Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
This is just strange, isn’t it? Talk of eating flesh and drinking blood brings to mind horror movies, not the love of God or Sunday morning worship.
Imagine hearing these verses if you walked in off the street and knew nothing of the gospel story. Imagine hearing them as a child. Maybe you do remember hearing them as a child. I recall the pastor in my small, southern rural church, standing behind the communion table explaining the Lord’s Supper. Keep in mind this was a time of quarterly communion, very little liturgy and not much sacramental emphasis. I think I was about 9 and my pastor was telling us that the bread and the wine (juice!) were only symbols. He went on to say something pretty close to this, “As Zwingli reminds us, we are not grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth.” Did Zwingli really say that? He could have given his understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a memorial meal. (Not that I knew that then.)
We are not grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth. That’s the sentence that made the whole discourse stick. That’s why I can picture to this day the table, the preacher and the silver trays. That’s why I still get a queasy feeling thinking about the scene. Did we ever think we were grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth? I had not known it was a possibility before the declaration that we weren’t. I’d gone to Catholic school for my earliest elementary years but somehow missed the whole transubstantiation thing. My Presbyterian pastor had, however, made it clear that there were some who did think we were actually consuming the bones and blood of Jesus. My 9-year-old self was completely grossed out by this.
That Sunday I took the chicklet sized piece of shortbread and the tiny cup of Welch’s tentatively, swallowing the little square whole and taking only a sip from the Lilliputian cup. I was hedging my bets on the off chance they were more than symbols after all.
“My flesh is the true food and my blood is the true drink.” No wonder the Jews disputed this claim and even the disciples found it a difficult teaching. As strange as it is to our ears, they would have had Leviticus ringing in theirs: “I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…” (Leviticus 17:10-11). Blood was to be used on the altar for atonement, not to be consumed as a means of eternal life. What in the world is this Jesus claiming?
That question is still relevant and one that deserves to be explored this Sunday. What in the world is Jesus claiming in these strange verses, the very verses that contributed to the charges that early Christians were cannibals?
The word John uses is “flesh” not “body,” and John uses flesh when he wants to talk about “human,” “human nature,” etc. It harkens back to chapter one: The Word became flesh and lived among us. Or the encounter with Nicodemus about being born of the flesh versus being born of the Spirit. Jesus is claiming that he has become flesh, taken on our human nature, assumed humanity in order that humanity can be saved. In other words, because Jesus has become flesh, abiding with us, we can now abide with him.
The claim of Jesus is that in coming down from heaven and consuming our humanity, we are able to consume him and go where he goes, ascended into heaven. This is where Calvin’s view of the Eucharist offers something Zwingli’s does not. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we not only commemorate Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we participate in it as we are lifted into the presence of the ascended Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. A position found in John’s realized and future eschatology. We abide in Christ and Christ abides in us; that means where he is we both already are and will be. How’s that for a mind blower?
We are not grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth; we are hanging out with him in heaven. What if we preached that this week?
It is so grand a claim that is difficult for us. Nonetheless, claim it boldly, especially because it is hard for us to imagine. Say with confidence: Jesus Christ took on our flesh and all that has been assumed has been saved. Jesus Christ abides in us and therefore we abide in Jesus Christ. Where Jesus is, we are also. Where we are, Jesus is also.
Claim this powerful truth and then unpack the incredible ramifications of it. Consider what it is that we consume and what consumes us, other than Jesus Christ. The list is long, the ways we live unwisely varied and diverse. We are consumers in a consumer culture. We consume what we are relentlessly sold and it therefore consumes us. We consume anger, vengeance, guilt, fear and therefore those things consume us. We consume toxic substances, media and so much more and therefore those things consume us. We consume envy and it consumes us. The list is long, but none of it is ultimate. That’s the incredible ramification of the truth of Word becoming flesh. In the words of Psalm 111, God is ever mindful of the covenant and therefore even when we choose badly we are nonetheless God’s chosen.
These verses are the invitation to the table and to eternal life in Jesus’ own words. If we heed them we identify with Christ even as he identifies with us. We say yes to consuming him and to being consumed by him. That means going where he goes, both to the cross and to the right hand of God. Unpacking that ramification is important, too. The teaching is difficult in more ways than one.
Lamar Williamson Jr. puts it like this in his commentary on John, “To eat Jesus’ flesh is to take his humanity into our own, identify with him in lowly service at the cost of life itself.” We are who we eat, theologically speaking.
Jesus invites us to take and eat, to abide in him as he abides in us. Therefore, we are lifted into the presence of the ascended Christ and we are to feed and tend his sheep. We are not grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth, we are his body on earth. We are who we eat.
These verses from John are the summary of this long chapter on the bread of life and verse 51 is at the heart of the entire discourse: “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.” Jesus has assumed our human nature. He has taken us on and invites to take him on. What we consume will consume us. Remind your listeners that no, we are not grinding Christ’s bones with our teeth, we are with him in heaven, now and forever, and we are his body on earth, until he comes again.
- Check out some of our denominational curriculum on the Lord’s Supper. Here is a study from Thoughtful Christian. Consider asking a few people this week what they believe about the Lord’s Supper and let those answers help shape your sermon. (If you are looking for a good book on the subject check out Martha Moore- Keish’s “Do This in Remembrance of Me: A Ritual Approach to Reformed Eucharistic Theology.”)
- Do a word study on “abide.” How else might you translate “abide”? Dwell? Lodge? Remain? Stay? How do these other translations color your understanding of these verses?
- Note that two words are used for “eat” in this text. The one found in verses 52, 53, 58 is the common one. The word in verses 54, 56, 57, and 58 “was originally used of animals and meant to eat noisily or chomp” (from Lamar Williamson Jr.’s commentary). What do you make of the use of those different words?
- How would you (or how do you) explain communion to young children? How does that explanation fit with these verses from John? What is missing? How would you explain communion to someone who knew nothing about it?
- Every time you eat bread this week think about verse 51: “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.”
- Recall times when you have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Which experiences come to mind and why?
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