Sunday 15 August 2021
Trinity 11, Twentieth in Ordinary time, Proper 15
Jesus on (real) food
Context: Methodist morning worship congregation, mostly elderly, mostly female
Aim: to understand the sacramental nature of bread and wine
If Jesus is talking about food, we might very reasonably suppose that he has completely lost the plot here. No one – much less a Jew – talks about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Maybe we want to ask, ‘what’s that all about, then?’
A clue comes right at the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘the Word became flesh’. This is the origin of sacramental thinking: the spiritual becomes material so we can know it for what it is.
The word became flesh. We do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from God. Jesus calls himself the bread of life. He gives us himself to sustain us for eternal life just as we are sustained during the day by eating bread. During the pandemic, when unable to receive communion (as we will shortly), many people benefitted from ‘Spiritual Communion’ – being reminded of Jesus’ presence with us. But many also realised that it is not enough simply to think of Jesus and remember that we’re sustained. Because life is bodily and material it has to have a bodily and material way of being known.
John uses words which make it clear this is not a purely spiritual exercise. The word translated ‘eat’ or ‘feed’ might be better translated ‘munch’ or ‘chew’. John wants us to know that Jesus thought we should actually eat and drink and not simply engage in a spiritual exercise of the mind.
So perhaps Jesus is talking about actual food and drink after all. He’s talking about the way we use them to get at something much deeper.
It is Jesus’ reference to drinking his blood that is the most shocking to his original hearers. We might just have got used to the idea that he is the ‘bread of life’ and that in some way we are to eat his flesh to partake of this bread. But we might ask, ‘where did drinking his blood come from?’ The whole point of kosher preparation of meat is that the blood is drained out so there is no danger of eating or drinking it.
About 1000 years before Jesus’ time, the Philistines occupied King David’s hometown of Bethlehem and David expressed out aloud how much he longed for a drink from the well in Bethlehem. Three of his bravest and most loyal fighting men heard him, broke through the Philistine lines, got water from the well at Bethlehem and brought it back to David.
But David didn’t drink it. He said that to do so would be like drinking their blood because they had risked their lives for it and for him. No Jew would think of drinking blood; it was absolutely forbidden under the law. That’s why David made the comparison. It is also why Jesus talked about drinking his blood in the same breath as eating his flesh.
David refused to benefit from the risk to their lives that his fighting men had taken. Jesus is saying that to benefit from what he is doing God’s people who are part of the new Exodus – pointed to by the feeding with the loaves – must eat his flesh and drink his blood. The benefit from what he is doing is that they will be raised up on the last day and live for ever.
When Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he’s not talking about cannibalism. But he is talking about real food and real drink and not just a spiritualised thought process. In his account of the Last Supper, John does not record any actual eating or drinking, nor Jesus’ instructions about using bread and wine to remember him. John puts his sacramental ideas about Jesus’ body and blood in Chapter 6 after his account of the feeding of the 5000.
Jesus will go further than David’s three brave heroes. As the Messiah who comes to save the world, he will lose his life. His followers then and since will benefit from his death. Our thirst for the real and eternal presence of God is quenched by Jesus’ death. We drink his blood and eat his flesh.
The feeding of the five thousand was a practical sign of God’s care in sustaining his people, and a reminder of the manna in the wilderness. Jesus is saying that he is much more than that. The word became flesh so that God’s presence might be made real for us. Jesus gave us bread and wine so that we might know the reality of being fed and sustained for eternal life.
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