Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you have no life in you. The people who heard Jesus say these words asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” I want to know where Jesus got this shocking figure of speech and what he thought he was communicating by using it. To my ears, Jesus’ words bring feelings of physical revulsion. They probably did for ancient people, too. Eat human flesh? Disgusting. What could Jesus be thinking? Of course it’s a metaphor, but a metaphor for what?
Jesus had been talking about bread, not flesh. Chapter 6 of John’s gospel begins with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, after which Jesus told the people not to work for bread that perishes but for bread that endures to eternal life. “What kind of work does this entail,” the people asked.
“To believe on the one that God sent into the world,” Jesus replied.
So, the people asked, “what kind of sign will you show us that we should believe in you?” For example, Moses had given people bread from heaven, the manna the people had eaten during their 40 year sojourn in the wilderness. Could Jesus do that?
Well, wait a minute, hadn’t Jesus just in fact done that with the miracle of the five thousand? Were the people blind? How could they not understand? So Jesus could have replied, “Don’t you see that I’ve already given you the miracle you are asking for? Where do you think all that bread came from? If you are looking for proof of who I am, what more do you need?”
But Jesus took the conversation back where he wanted to go. There’s a kind of bread that’s more important than the bread required to nourish the body. The bread from heaven is Jesus himself. And if Jesus had stopped there, that’s a nice little inspirational thought that we could all live with. We need Jesus more than we need to fill our stomachs. Jesus nourishes our souls like bread nourishes the body.
But then Jesus goes and starts talking about eating his flesh. Where did he get such language? John sets chapter 6 in the context of the Passover (verse 4), a festival that features prominently throughout John’s gospel. The Passover recalls Israel’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt. The yearly celebration involved, among other things, the eating of unleavened bread. And it involved the eating of a lamb, ritually slaughtered in the temple, a reminder of the blood that was shed to mark the door posts of God’s covenant people, those passed over when God’s wrath was poured out upon the Egyptians.
In general, Jesus drew his powerful, imaginative language from the story and life of Israel and Israel’s sacred writings. He didn’t need to find his illustrations and metaphors in pop culture of his day or in the pages of the local newspaper. The eating of sacrificed flesh was an element of the temple cult. The priests ate some sacrifices. The priests and the people together ate others. Others were totally consumed by the fires of the altar. And while the Passover bears many similarities to parts of the temple cult, it was different in other ways. The Passover lambs were slaughtered in the temple, but they the ritual meal was prepared and consumed at home.
From daily worship in the temple, then, to the annual celebration of the Passover, the eating of sacrificial flesh had a holy purpose. So when Jesus makes an abrupt shift from speaking of himself as bread to speaking of himself as flesh, we are probably best to locate both metaphors in the cultic life of Israel, most obviously the Passover in which both bread and flesh are consumed.
Given the context of the sacrifice, Jesus’ meaning becomes clearer. If Jesus is like the manna that God provided through Moses, now nourishing the soul of believers, he is also like also like the sacrifices that were offered in accordance with the Law of Moses. You can’t have a sacrificial meal without a sacrificial victim. In Jesus’ death, all the sacrifices of Israel will be fulfilled. In him, believers find forgiveness of sins, cleansing from guilt, fellowship with God and each other and the opportunity to offer thanks and praise to the heavenly Father. He is, as the author of Hebrews will tell us, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
So, we understand, our ancestors ate the bread that God provided in the wilderness to nourish their bodies. Now we should receive the one God sent to nourish our new born selves. And every year we eat bread and flesh to remember the time God set us free from Egypt and made us his people. Now we should remember and believe in the one who will give his life to set us free in a new way, to constitute us once again as the people of God and deliver us to the promised land in the age to come.
So how should we do that? I suppose we could do all of this just by thinking about it, meditating on it and feeling it in our hearts. But then Jesus adds one more metaphor to the mix: drink his blood. What? If I am a first century Jew, I can’t look back at the story of my people and find anything that connects with drinking blood. Drinking blood is a sin. Eating meat with the blood still in it is a sin. I understand eating bread as a metaphor and even eating flesh as a metaphor, but where did Jesus get this “drink blood” imagery?
Eat bread. Eat flesh. Drink blood. Is there any place in the story of Jesus himself in which these three images come together? Of course there is. In the Lord’s Supper, believers eat bread that, according to the word of the Lord, is the body of Christ. They drink wine that is the blood of Christ.
In Jesus’ words, then, we don’t just find spiritual realities that are lived out in the heart and mind of the believer. He gives us a spiritual reality that Christians live out weekly as they gather around the table of the Lord. John doesn’t give us the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper; he gives us its meaning. Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood – that is, believers who share the table of the Lord – remain united to him, and he to them. Remaining united to Jesus is the one thing essential to eternal life. That is the reason that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever. His flesh and blood are real food and drink. Jesus nourishes with his own substance those who share his table.
There are many ways of talking about why Jesus died, some of which are ethereal and abstract. Perhaps there is a very simple way of talking about it here. I once offered the theory that Jesus came so that I could go to church. In a similar vein, I think John is telling us that Jesus died so that we could eat his flesh and drink his blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, with all the spiritual blessing and ultimate hope that entails. As the apostle Paul said, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.”