“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6: 51)
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 5: 56)
If last weeks’ message about Jesus identifying himself as the bread from heaven, which is even better than the manna that God fed his people in the wilderness wasn’t strange enough, this is something entirely more difficult to understand. It is no wonder that Jesus’ listeners began to argue about what he meant and to reject his words. Jesus is setting himself up as a totally different kind of food than what they were used to getting from religion. The miracle of God providing food for the Israelites as they left slavery and went toward the promised land was external to them. They were taken care of, and God clearly did a great deed of power to save them, but the basic physics of their lives and their bodies remained intact. After eating the manna, they went on with their lives as regular humans. Nothing special was demanded of them except to go on living within the rules of their society.
What Jesus is offering here is quite different. In the section of the Gospel we are reading this week (John 6: 51, 53-58), Jesus goes further than comparing himself to the manna from heaven, or to the bread with which he fed the five thousand at the beginning of this chapter. The evangelist clearly wants to make the point that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s creative and saving power, and that he wants us to participate in that. By using the terms “flesh” and “blood”, Jesus makes it clear that he is not speaking metaphorically or making an analogy to manna anymore. In this part of the discourse, he is taking the crowd to a new place, a new reality where the believer who fully accepts him (eats and drinks what he gives them) is so intimately related to him that there is no separation. Jesus makes that person entirely new by giving them his life. There will be a profound change in any person who takes on living Jesus' life.
The very idea of this is shocking on many levels, and Jesus doesn’t help his listeners understand, but instead, he repeats his message, intensifying it until it becomes impossible to think through as a set of logical propositions. Like Alice having fallen down the rabbit hole at the beginning of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we are confronted with food and drink that will change us in ways we cannot control. Alice grows and shrinks as a result of eating the cake and drinking the potion set before her. This episode prepares her for her journey into Wonderland, where the rules she has lived under in the world above no longer apply. The food she is used to eating, and the body she is used to inhabiting, are gone. She will have to adapt to the new situation.
Jesus takes the world we know and changes it. He destabilizes his listeners because we need to be put off balance a bit. Jesus acknowledges that we do not know enough to understand the mysteries of eternal life and intimacy with God, but he doesn’t explain. The experience of eating and drinking and abiding in him is enough. We are on an adventure that is sometimes baffling, like Alice’s adventures are. Unlike Alice, we will not go on our adventures alone. When we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, we participate in God’s creative and redemptive work. We change in ways that are more than the physical growth and shrinking that happens to Alice when she drinks the potion and eats the cake. We will no longer fit into our previous lives but we will be so close to Jesus that we live his life. Being close to Jesus through prayer, sacrament and the reading of scripture are not only disciplines that enhance our lives. Being close to Jesus in these ways is the eternal life he promises us.