Jesus is still working out his interpretation of the gift of manna from heaven, now recapitulated and fulfilled in the Feeding of the Multitude. In John 6:49, Jesus reminds his interlocutors, “In the wilderness, your ancestors ate the manna and died” (my translation). Jesus doesn’t identify the forebears as “our” ancestors because he has repeatedly noted that his origin is from heaven. The bread he brings is more than manna. “This is the bread, which is coming down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and will not die” (John 6:50, my translation).
So far, this is a challenging but not necessarily offensive theological assertion. What Jesus says next, as we noted earlier, will be physically and spiritually gag-inducing for many who are listening. “I am the Living Bread which has come down from heaven,” he declares. “If one eats of this bread, that one will live forever.” That’s still somewhat indirect, so Jesus goes for the kill shot. “And the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51).
It should be clear by now that specific words in the Gospel of John make all the difference. Jesus does not talk about his “body” at this point. That would be the Greek word “soma.” Instead, Jesus uses the Greek word “sarx,” which means the literal flesh of a person.
Karoline Lewis notes that this vocabulary takes us back to John’s prologue where we heard that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). “That the bread of life is Jesus’ flesh, not his body, not only emphasizes the importance of the incarnation as the principal salvific premise for John,” she writes, “but also reiterates all that Jesus as the Word made flesh contributes to our interpretation of the promise of abundant life and eternal life, so very prominent in this discourse” (page 95).
Previously, Jesus’ debate partners had been “grumbling” about Jesus and his audacious, borderline heretical statements about the manna and his mission. Now, they begin “quarreling” over his words. Note that they are not quarreling with Jesus but rather with one another. This is an additional sign that part of the gospel writer’s concern has to do with the factional infighting that was leading to the rejection and expulsion of the Jesus people from the synagogue.
“How is this man able to give to us his flesh to eat?” they ask one another in John 6:52b (my translation). A major part of the debate is about Jesus’ identity and his authority to be able to do and say what he has done and said in this chapter. If this man is merely the son of Joseph and his mother (not named in this text), then certainly he is neither capable nor qualified to make the claims he has made.
“The offense,” Lewis observes “is that this mere man is making these radical claims about God” (page 95). She notes that this sense of the scandalous nature of the Eucharist is often missing in our worship rites, which have “a marked domesticity about them, as if we have forgotten the radicalness of what Jesus actually did and said” (page 95). Perhaps, as she suggests, we ought to be a bit more astonished about what we claim we are doing in the Sacrament. If we are not astonished, perhaps we might want to have a little think before we come to the table again.
As if the offense is not already enough, Jesus raises the stakes still further. “Therefore, Jesus said to them, ‘As a solemn vow I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves” (John 6:53, my translation). Cannibalism and vampirism – it’s no wonder that pagan commentators heard such words and concluded that Christians were lunatics engaged in savage orgies of blood and gore!
“Jesus’ insistence in John’s Gospel that Israelites eat his flesh and blood in order to have life that befits children of God,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is antilanguage at its most obvious” (page 135). This is not a prophetic symbolic action, they argue, as we would find in the synoptics and in Paul’s letters. Instead, this is “just straightforward antilanguage, which made good sense to the members of John’s antisociety” (page 135). The reason it may have made good sense was discussed in the previous post.
Jesus then makes it clear that he is talking about the most physical and concrete meanings of eating and drinking. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that one up on the last day” (John 6:54, my translation). Jesus uses a verb that was most often used to describe the way in which animals ate their food.
The verb, “trogo,” means to “gnaw,” “to bite,” or to “(audibly) chew.” It is the happy and satisfying sound our dogs make as they eat their breakfast and supper. At least I assume it is a happy and satisfying sound, based on the enthusiasm with which they eat.
Goppelt, in his TDNT entry, suggests that the move from “to eat” to “to munch” in John is the move from appropriating Jesus in the word by faith to receiving Jesus physically in the Eucharist (page 236). I’m not sure if the text bears up to that close of a reading, but there’s no question that the verb means the physical act of eating real food. But what can this actually mean? Or are we to be as flummoxed as Jesus’ interlocutors (and disciples) were?
Lewis argues that the point is found in verse 56. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood continues to abide in me and I in that one” (my translation). “The larger theological presupposition behind the entirety of this discourse,” she argues, “is the Gospel’s central means by which to articulate a relationship with God and Jesus, that of abiding” (page 96). Jesus provides the Life that will last, both in the Bread from heaven and in his living presence in the life of the faith community.
We come to the crux of Jesus’ argument in this section of the Discourse. “The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself,” writes William Cavanaugh, “but is taken up into Christ” (Kindle Locations 60-601). “Being consumed” is, therefore, a mutual relationship and reality in the Eucharist, as presented in the Gospel according to John.
“In the Christian view,” Cavanaugh continues, “we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming, and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centered,” he argues, “and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life” (Kindle Locations 605-607).
Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people. I have been both fascinated with and disgusted by the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman. It is also our culturally typical response to any professional or college athletes who let us down. After all, they get rewarded handsomely. They ought to stop protesting and start producing, right?
Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. I have no problem using the imagery of predators here. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market. In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment.
There is no mutuality here – only arrogance, avarice, and abuse. It shall not be so among us Christians, if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us. “In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).
Jesus says in John 6:55 that his flesh is genuine comestibles, and his blood is authentic drink. That is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate. A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.
In his discussion of the text, Cavanaugh returns us to this real food and drink. Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.
“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621). And we thought that Jesus was crazy when he called us to be fine, Christian cannibals!
“The key question in every transaction,” Cavanaugh writes in his introduction, “is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God” (Kindle Locations 25-26). This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?
References and Resources
Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.
Goppelt, TDNT VIII:236-237.
Harrill, J. A. (2008). Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6: 52-66). Journal of Biblical Literature.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Miller, Michael E. “Pizzagate’s Violent Legacy.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/02/16/pizzagate-qanon-capitol-attack/.
WAGEMAKERS, B. (2010). INCEST, INFANTICIDE, AND CANNIBALISM: ANTI-CHRISTIAN IMPUTATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Greece & Rome, 57(2), second series, 337-354. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929483