Synopsis: When Jesus first taught his followers to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” he was not speaking to Christians. As Christians we forget this, which causes us to miss the humor and richness of this passage – along with Jesus’ teaching brilliance and colorful personality. What did Jesus really mean when he said these words?
Scripture Reading: John 6: 51-58
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In our Scripture reading for today, Jesus teaches us something very important for our spiritual health. Unfortunately, just like the Jews of his day, many Christians today misunderstand this teaching. Those of us who do understand it take it very seriously, and rightly so, because this passage is very serious … but it’s also very amusing.
When we take the Bible too seriously, we fail to see the humor in it, and the humor adds richness to the stories. We also miss Jesus’ teaching brilliance and his wonderfully colorful personality. So today, my goal is to present this story to you in a way that will help you experience just how rich it is.
In order pull this off, I really need your help. Part of the problem is that we are Christians, so Jesus’ words here are ingrained in our Christian make-up, words of a sacrament in which we have all participated most of our lives.
That was not the case for the Jews he was speaking to, so I need you to temporarily forget you’re a Christian who has heard these words hundreds of times and pretend that you are a Jew hearing them for the first time. OK … here we go!
You’re a Jew among a crowd of perhaps 20,000 people all around the Sea of Galilee. At first, you were following Jesus because you were amazed by his ability to heal, but now he’s completely blown you away. Last night, he somehow miraculously manifested food for all of you – tens of thousands of people.
That’s right, you were there when Jesus fed the 5000 men, which was probably more like 20,000 when the women and children are also counted. But that was last night. It’s now morning, and your stomach is growling. You are not alone. Everyone is hungry and looking for Jesus to provide their breakfast.
Suddenly, he is found on the other side of the sea with his disciples. You hear some murmuring around how he got there, considering that his disciples took the boat out last night without him. But no matter – there he is, and it’s time to eat!
You hear some of the men in the front talking to Jesus, asking him to manifest food again, just as Moses supplied the people with bread in the wilderness. Jesus seems reluctant. He’s saying something about how he is the bread of life, and the bread he gives is better bread than the bread Moses gave – which makes him better than Moses. You can’t imagine anyone being better than Moses.
You hear the men in the front now pressuring Jesus, saying something like, “Hey, if you expect us to believe in you, at least give us the bread Moses gave us – and at least 40 years’ worth.” You hear Jesus reply that it was God, not Moses, who supplied that bread, but that wasn’t the bread that satisfies forever. He is that bread.
You sense the crowd is growing impatient and starting to tune Jesus out. They’re not really listening anymore. All they’re hearing Jesus say now is “wont … wont … wont … wont … wont,” you know – the way Charlie Brown and his friends hear the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon.
That is the context that sets up our scripture reading for today. Jesus has a problem. He’s trying to get the crowd to listen to his words with their souls, not with their stomachs. But the crowd isn’t getting it. It’s like they have a one-track mind. What can Jesus do?
He begins by repeating, “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.” Now, as a Jew, there are very strict laws around what kind of flesh you are permitted to eat, and human flesh is definitely not on the list.
Jesus has launched a verbal assault on the crowd’s Jewish sensibilities, and it is accomplishing many purposes simultaneously. First, it is shocking. So, anyone who had tuned Jesus out – isn’t now. Those words were like a verbal smack in the head. Huh? What’s on the menu?
You begin to hear a lot of murmuring among the crowd, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They’re still listening with their stomachs, so Jesus ups the ante. He 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.”
As a Jew, you are not permitted to eat meat that still has blood in it. All the blood must be drained or cooked out of it. You would never eat your steak rare. That is because blood is considered life. So, if telling this crowd of Jews to eat his flesh was like a smack in the head, telling them to drink his blood was a poke right in the eye.
And he doesn’t stop there. He is relentless. He keeps going with this analogy that is both appalling and downright disgusting to all the Jews who are still listening with their stomachs.
“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.”
If they’re still listening with their stomachs at this point, they are regretting it. Now, they can’t help but imagine Jesus’ flesh and blood in their stomachs, and that image would surely make their stomachs turn. This accomplishes another purpose. Jesus has completely grossed them out, and you know the last thing you want to think about when you are grossed out is food.
Problem solved. Now, maybe they are listening with their souls, so Jesus, for perhaps the third time, repeats the main point: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This 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 forever.”
I am sure that at least one of these Jews reported this teaching to at least one of the doubting religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Can you imagine that conversation? I can, and I have. I have imagined it would go something like this:
Reporting Jew: “Rabbi! Have you heard what Jesus said to a huge crowd in Galilee? He said that they have no life in them unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood!”
Religious Leader: Oi vey! God, save us from this demon-possessed man!”
Anyone who continued to follow Jesus after that teaching was a true follower. Yet another purpose for the verbal assault. And there was one more purpose: it served as a brilliant memory peg.
A memory peg works by creating a mental association between two things. The more memorable the association, the better. Here, Jesus was symbolically associating eating his flesh and drinking his blood with the need for us all to not simply believe in him, but to incorporate the Christ into our very being.
Some Christians believe that it is in this passage that Jesus made Holy Communion a sacrament, and they use this passage to argue for the necessity of the transubstantiation ritual before the sacrament. They believe that the transubstantiation ritual allows the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ once ingested.
I grew up in a church that believed this, and I was not permitted to take Holy Communion in a church that did not perform the transubstantiation ritual. To be honest, whenever I took communion, I could never bring myself to think about the bread and wine as the actual body and blood. I thought there was something wrong with me.
Jesus’ words were meant to be taken symbolically, not literally. So many Christians mistakenly believe that as a long as they partake of the “actual body and blood,” they are saved. They’re completely missing the point, just like many Jews of Jesus’ time.
Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Lord’s supper on the night he was betrayed, not in Galilee on this day. And did you ever notice that he didn’t explain any of it to his disciples? He simply said, “Take and eat; this is my body,” and “Take and drink, this is my blood.” There is no explanation. Why?
I believe it’s because the disciples didn’t need one. They knew exactly what he was talking about. They knew exactly what teaching he was referring to. They were there on that day in Galilee, and I’m sure there were many discussions about this teaching afterwards. It was a potent memory peg.
Jesus was a physical vessel for the Christ, just as we all are. The only difference between him and most of humanity is that Jesus was consciously aware of it and lived his life in total commitment to the Christ through service to humanity – even if it meant that the vessel would end up broken.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus knew that the vessel would soon be broken. The Christ would no longer be with the disciples in human form. Jesus’ flesh would be broken, and his blood would be shed. He was saying to them, “the time is now to consciously incorporate the Christ into your own being.”
That is the true meaning of Holy Communion. When we participate, it is a symbolic gesture. We are publicly announcing our intention to consciously incorporate the Christ into our being and to live our lives in total commitment to Christ through service to humanity.
The sacrament alone doesn’t accomplish this. It is accomplished through many lifetimes of hard spiritual work, but we can speed up the process quite a bit by being aware and willing. If Holy Communion is a symbolic gesture, is there anything we can do to more literally incorporate the Christ into our being?
Yes, there is. There is a spiritual practice that I am going to teach you all right now. You can do this anytime and anywhere. First, a bit of an explanation. The subtle realm of your Divine Self is a realm of pure energy. The emotional nature of this energy is love, and the visual nature of this energy is light. This is the energy that permeates the entire Universe – the stuff of which the universe is made – the very essence of God.
Here are the steps . First get comfortable, clear your mind, and for a few minutes, focus on the sensations your body is experiencing – without thinking about it. Just notice. You’re tuning into the subtle realm that exists beyond the mind.
After a few minutes, shift your focus to breathing slowly and deeply, but naturally. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “I am love and light.” As you say this, visualize love and light coming into the top of your head and filling every cell of your body. Then as you breathe out, say “I am love and light,” again but this time, imagine that the love and light is overflowing within you and then pouring out of every cell of your body into the world.
I recommend that you practice this for at least 10 minutes every day. Some of you may be able to immediately feel something flowing in and out of you when you do this. For others, it will take some practice before you feel anything. That’s OK. Because whether you feel it or not, it is happening – literally.
Because you are – in reality – that love and light, and you are commanding it to move in this way. You are that powerful. You are the Christ – the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
Love and light are what’s on your spiritual menu. It is very good for your spiritual health. It is healing and rejuvenating for you, and your receiving in this way impacts the rest of creation in a very positive way.
You are literally and consciously drawing the essence of the Christ into your bodies, the essence that gives Life to all things. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”
When you do this, you are nourishing your soul, fulfilling your one true desire, helping to awaken all of humanity, and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven closer and closer to fruition. Now is the time!
Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to satisfy our soul’s hunger and thirst by incorporating your essence into our own beings. As we celebrate communion together this day, bless our willingness, and give us the grace and courage to be what you have created us to be: a living vessel of your love and light pouring out into this hurting world. Amen.
Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 36: What Are You Eating? (John 6:48-59).” Bible.org, 5 Dec. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-36-what-are-you-eating-john-648-59.