It would be better for us if we did not have to think about it. In fact, it is so offensive, that after Jesus uttered these words, many of his followers abandoned him. The thought of having to eat this man’s flesh and drink his blood was too strange, too bizarre and so utterly offensive, that people simply walked away from Jesus, never to return again. They must have believed that he had gone off his rocker, or that he was a mad-man, or perhaps something worse, like a demon.
There is nothing in the world of first century Judaism that could have prepared Jesus’ listeners for the words of absolute horror that Jesus spoke. The thought of eating human flesh was just as offensive in the first century as it is in the twenty first century. No sane person would ever eat the flesh of another human being. We hear stories of distant tribes and peoples who practice cannibalism, but we are repulsed by it. We refuse even to consider or to understand their reasons or rationale. In cases of extreme hunger and impending death we have heard of those who have in desperation eaten the bodies of their dead companions, but even then, we wish that those people had chosen a nobler death, than to prolong their dying by eating human flesh.
And yet, Jesus says to all who will listen, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
It is impossible for us to comprehend the depth of disgust that those words fostered in the hearts and minds of those who first heard them. In fact, they ignited a fire-storm of debate. How can this be? How can this man talk like this? Why would we even consider eating this man’s flesh? It is impossible for him to give us his flesh to eat! He would have to be dead, and even then we would not eat his flesh!
And then, just as this horrible revelation is only partially digested, Jesus adds offense upon offense. Just as there was nothing to prepare Jesus’ listeners to consider the possibility of eating his flesh, there is absolutely nothing to prepare them for what Jesus says next. Jesus multiplies the offense many times over by saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And then, as if to smear it in, Jesus says the same thing over and over.
If the concept of eating human flesh is disgusting and offensive, the idea of drinking human blood is anathema. The Scriptures sternly and strictly forbid it. The punishment for consuming blood of any kind is death. Listen with discernment as I read from Leviticus chapter seventeen. This is important. It is the word of God. “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats that 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; for as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: no person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the alien who resides among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.
For the life of every creature–its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: you shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.”
These two passages, this one from Leviticus and this morning’s passage from the Gospel of John are completely alike and completely different, simultaneously. They are alike in both emphasis and in repetition. And they are both completely different by way of commandment. Almighty God, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob and of Moses commands that no one shall consume blood or they will die. Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God and the new Moses, commands that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood or we will have no life in us.
It is absolutely clear that Jesus had this passage from Leviticus in mind when he spoke these words recorded in the Gospel of John. It is also abundantly clear that Jesus, as the Son of God, is taking the authority to re-interpret the Scriptures and to institute a brand new covenant between God and his people. Moses was the representative of the old covenant, and under the old covenant blood was forbidden. Jesus is the representative of the new covenant, and under the new covenant, blood is required.
But the old covenant masterfully presages the new. In the old covenant, blood was sacred and holy, because, as God says, “I have given [blood] to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” In atonement, there is both forgiveness for sins, and unity with God. When the blood was shed on the altar of sacrifice, God forgave the sins of the people and they enjoyed a loving and protective and living relationship with God. They were God’s people, and God was their God. They were in covenant relationship with him and with one another.
And in between the offensive words of Jesus regarding the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood, there is also the language of atonement and relationship. Jesus speaks of life, and eternal life; he speaks of a new relationship that we can enjoy with him that is, amazingly, modeled on the relationship that Jesus has with his Father in heaven. I can imagine no greater, nor any more wonderful relationship than that. Jesus says, “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.” That is a unity with God that the people of the old covenant could only imagine. They understood protection and relationship, but eternal life, as Jesus offers it, was beyond their comprehension. Jesus offers true life now and resurrection and eternal life when the course of this world has completed its final revolution.
But just as there was an altar of sacrifice in the old covenant that provided life and atonement and unity with God, so also is there an altar of sacrifice in the new covenant. Just as the life blood of the slaughtered animal was shed on the altar for the life of the people, so also was the life blood of our Lord shed on the cross for our atonement and our forgiveness and our eternal life. Jesus hints at this in verse 51, when he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Under the old covenant, the broken body and the shed blood on the altar of sacrifice was for the exclusive benefit of the Hebrew people: the chosen people of God. Under the new covenant that Jesus is establishing in this passage, the broken body and the shed blood is for the benefit of the whole world. In this God’s love is marvelously expanded.
In a sense, the people who first heard these words of Jesus were absolutely correct. It is impossible to eat the flesh and to drink the blood of our Lord. It is however, essential that we consume him daily. We can devour his words and his teachings. We can feast on the abundance of his love and we can break the bread of his spiritual nourishment with one another, declaring not only our love and devotion to Jesus, but also our love and devotion to one another. And in doing this Jesus will truly abide in us and we will abide in him. This is what Christian covenant and relationships are all about: the mutual sharing and the mutual consuming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in covenant relationship with him and with one another.
One of the most intimate ways in which we do this is by gathering around the communion table. While the empty cross of our resurrected Lord looms above us, reminding us of our own eternal lives and coming resurrections, we gather around an altar of sacrifice. This altar though, represents the sacrifice of our own lives for the cause of the Gospel. It reminds us not only that we abide in Jesus and that Jesus abides in us, but also that we abide in one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The communion table reminds us that we bear a tremendous responsibility to one another, that of encouraging one another to receive the holy and sacred food of God’s word that nourishes and sustains us, but also to love one another sacrificially as Christ has loved us sacrificially. We share a common bond of unity as we gather around the communion table. And as we do, we celebrate our mutual love, our glorious atonement and our sure and certain hope of eternal life.
On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, that ancient observance and commemoration of the covenant of salvation mediated by Moses.
As the evening progressed, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
When we gather at that sacred table we utter those same sacred words to one another. And we eat that which reminds us of the broken body of our Lord, and we drink that which reminds us of the shed blood of our Lord. We offer thanks and adoration to the founder of the new covenant who has given us eternal life. And we celebrate the glorious reality that we abide in him, and he abides in us. And we proclaim to one another with tears of joy in our hearts, “We have received Jesus Christ. We are receiving Jesus Christ, and we will continue to receive Jesus Christ, until he comes again.”