Eating the Flesh of Jesus! (A sermon on John 6:41-51)

Then the Jews began grumbling about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They kept saying, “This is Jesus, the son of Joseph, isn’t it, whose father and mother we know? So how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Jesus answered them, “Stop grumbling among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him to life on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And all of them will be taught by God.’ Everyone who has listened to the Father and has learned anything comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who comes from God. This one has seen the Father.
Truly, truly I tell you, the one who believes in me has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

One of the great things about Primary Schools (as against High Schools) is that they still make a big deal of out Father’s Day (and Mother’s Day) and even at our school have grandparent’s Day!
Of course, it’s not so much a credit to the progressive nature of the Primary school system as it is a reflection of the fact that children at that age are still dutifully attached to their parents, and indeed are apt to stand beside them with some sense of pride when mum and dad show up at school (a reaction you won’t often get from your average high-school-age son or daughter).
At any rate, I was told of one Father’s Day initiative at a Primary School where the kids took turns to stand up and talk about their dad’s. The dads themselves had been invited to attend the presentation of course, but life being what it is, not many of them were actually able to be there in person.
Even so, student after student got up and gave their prepared spiels about the wonderful things their dads did. My dad is a gynecologist one boy proudly announced, and then went on in some detail to explain to the rest of the class all the wonderful things his dad was capable of doing (much to the amusement of his peers and the horror of his teacher). A young girl then stood up and announced that her dad was a lawyer, and she likewise spoke in glowing terms of her dads work, and so on.
As all this went on, one of the dads who was there on the day, standing up the back of the classroom, became increasingly visibly uncomfortable as the speeches progressed (shuffling his feet and looking at the ground). This dad had been unemployed for some time, and could only envisage his child speaking with a degree of shame about his dad’s relative failings.
On the contrary though, when it was his son’s turn to speak, the young boy sprang to his feet with a great big grin on his face and announced to the rest of the class, My dad IS HERE!

And it’s a lovely reminder of the fact that in the end, what we need most from those we love the most is not their wisdom or their greatness but their presence.
And I retell that story this morning partly because I love it, but also because I think it might give us a way in to this long and painful dialogue we have with Jesus in in John chapter 6, where Jesus keeps telling us how we need his body.
It’s a mysterious dialogue about food that arises out of the fact that they’ve all just been fed by Jesus, but the point Jesus keeps making to them is that the real food that they need has nothing to do with what they just ate. The real food and drink that they need is Him!
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never become hungry, and the one who believes in me will never become thirsty.” (v 35)
And it was such an odd thing to say that people didn’t know what to do with it.
Their initial reaction was to say that Jesus was being presumptuous – who does this guy think He is?, they said. They kept saying, “This is Jesus, the son of Joseph, isn’t it, whose father and mother we know?” (vs. 42)

The language seemed presumptuous because indeed it was presumptuous. Jesus was saying something deliberately extreme about His own significance. Moreover though, the language Jesus was using made him sound not just presumptuous but somewhat crazy, as Jesus was depicting Himself as food that needed to be eaten.
I am the bread of life, Jesus says (in verse 35), and that seems bizarre enough. But then he goes on to say that the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh (verse 51), which sounds not just bizarre but almost perverse!
Now, as we said when we looked at the beginning of this passage in my last sermon, people had no doubt turned up to see Jesus for a variety of reasons:
• Some came because they were looking for another free feed.
• Some just wanted to be entertained.
• Some were looking for advice and direction in life
• Probably the majority were there chiefly because their friends where there!
Either way, while there were no doubt a variety of things that brought people to Jesus that day, we can be reasonably confident, I think, in saying that nobody had shown up that day because they wanted to eat Jesus!

Of course He is only speaking in metaphors, we say, and indeed, this is exactly what the crowd says. When he speaks of His flesh as food He doesn’t really mean it literally, of course – and yet the further we go in the dialogue, the more Jesus seems to resist all attempts to have his language reduced to mere metaphor.
How can this man give us his flesh to eat? the crowd say (verse 52). Obviously Jesus, you don’t mean this literally! But Jesus, who could have responded at this point, yes, of course guys, when I say that my flesh is food, I don’t literally mean that my flesh is something that you have to eat, instead says:
“Truly, truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him to life on the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. The person who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

Now if you’re a good Catholic you might say at this point, Well, this is no problem. Jesus is talking about the Eucharist here, isn’t He? And indeed, if you hold to the traditional Catholic view of the Eucharist – that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus as they are consecrated by the priest, then this dialogue makes sense as an exhortation, on Jesus part, to participate in that sacrament.
Now, there may be some here who are not familiar with the different understandings that exist between the different Christian denominations when it comes to the subject of the Eucharist (or Holy Communion). The best way of remembering the distinctions, I think, was that given to me by my old mate, Tony Campolo (a Baptist) who put it this way:
• In the Catholic understanding, the bread magically becomes the body of Jesus and the blood magically becomes His blood
• In the Anglican understanding, the bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, but to the person who consumes them in faith they become the body and blood of Jesus.
• In the Baptist understanding, he points out, the bread remains bread, and the wine magically becomes grape juice!

At any rate, if you’re a good Catholic, you may well jump to the conclusion that this dialogue is about the Eucharist – a sacrament, you will remember, that has its origin The Last Supper between Jesus and His disciples.
The only problem with making that link here though, in John 6, is that there has been no Last Supper at this stage. This event takes place a long time before the Last Supper, and indeed, in Johns Gospel, the Last Supper isn’t actually recorded at all (or at least, there’s no breaking of bread and sharing of wine in john’s Gospel at all, as we have it in the other three Gospels).
Hence even Catholic scholars are nowadays more reluctant to suggest that this dialogue in john’s Gospel is really a reference to the Eucharistic meal – a meal that doesn’t get a mention elsewhere in John’s Gospel at all.

Of course a more Protestant interpretation might be to suggest that Jesus is speaking of His teaching as being food and drink, as indeed Jesus elsewhere speaks of His words as food – wisdom that is to be digested and live out.
That’s a far more civilized interpretation, isn’t it – that it’s an intellectual hunger that is being satisfied by Jesus; that it is His words that are food and drink to us.
My only problem with that is that I think it’s exactly what the crowd wanted Him to say – to get away from His perverse, cannibalistic, language of eating flesh and drinking blood. And yet, as Jesus opponents push Him to tone down His language, His response is not to explain Himself but to get more extreme:
For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. The person who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will also live because of me. (John 6:55-57)

And so I think the answer that we have to come back to has more to do with presence.
For that is what we most need from Jesus – not just His teaching nor His wisdom nor His miracles nor even His goodness but His presence. We need Him – Jesus, the real Jesus, in body – in flesh and blood – and we need Him here, in us, now!
And so, while this passage is not all about the Eucharist, it may nonetheless be what the Eucharist is all about – about having the body of Jesus in our body.
And it sounds very weird, and a little offensive, and even somewhat perverse. And it always has done, which is why it comes as no surprise when we discover that the early Christians, who were suspected of incest because they referred to each other as brother and sister were also suspected of cannibalism because they spoke of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their master!

And maybe we don’t feel we fully understand what Jesus means or exactly how it works, and that’s ok, because what is really important in all this is not that we understand it, but that we experience it – the reality of Christ in us, His body in our body, His blood flowing through our veins, He in us and us in Him – we, the body of Christ.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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