sermon on John6:51-58; Proverbs9:1-6
Leeches. Vultures. Vampire blood-suckers. Parasites. Whatever image or term you might use, it doesn’t seem particularly complimentary, this suggestion from Jesus. You can’t help but picture cannibalism as he tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. If you’re squeamish, I’ll invite you now to gird up your loins, because this is not for the faint of heart.
This has long been problematic for Christians. Persecutions under Roman society in the first several centuries of the church often found accusation in these strange words and behaviors. Christians met in graveyards, the catacombs, still gathering together with and surrounded by those who had been killed for their faith. In those gatherings they ate bread they said contained flesh and drank wine they termed blood. And all of this they oddly called a “love feast,” an agapé meal. Lest you think you’ve gotten far from that, you need only look down the hall to Agapé Place. And if you were to claim that all the worship-y fuss is only over a morsel of soggy bread, that first of all sounds foolish and second of all shames the martyrs who were willing to die for the sake of what they saw embodied in the celebrations of this table.
But amid that shaming and our own downplaying of beliefs, we shouldn’t lose track of the offense. It wasn’t just in later years, with a nonviolent communalism that conversely threatened empires. Right from the get-go, these words from Jesus were outrageous.
A first note on the translation of these verses is that it says the Jews were having a “dispute” about what Jesus was saying. That’s soft-pedaling it big time. This is a word for all-out ruckus, for fisticuffs, a brawl. That’s the degree of upset at stake here.
To understand that, let’s talk about blood, with an interesting little Bible study. Back in Genesis 9, when Noah came out of the ark, was the first that God told people they could eat meat. (The garden of Eden was strictly a vegetarian paradise.) God then said people had authority to eat animals, but absolutely with no blood
Blood is particularly holy; as the force of life it’s also a mark of the creator. In sacrifices blood was drained from the animal and poured over the altar, a sign that the animal’s life belonged to God and that our own lives belong to God, the sacrifice signifying giving our lives back to God.
All that went with reiterated warnings, such as this from Leviticus 17: “If anyone…eats any blood, 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; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the
altar….Therefore I have said to [my people]: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood.”
It was such an important prohibition that it persisted for the church. In the book of Acts, as the mission was expanding and non-Jews were joining the church, there was lots of debate and the first churchwide council to determine standards for these pagan converts. It was gradually decided they didn’t need to be circumcised, which had been the predominant physical characteristic of the people of God, but they did maintain the rule against consuming blood (Acts 15).
This was so vital in Bible times that among the worst name-calling condemnations was to say that somebody was “drunk on blood.” This carries into our own time when we refer to somebody as as lowlife “bloodsucker,” or as “bloodthirsty,” a term that brings to mind pirates or terrorists or barbarians lurking to attack helpless innocents. As Arlo Guthrie sang sarcastically against war, “I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead, burnt bodies. I wanna kill, Kill, KILL!”
So as Jesus tells us to drink his blood, we could see why it would start a fracas among the Jewish crowd. It’s about the most offensive suggestion he could make, filthy and absolutely counter to the central commandments of God, the opposite of how to be in good relationship with God.
If you’re not sensing that offense yet, then here’s this: another bit of our translation that talks about eating flesh isn’t the typical word for eating like when you have brunch. Certainly we’re not talking about silverware and table linens. This is more like the distinction of our word “feed,” for a feedtrough, a feedbag, a feeding frenzy. Indeed, this is a word for beasts, for wild animals, for vultures and jackals that gather to tear apart flesh, for sharks picking up the scent of blood in the water.
Now I still don’t know how offended you’re finding yourself. We may not be picking fights and starting brawls here over what Jesus is saying. After all, we’re Lutherans. Last week I couldn’t even get you to talk. But lest you get ulcers from being all riled up on the inside, we could ask if this is really what Jesus thinks of you: Does he call you bloodthirsty beasts, no better than bloodsuckers like lampreys or mosquitoes, as awful as vampires or pirates, with all the reckless starving frenzy of a Sharknado? We think of Jesus as our host generally in terms of hospitality, but parasites also attach to a host. Is Jesus welcoming you as a plague of parasites? Or is he just being provocative to push your buttons?
Maybe the best place to focus our attention is to realize what Jesus is saying about God. Jesus is saying that God is not the bloodthirsty criminal, not the one who’s out for blood, seeking revenge or to equal some score of ancient bloodguilt. It’s not God whose appetite needs to be appeased by gnawing the bones of victims.
And that means that when Jesus gives his life, he isn’t giving it to satisfy God. It’s not because God demands a death. It’s not that Jesus’ death is a substitution paying for your death. Rather, Jesus is giving his life for you, to satisfy you, to quench your thirst and to put you at peace.
In other terms, maybe it affects how you look at this table and think of this meal. I almost never call this an altar, because altars are where sacrifices happen at the hands of a priest, where a death is given for another’s life. Instead here we have deacons, the ancient word for waiters, who make sure all are fed. We most often think of agapé feasts as being about love and community and sharing and the original church potluck that left nobody out.
But this today reminds us of sacrifice and the blood of the covenant, of God’s faithfulness and your sins. The blood of Christ is shed for you.
But here it isn’t just a death that gives you life. It is life that gives you life. Where in other circumstances life is poured out to fill another—Dracula sucks away life or a goat is given as a stand-in—instead with Jesus the one who gives his blood does not stay dead. Again, God is not interested in death. Jesus is resurrected. Though you killed him, he rises so that he can continue giving of his life, at this altar table today and for you always. As the book of Hebrews (ch10) reminds us, this isn’t a sacrifice that needs to be repeated. In Jesus the cycle of death is ended. No other deaths are desired, much less required, by God. God is in the market for spreading life. So even when you gather here and gnaw at flesh and drink of blood, it is for converting you, so that you also become an ambassador of reconciliation, an agent of life.
Further, if you are what you eat, this means you are Jesus. As you eat this meal you and Jesus are becoming one, united, in communion. Jesus gives himself, as he says in this passage, for relationship, so that he may abide in you and you in him, so that you will live because of him, that you will have life in you and will live forever, just as he does.
Perhaps one other thought on these implications. The Proverbs reading said that God’s wisdom is a feast, where you are invited in to celebrate and be nourished for life. Later in that same chapter is an interesting contrast, describing a dinner of foolishness (v13-18). Instead of offering bread and wine, foolishness suggests stolen food and water. Instead of community, it is isolating. Versus a meal for life, it leads to death.
So if the meal we share when we gather here—where Jesus gives his life for you, where you are a guest who is filled with blessing and life and wisdom—if this becomes a model for the rest of our lives and also particularly for the rest of our tables, we could reflect on where we are still subject to the foolishness of deadly selfishness, where our demands still beg for blood: When do our meals nourish community and life, and when is our food junk? What of our food is stolen from those who have labored to produce it, when those who work our fields or serve in our restaurants are paid starvation wages? When California drought is worsened by watering crops, what are we stealing from the life of creation? When our dietary preferences are predicated on corporate feedlots and inhumane treatment of animals, what does that continue to say about our bloodthirst and Jesus’ life in us?
After all, he didn’t give himself just to be relegated to a soggy bite once a week, but to inhabit your existence and to bring you into the grace, love, and mercy of his life, giving himself so that you may know you live in God. That’s what his life is for.
Hymn: Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (ELW #370)