Have you ever had one of those times where you read something in the bible and thought—I just don’t get it!! Have you ever read something or heard something and thought—I do not even understand that enough to what they’re talking about much less know if I agree! Those can be some of the most confusing times for us as Christians. Those of us who meet for Sunday School each week can probably relate to this feeling on a pretty regular basis. There are times I have to say that I just don’t know why it says this or that in the bible when we come to some of the more mysterious and obscure things we can discover when we dive into the pages of the scripture. That is not only hard for a pastor to say, it is hard for all of us to realize. There are some things we do not understand.
Why couldn’t we just have had one straight story? Why is it so complicated and unclear? Why does it have to be so hard, in some places, to understand and have so many different interpretations? But the truth is, in short, God did not give us the bible we wanted, he gave us the bible we needed. The same is true of Jesus and of pretty much everything about God. We do not get what we want or only what we can understand out of God. We get God as God is. We do not get to order up the easy-to-read version of Jesus or the user-friendly dummies guide to the kingdom of heaven.
Frustration like this might be what the disciples and all of those who heard Jesus’ teaching about bread and wine, body and blood, may have felt. It is more than a little confusing.
This latest chapter in Jesus’ life started on a hill with a whole lot of people listening to him teach. Lunch time came and the now famous multiplying of the bread and fishes from a kid’s lunch to feed 5,000 or more. People were already following him everywhere because of his miraculous healings of every kind of sickness and injury you can imagine. Now, with this latest miracle of feeding so many people, no one was going to let him out of their sight! But Jesus knows why they are following him and, eventually, he directly confronts them about it and offers them something even better than a full belly.
He tells the crowds: you’re following me because you think you’ll get some more of that food from the other day. Not because of a miracle or because you believe in me, but because you want bread. But look, I’ve got something better than that; better than bread. You all know the story of our ancestors eating bread in the wilderness. They ate the manna God sent them from heaven. What a miracle that was! But I have something even better than that; something better than multiplying a couple of loaves and a few fish, better than manna showing up in the morning without any effort. I’ve got bread from heaven! Not just a kind of manna from heaven like they had but something even better. Eat this bread I am willing to freely give you and you will never be hungry or thirsty again. Eat this bread and I will raise you up on the last day.
This all sounds incredible! But then, Jesus says something that goes beyond just incredible. He tells them, “This bread I give you is my very body. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in them.”
The language Jesus uses here is very graphic. The word he uses for ‘eats’ actually means to chew or gnaw. And flesh is quite literally flesh or meat. Drink and blood are also as vivid as these English words are to us today. That makes this very difficult stuff to think through. If you hear that and think eww! or huh? or I just don’t understand, know that you are not alone. There’ve been many times I’ve thought: if we could just get Jesus to do a quick phone interview on a couple of things, we could get a whole lot straightened out. However, listening to today’s Gospel lesson, we can see even that might not fix this one.
The people who have been following Jesus, even the disciples themselves, are befuddled. In fact, many look at each other and say—this teaching is so difficult, so hard to understand, that we don’t know who can accept it? In a lot of ways, this text can really look overwhelming and it is comforting to know that even those who were there were also confused. Still, how do we get our minds around this? Jesus’ body is real food for us.
One of the ways the church has often interpreted this is feasting on the Word of God. Jesus is called the Word of God, that’s with a capitol W, and we also say that the word of God, with a little w, is scripture. Reading this metaphorically, we can say that our lives are sustained by our consumption of the word of God. There are some parallel things like this in the Old Testament, too. The prophet Ezekiel was told by God to eat a scroll with words from God written upon it. He does so and it is sweet as honey. The point of the prophet eating the scroll was so that the words God gave him became a part of his very being! Way back at the beginning of the Old Testament, in Genesis, when the first humans ate from the one tree that God told them not to, that’s when sin becomes a part of our very being. The point being, what we consume becomes a part of us. Using that idea, consuming the word of God is making it a part of us—our very physical being. Not just something to which we tip our hat or give our cursory attention. But something that becomes a part of what we are made of.
That is actually quite a helpful way to think about scripture. Something that Robin is fond of telling the choir is “what you say or sing with your mouth you believe in your heart.” When we hear or read or even sing scripture, as is the case for our Psalms, as well as hymns and other sacred music, we can think of it as food we are chewing up and swallowing, taking it into our very bodies and it becoming the building blocks of which we are made.
Another way we can think of this passage is in relation to communion. We do, indeed, eat the body and drink the blood. We take it into ourselves. In just the same way the first humans ate the fruit of sin, we eat the food of salvation. The food that brought death to the world is part of the fiber of our being, part of the fiber of the world, but so, too is the food of life.
It is easy for us to think of communion as something that is sort of an antidote for sin. This is natural since part of the very words of institution are “for the forgiveness of sin”. However, there is more to it than just this and Jesus’ words here, though they are somewhat confusing, can help to shed light on this. To paraphrase the great theologian St Augustine, we are what we eat. When we eat the body of Christ, just as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, we become what we eat. We become the body of Christ. We take Jesus into ourselves and he becomes the very building blocks of who we are. It is not only that we are forgiven of our sins, we are made more and more into the body, the hands and feet and heart, of Jesus. Jesus himself becomes part of the fiber of our very being.
At the end of this Gospel lesson, we hear that Jesus is aware that this is a difficult thing to get our minds around. He looks to his disciples and says just that. He knows this is hard and he knows many find this too difficult. He also knows that in the not so distant future, he will go back to the Father. He knows many will leave. And he asks them: Do you also wish to go away? Peter looks at Jesus and says ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
That is what we sing each week before we hear the Gospel lesson. Alleluia, Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia! We sing this at just this point in our worship service because of several reasons but primarily it is because it is true. Jesus has the words of eternal life and he is, in truth, the Word of eternal life. That there is no other source for these words. There is no other source for this life. And even when we cannot fully understand what is meant, what we are to do, how we are to live a gospel life, we may still turn to Jesus.
Jesus did not look at the disciples and give them a quiz on what he meant. He did not ask them catechetical questions or make philosophical inquiries. He did not and does not require that we understand everything that he says. He is a teacher but he doesn’t give those kinds of tests. He does not require that we always know what to do and how to do it. Instead, he feeds us on himself. We are fed on the words of God, the scripture, and the Word of God himself, Jesus.
When we encounter things in scripture we do not understand, changes we do not know how to handle, questions on how to live a faithful life, we may not immediately know what to do. Sometimes, we may understand and our brothers and sisters may not. Sometimes, we think we know exactly what God wants, what Jesus is talking about and, in the end, we actually have no idea at all. In the ups and downs of our lives, of our faith lives, of the life of our church, we can look to Jesus and know that he is the Word of eternal life. That he is the one who gives us his very life so that we may have true and eternal life.