May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus certainly knows how to shock an audience and gain their full attention. He is a pass master of the tactic. He uses it throughout the Gospels, time and time again: he heals the sick on the Sabbath; disregards the Jewish complicated food laws; talks to strange women without formal introduction; overturns the tables of the money lenders in the temple, all of these things would have shocked his audience at the time to the bottom of their boots and Jesus, no doubt, had their full attention on every occasion. Today’s Gospel reading is a very good example of one of these occasions, but in this instance it is probably more shocking to us, today, than it was to his listeners then! Jesus said,
‘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 real food and my blood is real drink.’
Even so many of his disciples struggled with the teaching; ‘who can take it in?’ they said and many left and stopped following him. We mustn’t judge them too harshly though, it’s hard enough for us with hindsight, to understand what Jesus meant; imagine what it must have been like to have been there and heard these words for the very first time.
Yet in one crucial way it should have been easier for them to understand than it is for us to, as we stand here today, separated from the event by more than two thousand years, because Jesus was using metaphors from events they had shared in, which are quite outside our experience today. At the time animal sacrifice was commonplace, it was an integral part of the Jewish religion as practiced in the great temple in Jerusalem. People when they wanted to thank God for something, or to celebrate a festival, instinctively rounded up an animal from their flock, or purchased one in the temple precinct. They would then hand it over to the priest, who would deftly cut its throat, collect the blood in a bowl, and pour it over the altar as God’s portion. They would keep back some of the meat for the priests to eat or sell, as their payment. The rest of the flesh would be dealt with in one of two ways. Either they would burn all of it on the altar as a further sacrifice to God, or in most cases they would burn a token piece, then hand the rest back to the worshippers, who would cook and eat it then and there in the temple.
What did they think was happening during this sacrificial ritual? The sacrifice wasn’t a bribe, all God got was the blood and the smell of burning flesh, pretty inadequate if it was meant as a bribe. The first thing you have to know to gain some understanding is to realise that the blood represented the life of the animal – indeed, it was the life, for without blood the animal was dead. To sacrifice was to offer a life to God. Part of the ritual was when the worshippers laid their hands on the head of the animal, to identify themselves with it, so that they could say that they were offering their own lives as a sacrifice to God. So I think Jesus meant us to understand that when we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist in his memory, ‘do this in remembrance of me’, we are identifying the sacrifice of our own lives in union with his sacrifice on the cross. Then we are taking his life into us as we eat and drink.
This was a thought already familiar to the worshippers in the temple in Jerusalem. As they offered the animal to God and then shared it with him, God was considered to be their guest at the feast. On top of that God was considered to have entered into the food, so that when they ate it God had entered into them. This, surely, is what Jesus meant, when he said, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I in them.’ When we take Communion later we are taking into ourselves the life of Jesus, Jesus, in Spirit, becomes part of us, in our thinking and doing.
Most people would agree that the words of Jesus were symbolic. He talks about eating his flesh; the literal meaning would be appalling, so this must be a symbol of something else. In his letters St John insists that Jesus has come ‘in the flesh’: ‘by this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.’ Here, ‘flesh’ is obviously symbolic language for the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was not just God dressed up as a human being: he actually became human. He faced our human problems, struggled against human temptations, and worked out human relationships just like we do. Jesus understands us even when we are at our lowest, because he has been there himself.
Jesus said that mere flesh would do us no good; even his own flesh is useless to us until we add the value which comes from the meaning and promise of his words. So the Sacrament deserves our deepest reverence, because it is the means by which we take the humanity and the life of Jesus into ourselves.
So when we come to eat bread and drink wine together in Holy Communion, we feed our hearts and souls and minds on the humanity of Jesus, and revitalise our lives by drinking his life and his love into ours by the power of his word. Jesus tells us: ‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’ It is the power of love that is the Holy Spirit within us that changes lives. Consider for a moment; reasoning with someone who is behaving badly won’t change them – only love will do that. Jesus tells us that God is love and that God loves us, even though we are miserable sinners and however much we reject him; Jesus died for saying that, and went on loving us as he hung on the cross. He knew all along that you can’t reason with a sinner; his love is the only thing that can change us and save us, if you let him!