The Scandal of the Eucharist
Imagine you were in that crowd of Jesus’ listeners and were hearing it for the first time. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” There is some murmuring, then stunned silence. Some who were not really paying attention do a second take, and shooting looks back and forth for any indication they didn’t hear wrong, they mouth the words: “Did he just say what I thought he said?”
But Jesus is unfazed. He goes on. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
If there was a tabloid press in Jesus’ time, they would now have been pitching their editors a story for a spot on tomorrow’s front page. If there were TV and radio reporters, they would now have been promising a lead story for the midday or evening broadcast. But that was not the case. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. So the potential bombshell of a scandal only met with a few “What now’s?,” a handful of “No you di-in’t’s,” and a smattering of “Fo’ sure, you is crazy.” Everyone else just went on mopping sweat off their brow, or swatting bugs away in the heat of the noonday sun.
Recall at the beginning of this 6th chapter of John’s gospel which we read three weeks ago that Jesus had fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish shared by a young boy. After they had eaten, and 12 baskets of leftovers were collected, the crowd started making noise about grabbing Jesus and making him king. But Jesus and his disciples slip away. The crowd follows them to the other side of the lake. So Jesus tells them they came looking for him not because they saw and understood his signs, but because they ate good bread. And by the way, he had bread that would give eternal life. Clearly he was not speaking of bread like what they had eaten. It makes sense he meant this bread was his teaching. So they said, “Give us some of this bread.” They remembered that Moses gave their ancestors manna in the desert. Manna was also a symbol of the Law, which came from God, and which Israel received as food to be consumed and digested, an image that was not totally unfamiliar to them. So Jesus tells them he had something even better than manna. “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Right on, Jesus. And then this. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
What was that? His listeners have a conniption. They were sure they knew where he was from. How can he say he came down from heaven? But Jesus is on a roll. “Whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Every election cycle, which seems to start earlier each go-around, candidates for political office will grab a microphone, get in front of a camera, and say things to get the attention of voters. Sometimes they say things that people like to hear, which regretfully gives them the courage to keep talking. Sometimes they put their foot in their mouth, and say things that some will find offensive. And we have seen two different ways candidates will respond when a segment of the electorate cries foul. Either they keep digging deeper because they stand by their convictions, and will not be deterred by their opponents; or they recognize their oopsie and take a step back. “I misspoke.” Or “That is not what I really meant to say.” Or “Hold on. I didn’t hear the question right.”
If Jesus was concerned his listeners would miss his meaning, that they would be angered or repulsed by his straightforward suggestion of what clearly sounded like cannibalism, he had opportunity to calm the troubled waters. “What I really meant to say was MY TEACHING is food and drink. If you take and embrace MY TEACHING, you will have eternal life. Nothing crazy about that.” Instead, like a man on a mission he doesn’t back down; he says it one more time. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
At the time Jesus was speaking these words, no one could have imagined his violent death. But the gospel writer is recounting this event from the perspective of the resurrection. The early Christian community remembered Jesus’ instruction the night before he died when he gathered with his disciples at table, how he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them, how he took a cup of wine and shared it with them. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you. Do this in memory of me.” So when in Chapter 6 of John’s gospel Jesus told the crowd that his body and blood are food and drink, they knew he meant exactly what he said. And for 1600 years until the Reformation, the church has taught consistently and believed unwaveringly that Jesus meant for his disciples to offer at the table of the Eucharist the sacrifice he offered of himself on Calvary. His Sacred Word like the Law would be food to transform the hearts and minds of believers. And the meal of Bread and Wine would celebrate the sacrifice of self he offered for the life of the world. All Christians are unanimous in believing that by Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, he reconciled us to the Father through forgiveness of our sins, and made us heirs to eternal life with him. So when we eat of the one Bread and drink of the one Cup, we profess faith that Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection redeems the human family, and gives us eternal life.
Jesus’ listeners were shocked when they heard it for the first time. They could not take such a claim, that his own flesh and blood would be food and drink. And for many generations, people rejected Jesus’ teachings because it made no sense. He spoke in parables, they would say. So he meant this as a figure of speech. And yet we should note that whenever Jesus spoke in parables, which he did many times in the first three gospels, the gospel writer clearly says so, that Jesus was speaking in parables. And on occasion, he will explain what he meant, although sometimes his explanation still leaves us wondering. Yet there are no narrative parables in the gospel of John. He did speak once of himself as the Good Shepherd and as the vine. But those teachings didn’t offend anyone. Did he mean to offend this time? Or did he mean exactly what he said?
As Linda Richman would say, “Go discuss amongst yourselves.” And come back next week for the exciting conclusion.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015