If I came up to you and said, “you can’t be with me unless you eat my flesh,” you would rightly assume that I had utterly lost all contact with reality. Even people with the most shocking face tattoos and piercings and perverse crazy lifestyles don’t go around offering their own flesh and blood for consumption. Can you imagine? “Here – (holds out arm) – take a bite!” What?!
Yet Jesus says this very thing! He was so cutting edge. Even as a metaphor, it is not really so savory, is it?
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?
We try to make the point in sermons that the Jews would have been horrified at such words. In all truth, everyone who has ever lived from any culture would be horrified at such words. Even cannibalistic cultures don’t have their leaders going around saying “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Even for them there is a shock value and a horror – which is why it is a powerful act for them. In nature, it is very uncommon for species to eat their own. Tigers somehow know not to hunt and eat other tigers. But this idea is the very centerpiece of the Christian faith. The main thing we have been told to do by Jesus is to eat the bread and drink the cup which signify the new covenant in His blood. The bread and the wine are merely signifiers of something more real: we partake of Him.
Here’s a bonus question: how does this passage make Jesus a “great moral teacher”?
Notice that Jesus starts off a little softer with this message. He says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” You could kind of say that He was telling off the posers – that in effect He was saying, “You guys only want free food! You should be seeking spiritual stuff!” It sounds like a nice metaphor, if a little strange. However, when the Jews take issue with this, He doesn’t say, “Oh – listen! It was just a metaphor! It means you should think of God as your sustenance. Let me help you understand.” Instead of helping them He sharpens the scandal. He intensifies the horror of what He is saying, and He goes on and on hammering the point home. In fact it seems He drives away everyone except for the twelve! So much for His successful and growing ministry! He certainly cleared the chaff.
This is one of the strangest aspects of the Christian message, made even stranger by the fact that it is considered so central and important. He came to die? He came to shed His blood on our behalf? He came so we could be washed in His blood? Who uses blood to wash up? GROSS! We celebrate this together in a beautiful and reverent ceremony? This is supposed to comforting and holy and peaceful? Zen koan!!! These things all end up sounding so strange if you take them at face value. People who are not believers or who are very new believers must find such words very alien and bizarre. They are right, they are bizarre, and I think they are meant to be alienating. Jesus used the whole picture in order to alienate.
So, let’s run with the idea that cannibalism is the single most immoral human act. It is murder PLUS eating human flesh. This is the idea that scandalized Jesus’ hearers. Christianity takes it to the extreme. Cannibalistic cultures typically eat their enemies or their grandmothers who died naturally. Jesus is asking us to eat Him – the Messiah and the central leader and in fact God in the flesh. There is no cannibalistic tribe where they make it a necessity to eat their healthy leaders. Why did God choose this?
Here’s why: it is entirely and truly the end of approaching God on a moralistic basis.
If someone asks, “how do you approach God?” And you answer, “by repentance and good behavior and upstanding morals and secret personal integrity,” then no one is going to be scandalized or outraged by that. Everyone will crowd around and clap. Your church will grow. People love that stuff, it requires no supernatural unction and it makes perfect human sense. We all want a sensible God for an idol, that’s why we create idols. The real God is just too weird for us. Of course, no one will really do many of those sensibly moral things, but they will pretend to, and they will applaud your harsh moral stance. But if you answer, “we approach God as flesh-eating blood-drinking cannibals,” no one is going to love that statement. It couldn’t be more scandalous – it is amazingly and offensively scandalous. Even the few disciples who didn’t walk away were scandalized. Don’t water that down. Jesus didn’t. He emphasized it. We deeply want a clean inoffensive bloodless grace but Jesus didn’t give that to us.
Imagine this completely fictitious dialog between Jesus and the devil at the throne of judgment:
Devil: How can you accept this person? He was a sex addict, a family destroyer, an alcoholic, a liar, a cheat, and a thief. And an idolater!
Accused Guy: Hey, wait a minute! I got better. I was … sort of … sanctified…
Jesus: (Ignores guy’s useless defense) That’s all true. But it’s worse than that! Because he has faith in me, he is a flesh-eating blood-drinking cannibal. Top that!
Accused Guy: I was? Wait a minute! I don’t remember doing that!
Devil: < (Ignores guy as well) silence class=”feverish thinking” >
Jesus: Since his murderous man-flesh eating has been made the very cornerstone of his faith, and he is even forgiven of this horrible thing, do you have any other accusations?
Devil: < silence class=”sullen angry” >
Jesus: (to the accused) Enter into your rest! I knew you! You obeyed and were a true disciple!
Guy: (Awash with incredible relief) I was?! You’re kidding! I was horrible, really. Thank You!!! (Jumps for joy and enters paradise)
Devil: (storms off, furious at God’s lack of justice)
One of the beautiful things which the cross of Christ declares is this: we are deeply and incredibly evil. In simply coming to Christ, we acknowledge that we are so deeply evil that it can’t be topped. Nothing we could do for the rest of eternity could be worse than murdering and eating our own savior. The gospel is so frank about this that we can’t even look at it squarely without squirming. It’s like looking straight at the sun. This is how forgiven we really are. The net effect of this is that it kills any possible notion that we approach God on the basis of our moral success. If you say, “look – I conquered my sexual addiction, Lord!” Or, “I conquered my alcoholism!” Or, “I ministered to the poor!” He will say, “did you eat my flesh and drink my blood?” He’ll press that. It doesn’t take self-justifying deeds, it takes faith. And if you are approaching moralistically you’ll say, “What?! No! I’m a good person, not a cannibal! Why would I do that? Give me a clean bloodless grace! Give me pretend grace and pretend justice. I don’t want a redemption which requires this horrid violence and stark immorality.” This is exactly what people do when they want a “grace” that is defined by moralistic success, and shy away from all this awkward cross and blood-washing flesh-eating business. But God has made cannibalism the doorway. You either acknowledge the truth of that and go in, or you run away screaming. If you enter, you are entering a world where you are included not because of your goodness, but because of your faith and trust. If you enter, your only choice is to lay your moral pretense down and enter by pure gift. As Kierkegaard has shown us, this is the faith of Abraham – trust, not moral stamina. Then you can start to do things from love and a pure heart (1 Timothy 1:5), instead of doing them from threat. Your old-covenant approach to God, the moral-manipulative approach, is dead. All your schemes of significance and success are dead. The threat of the law is dead, because if the law says anything, it certainly says don’t be a cannibal. Yet here is God saying, if you want to enter, the essential element is this: be a cannibal. You’re a true follower if you eat His flesh and drink His blood.
You, at your secret root, are a murdering cannibal. You use people for your own desires and spit them out once they are used up and useless. God offers Himself to you in this, your worst sinful place, and says, I am bigger than your worst secret. Take and eat, I insist. Eat me up in a gluttonous orgy of evil desire and unabashed selfishness. Take advantage of my greasy grace. I am bigger even than that. I will overcome your worst hidden sinfulness and overwhelm you with resurrection love and power. I will use your evil for good!
Are you not astonished?
6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.