In today’s episode of the extended dance version of the Feeding of the 5,000 as told by John, Jesus now moves into some very provocative language. We tend to spiritualize what he says and those of us who have been Christians for a long time can easily gloss over the shock and awe of what his words mean: “ … unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” Let’s drop our tendency to over-spiritualize this – this sounds like cannibalism! This is shocking language.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, references to eating someone’s flesh are seen as hostile actions. (Psalm 27:2, Zech 11:9) Ezekiel pronounces the judgment against Gog by stating they will be sacrificed on the mountain of Israel and the birds and wild animals will eat flesh and drink blood. There are also prohibitions on the drinking of blood in the Torah. The only positive references to eating flesh and drinking blood are in the Eucharistic language of the New Testament. Jewish people hearing these words would be scandalized by them!
And yet, the consuming of the meat from sacrificed animals was commonplace in both Jewish and Greco-Roman religious praxis. The meat from sacrificed calves, goats, and lambs was part of the diet of the priestly class in the Jerusalem temple. So when Jesus uses this language, he is both scandalizing his hearers and foreshadowing his own life becoming a sacrifice which will reconcile the world to God.
Up until this point in John’s narrative, Jesus has placed his emphasis on believing in his discourse: “whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” “whoever believes has eternal life” “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We are often tempted to reduce belief to an intellectual assent to a series of propositions or ideas. This really isn’t what belief is. The Latin word for “I believe” is credo which more accurately translated is “That to which I give my heart.” It is more closely related to trust rather than the ability to understand or comprehend. Belief is not a head trip even though we are tempted to reduce it to this.
Jesus’ words today move from giving our hearts to action: “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” Through this language, Jesus says giving our hearts is the first step, but it is not enough. We must put our convictions into actions: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Jesus is telling us, “You are what you eat!”
My father tells the story of when he and my mother joined the Episcopal Church. They had participated in an ecumenical progressive dinner in 1974. Several churches participated and a different course of the meal was served at each church. During the various courses, the clergy of that particular congregation would tell the diners a bit about their church and traditions. There was one participant who asked every clergyperson this question: “What is the center of your worship experience?” The ministers of the more Protestant churches answered, “The preaching of the Word of God.” When this question was posed to Father Mac Stanley rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, he replied, “The Eucharist is the center of our worship. We are centered on the Sacrament.” This got my dad’s attention … and within two weeks, we were worshiping at St. Michael and All Angels.
There is a temptation to take the Eucharist for granted – after all, we have it every Sunday and sometimes even in the mid-week as we did this past week. Yet Jesus was clear this mystical meal is about his abiding in you – his becoming a part of you – as you eat his flesh and drink his blood. It is a physical act with very real physical consequences. You are what you eat.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples through baptism and to receive the Eucharist. These are the only two sacraments explicitly commanded by Christ because they are necessary to our salvation. They are the means by which we die to ourselves and then live for Christ, continuously being nourished by his Body and Blood. This is why we worship in the way we do because what we take into ourselves matters. Through the hearing of the word, through our participation in prayer, through hearing music and singing praise to God, through the smells of incense, and through the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of Christ’s Body and Blood, we are formed into the mind and likeness of Christ so that in the words of our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer, we may be a “reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.”
You are what you eat. You are what you choose to take into you and what take into you forms you into who you are. The Eucharist is a mystical feast of communion and community – it builds us into the Body of Christ as a living sacrifice for the sake of repairing the world. You are what you eat. What you take into you matters. Of what will you choose to partake?