven for 3 weeks now. We have been playing the same headline news again and again. You may wonder why the lectionary has this discourse go on over three weeks’ time. I think the rationale is that the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd gets more and more heated and people are getting angrier and angrier. Jesus, instead of calming them down, he ratchets up the situation.
Our reading starts with Jesus saying, “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.
Notice the Jews do not answer Jesus—they start arguing with each other. Apparently they are discussing exactly what they think Jesus means. Try to put yourself back in their sandals. These are people who have been following this amazing miracle worker and profound teacher around. They were with him when he taught them for hours just yesterday and then in the early evening he fed them with the 5 loaves and fishes. Jesus uses parables and is sometimes hard to understand. He has just told them they need to eat his flesh. They do get that he is not promoting cannibalism. So what does he mean? And it is about that they are arguing.
Then Jesus steps into their discussion and says, “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Do you see the difference? Now it is not simply eat the flesh of the Son of Man. Now is not only eating this bread that came down from heaven, i.e. himself, now he adds that one must drink his blood! He was shocking before, but now he is appalling. For the Jew even the blood of animals is abhorrent but Jesus now is talking about human blood. And he is saying that one must, must drink his blood and eat his flesh in order to have eternal life.
Even if they are still confused, the Jews are beginning to understand that Jesus is in some way talking about his body and clearly he talking about his dead body because no one can be consumed who is alive. Perhaps they are remembering that John the Baptizer called Jesus the Lamb of God. Now with the addition of the drinking of his blood, he had added the condition of a violent death, because in violent deaths there is blood that is spilled.
And now that he really has their attention again he gives them his final most important points. He tells them that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. You see Jesus’s flesh qualifies as real food and his blood as real drink because they do what food and drink are supposed to do, and they do it better. The point of food and drink is to sustain life. But Jesus says that his flesh and blood will nourish and give life, not for a day, or even a lifetime, but forever! The manna the people of Israel had in the desert sustained them while they walked and lived in the desert for those 40 years. But regular food and even the manna did not sustain people beyond that. Jesus is saying that his flesh is true food; his blood is true drink because it will bring life and sustain life eternally. Jesus tells them that as people consume his flesh and drink his blood he will live in them and they in turn will live in Him. They and Jesus will become part of each other. Somehow as people eat and drink Jesus the people and Jesus co-mingle; he becomes part of them and they become part of him.
This sounds a lot like what we say in our prayer of humble access doesn’t it? We use it during our penitential seasons and it goes like this, “We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. Grant us therefore gracious Lord so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.” This prayer comes directly from this Scripture!
But it is a hard scripture! Can you imagine how difficult it was for the people who were trying to figure out what Jesus meant? But was not just difficult for them, it is difficult for us as well. How do we eat and drink Jesus? What are we supposed to be thinking as we take Holy Communion? When I put into your hand the wafer and say, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” I am referencing this passage of Scripture. What are you supposed to be thinking? Or you are offered the chalice and hear, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” what are you to think? Are you thinking here is a hunk of meat from the body of Jesus, a slice of his arm, a piece from his toe, and here is a cup full of his blood? Is that what you are supposed to think? Did you know that one of the reasons the early church was so persecuted in the first 3 centuries was because the non-Christian people thought the Christians practiced cannibalism. Christians talked about the necessity of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. So, yes, you are supposed to think that this piece of wafer is a hunk of flesh, a slice, thin but a slice of meat from Jesus’ body. And yes it is a drink of blood from his spilled blood. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God. Part of what we are supposed to be recognizing in Holy Communion is that Jesus died for you and me. He did it voluntarily sacrificed himself out of love for us. Holy Communion is an “In Your Face” reminder that Jesus died for you and me. And so that you do not forget it—here, eat a piece of his dead body. Here, drink a sip of his spilled blood. Is that appalling? Is that shocking? Is it kind of gross? Yes! It is intended to be just that! God came to earth in the body of Jesus and died for you and me so that we could have real life from his death!
Unlike the fellow from the story at the beginning of this homily, we do not believe that Jesus dies again every time we have Holy Communion. Scripture teaches us that Christ died once and for all. In Holy Communion we remember his death and celebrate his resurrection. We do believe though that in some way, shape or form that Christ is really present in our Holy Communion. We believe that we do indeed feed upon him. In fact we believe that we must feed upon him in order to have eternal life. So today during Holy Communion, come and be jarred again, be shocked anew and feed by faith upon the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus and be changed and given new life and realize again his amazing love for us. Amen