In the Lectionary which lists readings for each day of the year, Jesus’ explanation of himself as the Bread of Life features in three Sundays running, with today being the third Sunday. Jesus ran into problems when he tried to explain to his audience that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. The response was one of shock and revulsion. If only the people had really tried to understand what Jesus meant and what he offered.
The readings were Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58. The reflection follows.
I imagine you have all seen, or even been, a child who takes a dislike to a certain food. There is little more frustrating to a parent than a child who has decided that they don’t like something without trying it. Most parents would do their best to persuade their child to at least take a small mouthful. If successful, there is a good chance that the facial expression which says ‘Yuck!’ is already in place before the offending item even passes the child’s lips. The chances of that food being accepted are slim indeed. The judge has passed sentence without bothering to examine the evidence and that’s that.
I remember one occasion when we were actually successful in overturning such a judgement with our youngest son. He was around 3 years old and a very fussy eater, despite having been introduced to a wide range of foods from an early age. The other three children loved spaghetti but not Eddy. He wouldn’t touch it. Having had no success in persuading him, we began to show him the fun value of this food. We demonstrated how great it was to be able to slurp the long strands of spaghetti into our mouths, rather than wrapping them round a fork in order to eat more decorously. After several demonstrations, and a lot of splattering of sauce, Eddy finally succumbed to curiosity and decided to try this new game. Amazingly enough he enjoyed spaghetti and continued to eat what he had been given. It’s now one of his favourite foods. It took a little longer to persuade him about spaghetti that had been run over by a steam roller (aka lasagne) but that’s another story!
In Psalm 34 v 8 it says ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’ That verse is picked up in the refrain of the version I have used, the Common Worship Psalter, except ‘good’ is rendered ‘gracious’ there. The Psalms were the hymn book of the Jews, used in their worship, as they are still used in ours. A Jew who worshipped regularly would surely have heard this Psalm many, many times before reaching adulthood. I imagine none of them expected to actually turn up at the Temple and be given a bit of the Lord to taste in order to check out the flavour. They must have understood that the instruction to taste was a physical description which was telling them to check God out, to experience him, not to eat him for dinner. Just like Eddy, if they chose to screw up their faces and say ‘Yuck!’ without trying, they would have no chance to know that God is indeed good. Only in actually giving themselves a chance to experience God could they know whether he was good or not.
It seems when Jesus spoke to the people who had heard this metaphor about tasting God, somehow they lost sight of what he was actually saying. When Jesus said that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, they took him literally. Nicodemus had done the same, asking how he could possibly return into his mother’s womb, in answer to Jesus’ instruction to be born again. The woman at the well, when offered the water of life, hoped never to have to go to the well again to draw water. Now the people listening to Jesus were envisaging eating Jesus’ actual body and drinking his actual blood. You can understand that they could see no practical way to do that. Even if they could have done so, eating someone’s flesh and blood really did deserve the reaction ‘Yuck!’ No doubt the people were remembering the laws in Leviticus: ‘If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut them off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls.’ Leviticus 17:10-11.
Jesus was not advocating cannibalism of course. He was looking towards the crucifixion when his flesh, his physical body, his human life, would be given up and he would become the sustaining Living Bread, satisfying all spiritual hunger. His action would echo what God said about the blood, that it was given on the altar to atone for sins. The altar in this case was the cross.
This talk of eating flesh and drinking blood is hard to separate from the Communion, Mass or Lord’s Supper services we may be familiar with in RL. You may think that here in SL at least, where we have no sacraments, what Jesus advocates is just not possible. We do not have Communion services; we do not offer you bread and wine to consume. You could read that not taking Communion means you have no life in you, that you are denied what Jesus promises, eternal life. It’s plain that that’s not the case. The word Jesus uses at the Last Supper is ‘body’ not ‘flesh’ so these are two separate things. Also, it would be possible to eat bread and drink wine at a Communion service with no belief in Jesus at all. How could that possibly do any good? That kind of idea moves us into the world of magic spells and potions, not faith.
Throughout the passage that has been read over the last three Sundays where Jesus is talking of being the Bread of Life, faith is emphasised, not meaningless ritual. Verse 35 says ‘whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’. Verse 40: ‘everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him has eternal life’. Verse 47: ‘whoever believes has eternal life’. Verse 51: ‘If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.’
That last example is the one open to misunderstanding, but eating Jesus means depending on what Jesus has done for us, on the way he sacrificed his life for us to save us from our sins. We need to become united with Jesus by faith and so dependent on him rather than on ourselves. Jesus promises to live in us and that we will live in him. As Jesus lives in us he understands and identifies with us. As we live in him we can draw on him for guidance and depend on the Holy Spirit to give us power to live as we should.
The Psalm assures us that those who fear God do not lack anything at all. That power to really show reverence to God, to trust him and fear him, comes from the Holy Spirit. Reverence is seen in living in obedience to God’s ways, which David defines here as avoiding lies, turning from our sinful ways, doing good, and actively seeking peace. It is not just going to church and going through the motions of having a faith.
The Jews who listened to Jesus couldn’t accept that they needed to let Jesus live in them. They preferred their rules and rituals, rather than the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul advises his readers to live as wise people, understanding the will of the Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit which enables us to sing to the Lord and to give thanks in all circumstances, ‘always and for everything to God the Father’, perhaps most of all for Jesus, the Living Bread who feeds us so that we lack nothing.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor