Last week we explored how people reacted to Jesus’ revelation that he himself was and is the bread of life which comes down from heaven. How could this man they knew all about claim to come from heaven? It was a lot to take in.
In this week’s Gospel reading Jesus reveals the shocking point of this whole discourse: since he is the bread of life they need to eat him – eat his flesh. And if they do that they will live forever. Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he says, abide in him and he in them.
What does he mean and why does he put it like this?
Most Christian readers will assume that, whatever else Jesus means, he has the Eucharist in mind – the receiving of Holy Communion in bread and wine. Some commentators dispute this but it seems to me hard to avoid the idea that Jesus includes the sacrament in what he is talking about.
However, abiding in Christ involves more than receiving Holy Communion. St Augustine puts it rather brutally:
This is eating that food and drinking that drink: abiding in Christ and having him abide in oneself. And thus if someone does not abide in him, there can be no doubt that he does not eat his flesh or drink his blood, but rather he is eating and drinking the sacrament to his condemnation.Homily 26 on John’s Gospel
Jesus expounds what he means by abiding in Chapter 15 of the Gospel, and John goes on to explore it further in his first letter. Some of the key ingredients appear to be: prayer, immersion in the word of God, loyalty to the truth revealed in Christ, holiness of life, love for fellow believers… Some modern translations routinely translate the word abide as “live”. This conveys the central idea that abiding is about the whole of life. It is a life of communion with God in its widest sense.
What can we learn from Jesus’ use of the metaphor of eating as a way of explaining what he says about abiding?
Here are some suggestions.
Eating is essential, not an occasional amusement or a private hobby. We all need to eat to stay alive. Particularly was this true of bread in the culture of Jesus’ time. It is still true in many parts of the world to this day. Life in the old Soviet Union was beset by many and frequent shortages. Unless you had access to the special shops for the elite you could never count on finding even the most basic things to buy. Except for bread. Russian black rye bread was always available. If it stopped being available, then people knew they were in deep trouble. Knowing Jesus is not the icing on the cake of life; it’s not even the cake; it’s much more basic: it’s bread.
Eating is something we ordinarily do every day and several times a day. And the process starts all over again tomorrow. We never get to the end of it. Bishop Westcott comments that the tense of the verb
…marks an action which must be continuous and not completed once for all .Commentary on the Gospel of St John page 107
Jesus is not an item on a tasting menu – a morsel to be savoured briefly before you move swiftly on to the next thing. He is our daily bread.
Eating is both personal and communal. It involves each of us personally. Nobody can eat for you. But it is natural to want to eat with other people. Eating together celebrates and cements relationship. Knowing Jesus is personal and individual but it crucially involves interaction with others who want to know him too.
Eating is (normally meant to be) enjoyable. It is one of the great pleasures of life. The word John uses for eating in this chapter occurs only once in any other New Testament writer:
… in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…Matthew 24.38
The verb used here expresses not only the simple fact of eating but the process as that which is dwelt upon with pleasure.
Jesus is not imposing on us a dreary, joyless duty. Rather, he invites us to a really good meal: not the feeble imitation of bread which is too often sold in our supermarkets, but a crusty, flavoursome sourdough.
Eating presupposes an act of total self-giving. What we eat was once alive and is now dead. This is true at a trivial level of the carrots which, in the immortal words of a character in the film Notting Hill, “have been murdered”. It is much more significantly true of the leg of lamb or the steak we might enjoy. It is supremely true of Jesus himself, whose talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood implies his own violent death. Eating requires a sacrifice. When we feed on Christ we are reaping the benefits of his sacrificial death. He offers himself to us without reserve or limit.
Finally, eating reminds us that we are what we eat. What we eat shapes what we become. Feeding on Christ we become – little by little – more like him:
… conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.Romans 8.27
Eating flesh and drinking blood: it’s not a nice idea. But, if we allow the metaphor to speak to us, it reveals a lot about our communion with God.