Being totally absorbed in the revelation of Jesus

Pentecost 11
John 6:51-58
Marian Free

In the name of God, who through Jesus, calls us to give ourselves completely to him. Amen.

We are all familiar with the accounts of the Last Supper. Jesus meets with his friends to celebrate the Passover Meal. During the meal, he takes a loaf of bread and after blessing it, breaks it and says: “Take eat, this is my body.” Then he takes a cup of wine and says: “Drink from this all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many.” These or similar words are found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and first Corinthians with Luke and Paul adding the words: “Do this in remembrance of me”. However, despite the fact that John’s gospel records Jesus’ final meal with the disciples, he has no record of the breaking of bread or sharing of wine.

I have said in previous weeks, that many scholars believe that this sixth chapter of John’s gospel is the one in which John explores the theology of the Eucharist against the background of the Jewish festival of Passover. Using the feeding of the five thousand as his starting point, the evangelist argues that Jesus is the “living bread”. In the context of the Passover with its emphasis on the escape from Egypt and the provision of the manna in the wilderness, the author contends that Jesus has supplanted the manna both in terms of its ability to satisfy but also in terms of its ability to give life. Given that by the first century the manna had come to represent the sustaining, life-giving nature of the law, John is making the startling point that Jesus has replaced the law.

In today’s reading, the author of John’s gospel takes discourse even further. Jesus begins by stating in effect that those who eat the living bread will live forever and that the bread he will give is his flesh! No wonder the Jews begin to dispute among themselves. How can anyone give their flesh to be eaten? Not only is the idea difficult to understand, but it is quite abhorrent. Besides, they know who he is, they know his mother and father. How can he give his flesh? Jesus doesn’t back down, but instead intensifies the point – first negatively, then positively. If they don’t eat his flesh and drink his blood they will have no life in them. On the other hand, if they do, not only will they live, they will live forever.

The living bread – Jesus – is the source of life, not only now but for all eternity. There is no life apart from him. Not only does this life surpass that provided by the manna in the wilderness, but rather than being limited to the people of Israel, it extends to the whole world.

The language of eating flesh and drinking blood is confronting and much more direct than that used in the Synoptic gospels where bread and wine can be taken to be representational. However, such language cannot be avoided or softened, not only because we find it here in John’s gospel, but because we ourselves say it here week after week in the Prayer of Humble Access: “grant us so to eat the flesh and drink the blood of your dear Son Jesus Christ that we may evermore live in him and he in us”. This  language was not only offensive and difficult for Jesus’ first century listeners but it is also difficult for many who come to our churches today.

We ought perhaps to be grateful that we do not have to read the original Greek, for the word translated “to eat” changes – probably to provide more emphasis. In verse 53, it is the word “phagein” which simply means “to eat”. However, in verse 54 another word, “trogein” is used. This latter word is much more expressive meaning “to eat, to chew to crunch”. The author makes the change to emphasise the violence to the situation that is being expressed. Jesus has already said that he will give his flesh for the life of the world. The physicality of the language opens the listener to the brutality of the crucifixion – the means by which Jesus will give his life. His flesh will literally be torn and battered.

The very physicality of the language makes it clear that it is in the very human Jesus that salvation is worked out. It is in the human Jesus that the word of God enters the world and shares our existence and it is the human Jesus whose very real death on the cross leads to salvation and life for all.

Finally, in Verse 56 we can see where John is headed. Jesus say: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”. We discover that eating and drinking is the language John uses for relationship between the believer and Jesus. This theme of mutual indwelling is particularly Johannine. He stresses the fact that Jesus and the Father are one, and he then extends this to include believers.  Jesus says: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you” (14:20).  The relationship between Jesus and the believer is intended to be so close that it should be impossible to distinguish between them, just as it is impossible to distinguish between the Father and the Son.

As God the Creator is the source of life, the mutual in-dwelling of the Father and the Son means that Jesus too is the source of life. As such he can say: “I am the bread of life”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Those who believe in Jesus, who are one with him, share this life with him and, as they share Jesus’ life in the present, so they will participate in Jesus’ eternal life in the future.

The language of eating and drinking is used to help us to see that it is not just belief in Jesus that is required for salvation. We are required to ingest the revelation of Jesus in its entirety, to absorb it completely so that it becomes a part of ourself. Salvation, according to John, requires total identification with Jesus, such that there is no longer any distinction between ourselves and him, just as there is no distinction between Jesus and God.

The nature of the relationship which we are to develop with Jesus is to be so close that it is as if we are one, so close that it becomes difficult to know where we end and  where Jesus begins. Week by week as receive the bread and drink the wine, we allow Jesus to become more and more a part of who we are, in the hope that we will become more and more who he is.

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