56 If you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you are one with me, and I am one with you.
57 The living Father sent me, and I have life because of him. Now everyone who eats my flesh will live because of me. 58 The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever.
59 Jesus was teaching in a Jewish place of worship in Capernaum when he said these things.
60 Many of Jesus’ disciples heard him and said, “This is too hard for anyone to understand.”
61 Jesus knew that his disciples were grumbling. So he asked, “Does this bother you? 62 What if you should see the Son of Man go up to heaven where he came from? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life! Human strength can do nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are from that life-giving Spirit. 64 But some of you refuse to have faith in me.” Jesus said this, because from the beginning he knew who would have faith in him. He also knew which one would betray him.
65 Then Jesus said, “You cannot come to me, unless the Father makes you want to come. That is why I have told these things to all of you.”
66 Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him. 67 Jesus then asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave him. 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life. 69 We have faith in you, and we are sure that you are God’s Holy One.”
Have you ever set a meal in front of your family with a less than pleasant response? How about “This is gross!”? Has anybody ever said that about your culinary efforts?
That was the reaction Jesus got when he suggested that his followers eat his body and drink his blood. Gross. I think that’s gross, too. It reeks of cannibalism. It is obvious to us that Jesus is speaking in metaphorical language. He doesn’t really expect us to chew on his fingers or drink his actual blood, does he? Still, as John tells it, Jesus’ speech is quite graphic….and offensive. His Jewish audience was familiar with the very strict rules against any kind of cannibalism. One theory I’ve seen says that the strictest kosher laws are the result of cannibalism being practiced in neighboring tribes of the early Israelites. Yuck. One of my personal theories on the need for 513 laws, as enumerated in Leviticus, is that each of those laws contributed to the survival of those poor, wandering nomads we call The Chosen People. Eating each other would certainly not increase the population, hence the need for laws against such a thing, especially if the tribe next door condoned such practice.
This chapter, Chapter 6 of John, begins with the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes and feeding thousands of people. A few days later, members of that same crowd caught up with Jesus again. The food theme continues as Jesus lectures them about the food that he can provide:26 Jesus answered, “I tell you for certain that you are not looking for me because you saw the miracles, but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for food that spoils. Work for food that gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because God the Father has given him the right to do so.”
The listeners bring up the manna that God sent to the followers of Moses in the desert. Jesus says, that’s not the same. 58 The bread that comes down from heaven isn’t like what your ancestors ate. They died, but whoever eats this bread will live forever.
Raise your hand if you understand exactly what Jesus was telling the disciples. Me, neither. I have been taught a number of ways to read this idea of body and blood.
Let’s throw in a confirmation lesson here:
The term is employed in Roman Catholic theology to denote the idea that during the ceremony of the “Mass,” the “bread and wine” are changed, in substance, into the flesh and blood of Christ, even though the elements appear to remain the same.
The idea is that in the communion, the body and blood of Christ, and the bread and wine, coexist in union with each other.
While no physical change takes place in either appearance or substance, a spiritual change takes place. Namely, that Jesus Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, but it is thought that Jesus Christ is spiritually (although not physically) present in them.
This view refers to the fact that the bread and wine are just bread and wine, and the sharing of them in a communal meal is simply a symbolic expression of the unity of the congregation.
What does our denomination cLaim?
United Church of Christ
Just as many grains of wheat are gathered to make one loaf of bread and many grapes are gathered to make one cup of wine, we, the many people of God, are made one in the body of Christ, the church. The breaking of bread and the pouring of wine reminds us of the costliness of Christ’s sacrifice and the discipleship to which we are all called. In the breaking of bread, we remember and celebrate Christ’s presence among us along with a ‘cloud of witnesses’ – our ancestors, family and friends who have gone before us. It is a great mystery; we claim it by faith.
None of these definitions mentions forgiveness of sins, which surprised me. For many Christians, that is a major reason to participate in the sacrament.
There are 13 references to the Lord’s supper in the New Testament. Those 13 references have all influenced our varied ways of interpreting what the wine and the bread mean to us.
The disciples in the synagogue on that day did not have any other theories or versions or stories with which to compare Jesus’ shocking words, so their reaction is not so surprising. Still, Jesus is not easy on them. Earlier, he had accused them of not really wanting to understand: 26 Jesus answered, “I tell you for certain that you are not looking for me because you saw the miracles, but because you ate all the food you wanted. 27 Don’t work for food that spoils. Work for food that gives eternal life. The Son of Man will give you this food, because God the Father has given him the right to do so.”
Their response should not surprise us 30 They replied, “What miracle will you work, so that we can have faith in you? What will you do? In other words, “seeing is believing.”
Is that our problem as a congregation—do we lack miracles? Just wondering.
Shortly after that, we read that 66 Because of what Jesus said, many of his disciples turned their backs on him and stopped following him.
Why? Because they were grossed out? It was more than that: 60 Many of Jesus’ disciples heard him and said, “This is too hard for anyone to understand.”
This dialogue, this falling away, this failure to engage, to understand is not such an unusual scenario. It’s especially poignant to us in this congregation. There are more empty than full seats. The saddest part, the part that distresses us the most, is that these seats used to be full. Why aren’t they now? Was Christianity too hard to understand? Were people looking for something that we couldn’t or shouldn’t provide? We don’t need to answer these questions, nor do we need to beat up ourselves for our shrinking numbers.
We live in a culture much different from the days when we were all earning our perfect attendance pins in Sunday School. We grew up “knowing” that everybody went to church. It was a social expectation, an unwritten law that, if you were a respectable family, you all went to church. That is no longer true. Anybody who wants to go to church participates for more profound reasons than wanting to be respected in the community.
I don’t for a minute doubt that we have something to offer everyone. There are as many ways to approach religious faith as there are pages in the Bible. David Lose says, “ Jesus [was] surrounded by folks who wanted to believe, who used to believe, who have been trying to believe, but have gone through the motions too long and have finally given up.”
About 22% of the American population considers itself “nonaffiliated.” A good number of them however define that further as “spiritual but not religious.” Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a book about the fallacies and weaknesses of that claim.
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
On the other hand, Linda A. Mercadante, who teaches at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio contests that description of the spiritual but not religious. In “Beliefs Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious,” she makes the case that spiritual people can be quite deep theologically. For example, “they reject heaven and hell, but they do believe in an afterlife,”
Where does that put us, sitting here inside these four humble walls? John adds one more vignette to this story of rejection:
67 Jesus then asked his twelve disciples if they were going to leave him. 68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life. 69 We have faith in you, and we are sure that you are God’s Holy One.”
For me, that puts everything back in order, puts everything in perspective. What else is there? I can’t create my own religion; some of my friends have. I can’t meet my own spiritual needs; some of my friends do. I’m not above shopping around, but I’m not going to reinvent the wheel of religion. I pray for those who are searching. I bless those who have found spiritual meaning through other paths. But for me, Jesus makes sense, even when Jesus’ teachings are illogical, hard, mysterious, challenging. I know, I believe, I preach that following Jesus is not easy. But overriding my ignorance and my confusion is my faith. If I don’t understand everything written in every concordance, every reference book, on every page of the Bible, I’m not giving up. I know enough to keep me from getting lost, to keep me from rejecting Jesus. Like Peter, I have faith in Jesus, and I am sure that Jesus is God’s Holy One.” Amen.
2 https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/477-what-are-transubstantiation-and-consubstantiation (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F.L. Cross, Ed., London: Oxford, 1958, p. 337).