Living Dead, Living Bread - John 6:51-58
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Are any of you the odd man out when it comes to genres of movies at your house?
I love dramas, but the folks at my house love action movies, super hero flicks, and horror. Sometimes I join them for a movie anyway. That’s how I came to see the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead—
A comedy horror mashup about zombies.
I didn’t make it through the whole movie,
but I thought of it when I read the Gospel lesson for this week.
In it Jesus does a little zombie speak, as he talks to a dwindling crowd about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In contrast to his earlier use of the word ‘body’, which has more spiritual meanings, Jesus now uses the Greek word for flesh, which is essentially meat. People in the crowd were understandably asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat??” By the end of this chapter, a bunch of disciples abandon Jesus, saying his teaching is too hard. And who could blame them? Their spiritual teacher and miracle bread maker was beginning to sound like a cannibal and crazy man. Kinda creepy.
A lot of times we blip over these verses in the Gospel of John as if we know what they mean.
We use these words about eating Jesus’ body and blood at communion every week.
We think of it as receiving Jesus spiritually, or for those who went through Lutheran confirmation class, receiving the ‘real presence’ of Jesus, who is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of bread and wine. We hear Jesus talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and we just think: communion.
But Jesus’ meaning was not self evident to his first hearers, and if we think about it,
probably isn’t to us either. It reminds me of a friend’s daughter, who has not been not raised as a Christian, who went to a church service for the first time last year at the age of 14.
She reported incredulously, “They actually pretended they were eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood!” I was secretly a little offended by this assessment—I don’t feel like I am pretending. But I am pretty sure I am not eating human flesh and drinking blood, either.
So what ARE we doing at communion, if not pretending?
And what IS Jesus talking about here, if not cannibalism?
It’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t speaking on a literal level.
He was trying to describe a mystery-- the mystical union on himself and God.
But this really wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear either;
previously they had picked up stones to throw at Jesus when he claimed to be one with God, whom he called ‘Father.’ To the Jews, claiming you were God was blasphemy.
To us, it would be a mark of insanity.
So what is Jesus getting at here??
It isn’t a meglomaniac version of thinking you are God.
It isn’t simply a symbolic eating with Jesus.
No, in my reading, Jesus is using words to try to communicate a two fold mystery here:
his union with God, and the believer’s union with him.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus says.
These words harken back to the opening of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is described as the Word of God: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The Word of God the Father took on human flesh, and lived a human life in Jesus.
Divinity and humanity united in Jesus.
And the word “dwell” is the same word translated as “abide” in this passage.
So just as Jesus abides in God as the Word of God, so too the believer abides in Jesus, united in flesh.
Spiritual union is a lofty concept, but I think we can identify with it.
It’s a longing to be part of something greater than oneself.
You might have experienced it in the heightened awareness of the arts in sharing one breath in a yoga class or singing in a choir in the joining of two people in sexual love.
In all these cases, people experience a merging into a greater reality,
a kind of consuming passion, losing oneself for an instant and becoming at one with something that was whole and complete.
For me, this sense of spiritual union was most pronounced in young motherhood.
I remember standing at the altar praying this prayer when I was pregnant:
“Almighty God, you provide the true bread from heaven, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Grant that we who have received the sacrament of his body and blood
may abide in him and he in us, that we may be filled with the power of his endless life, now and forever”
Suddenly I realized that I had a life abiding within me.
That life was feeding on me.
Without me, that life could not survive.
I knew already that I was deeply attached to this new life, and no matter what,
it would always be part of me.
Jesus uses the image of eating to delve into the way in which he and God are in union.
God is the giver of bread, manna in the wilderness.
Jesus is that bread; the gift and giver are one.
Then Jesus uses the same image to show how believers are one with him—
when they ‘eat’ the bread from heaven, Jesus, they take Jesus into themselves.
Jesus becomes part of them and they become part of Jesus.
Like the saying, You are what you eat,” those who believe in Jesus feed on his teaching,
his signs and miracles, and most of all, his presence in their lives.
Spending time with Jesus is the most nourishing thing a Christian can do.
How do you spend time with Jesus?
How do you abide with him?
Communion is one way. Prayer.
But so are less churchy things that you do that nourish you.
That connect you to the larger whole.
A walk in the woods or sitting by the shore.
Helping someone in need.
Feeding your family.
Advocating for an employee, or making ethical decisions at work.
When we feed on Jesus, he dwells in us, so that all we do becomes an expression of our union with him.
Jesus said, Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
It isn’t zombie nation, or a creepy monologue.
It’s an invitation to relationship with Jesus.
In that relationship, you find a feast.
You find wholeness.
You find union.
You find that you have all you’ll ever need. Amen.