St. Paul’s – Proper 12 – 8/15/21
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” John 6:54
Talk about mis-reading a text. Or, better yet, domesticating it. To the sacramental Christian ear this sounds like: Take communion and you will go to heaven. To non-Christians it sounds like this: Take communion with us or you will not go to heaven. Or, If you want to get to heaven you better do what we do and become like us. Or else.
All of these constructs miss the mark, and as such create much mischief. For all such interpretations mean to draw a line in the sand: either you are on the bus or you are off the bus as Ken Kesey used to put it. Either you are with us or you are against us. Become just like us or you are flat out of luck. Even a moments reflection on the whole narrative of John and the other three gospels would suggest that Jesus is not about such mischief.
Let’s review: this part of John 6 began by feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish supplied by a young boy. People are impressed. Blown away. They want more of this. Jesus says you really don’t want more bread, fish or manna, you want to eat my body and drink my blood. Do what? they say! That’s a long way from bread and fish and manna. And offensive to our religious sensibilities as to what we should or should not eat and drink. And blood is at the top of the list of what ‘thou shalt not drink.’
To provoke them further, Richard Swanson suggests the text literally says something more like this: “The one gnawing of me, the body, and drinking of me, the blood, has aeonic life.” [Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of John, p 356, et al] That’s right. John’s Jesus says gnaw not eat. As Swanson points out, such a distinction exists in German as well as in the Greek: essen means eat, whereas fressen describes a noisy slurping, gulping, gnawing, complete with growls and other noises appropriate to an animal…The use of this word is a signal: expect disgust and offense. [Ibid 232]
And so we read, They kept fighting with one another…an interesting side note is that in all these passages from John’s Gospel these past few weeks, no one is talking directly to Jesus only among themselves…..Today, they are asking just how does he give us his body to eat and his blood to drink? A more than reasonable question to be sure. And the natural question to ask. And any and all answers having to do with he is instituting Holy Communion or Eucharist are really no more than our, the Church’s, domestication of what appears to be an intentionally provocative text.
Further, I suggest that, as my grandfather used to say, we are putting the accent on the wrong syll-ABLE! The longer I wrestle with this text, and it has been decades now, I am only beginning to see that all this gnawing and slurping of body and blood is aimed at the final words, eternal life. Which Swanson translates more literally as aeon, or aeonic life. Aeon. Not a word we often use any more.
This becomes interesting when one learns that the Koine Greek of the New Testament uses the word aeon to render the Hebrew word olam. Aeon itself originally meant life, vital source, being, a period of time, or an age, forever, timeless, eternity. Olam can mean world or age. Olam haba can mean afterlife or world to come. More to the point, however, tikkun olam means to repair or heal the world, or repair and heal the present age, the present world, the present aeon. That is, we are not talking here about heaven as much as what we should be doing here and now.
Tikkun Olam. Consider that John in chapter six portrays Jesus shocking the crowd with what sounds like cannibalism and the kind of drinking of blood or wine that was common in nearby Dionysian temples and other dens of debauchery and idolatry – that is, those places abhorrent to Jews like Jesus himself and those with whom he is debating.
There is no question that chapter 6 appears to be using metaphors for Holy Communion or Eucharist. It is odd, however, that chapters 13-17 depict in five long chapters the Last Supper with no mention of bread or wine; no mention of body and blood. Not one mention of these common elements of our ritualistic rendering of the Last Supper on Sundays throughout the ages.
Instead, in chapter 13 John describes Jesus on his hands and knees washing feet. And insisting, as he does in chapter 6, that if you are to have any part of him and his life for your life you need to do the same for others – all others. You need to serve others. And he also gives a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. Love in the Bible most often means to behave and act constructively and beneficially on behalf of others and the olam, the world. Tikkun olam: to repair or heal a broken world, a divided world, a world that hurts and itself is hurting. We don’t have to like others. We do, however, need to Love them in this Biblical sense.
Is it possible that John’s Jesus uses such jarring and provocative language to turn our attention not to the act of receiving bread and wine, body and blood, on a regular basis, but rather to focus our attention on why we are to do that: to remind us that like Jesus himself, we are to be fully engaged in the repair and healing of the world rather than contributing to its divisions and destruction?
Simply stated: Holy Communion, Eucharist, Last Supper is a time to gnaw on the most pressing challenges facing us as a people and the very world itself so that we might fully engage in tikkun olam. The Eucharist John’s Jesus describes is not polite and pious and well-mannered. It is a time for gnawing on the big questions and big challenges for our aeon, our age, and get up off our knees and do something about it. About all of it.
Is it possible that we have had this all wrong all this time? Are we meant to emerge from Holy Communion feeling better about ourselves and the world about us? Or, like those with Jesus, and Jesus himself, are we meant to get fired up, and yes, even angry enough, to go out and deal with the world’s, the aeon’s, challenges and do our best to Love others as Jesus and God loves us?
These are the kinds of questions that we gnaw on in our sleepless nights as we struggle to support a loved one who is struggling to stay alive. These are the kinds of questions we need to gnaw on as we see an overheating world literally going up in flames in some places and being drowned in floods elsewhere. These are the kinds of questions we need to gnaw on as we see ourselves being hopelessly further and further divided against one another? This is what it means to be a Eucharistic people: those who gnaw on the big questions, align themselves with Jesus and engage in continuing his work of tikkun olam in and throughout the world. Tikkun olam.
This is what I hear once I dig deeper into this text in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. I wonder what John wanted as he contemplated and followed Jesus.
It’s not a metaphor, not a parable, not a mythological construct about dying and rising gods. John is clear about that and wants his readers to be clear also. This is why he uses this language about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood – he wants to drive home the point of the gritty reality of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. As we come to the table, we are called to be mindful of Jesus’ presence in our midst. It was a real presence then and it is a real presence now.
The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly came down from heaven to live among us as the fleshly love of God.
The Gospel is that Jesus really, truly died upon the cross, giving up his flesh and spilling his blood, to save us from our sins.
The Gospel is that God really, truly raised him from the dead, brought him out of the grave to a new and eternal life.
The Gospel is that God really, truly has just such a future in store for each and every one of us.
The Gospel is about the way you eat and what you eat, the way you treat others, the commitments you make to family and friends and loving your enemies—all these are means of tikkun olam, bringing the world yet closer to its ultimate state for which it was created.
I want to conclude with The Aleinu (3rd century CE), a Hebrew prayer recited at the conclusion of the Shabbat service, looks forward to a day of complete tikkun olam when God Himself will mend the world:
And therefore we hope to You, Lord our God, that we may speedily behold the splendor of Your might, to banish idolatry from the earth – and false gods will be utterly destroyed; to perfect the world [le-takken Olam] under the sovereignty of the Almighty. All mankind shall invoke Your Name to turn all the wicked of the earth to you.