Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood?
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This fall we began a sermon series on the Gospel of Luke. What we didn’t realize was that this would have us preaching through the traditional Christmas passages during Halloween. So, we thought that for Christmas, we might as well cover some Halloween themes. Our Christmas series is, “A Very Scary Christmas? How the Incarnation Conquers Fear.” If you’ve been here the last two weeks, Jason preached about Ghosts one week and Zombies the next. If you weren’t here for those, and you’re really confused, I’ll just say we probably meant something a little different than you might expect with those terms.
This week, I’m covering the nice, warm, stereotypically Christmas theme of Cannibalism. (I can’t be sure, but my guess is that no other church in Harrisburg has the word cannibalism in the title of their Christmas sermon series!)
Yet our passage in question is likely far more of a Christmas passage than you might expect. In a moment, I’m going to read a section from the Gospel of John. I’ll only read a few verses now, but in the flow of the whole passage, Jesus says four times the words, “coming down from heaven” (vv. 33, 38, 41, 51). And each time, he’s saying that he is the one who has come down from heaven. Do you see the Christmas tie-in? At Christmas, we reflect on Jesus coming down from heaven, and here is a passage where that theme is on repeat.
But we can actually be more specific even than this. At one point in the exchange between Jesus and his audience we read this:
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
They say, “We know all about the birth of Jesus; we know his mother and father. He’s not so special.” The question then, of course, is do they really know about the birth of Jesus? Do they really know the Christmas story?
But this morning, I’m less concerned with that question and more concerned with this question: Do you know the Christmas story? Do you really know who Jesus is? Do you know that he came down from heaven to give life to all men?
Please follow along with me as I read John 6:47–59. Admittedly, the whole passage is longer than this, and we’ll touch on different parts of it, but I think these will be enough verses to get us rolling. (If you’re using one of the Bible’s on the ends of the rows, it’s on page 1,017.)
47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
I’d like to begin by reading a list. There are 45 items on the list. I’ve put the list in alphabetical order.
- Agave Nectar
- Ascorbic Acid
- Beans (all kinds)
- Canola Oil
- Casein (dairy)
- Citric Acid
- Corn Syrup
- Cottage Cheese
- Cream Cheese
- Goat Milk
- Honeydew Melon
- Oats, Oatmeal
- Oranges (all kinds)
- Potato, Potato Starch
- Sugar Cane (all forms)
- Wheat, gluten
That list is the list of foods that I’m supposed to avoid because the current theory is says that, in one way or another, I’m allergic to them.
This wasn’t always the case for me. In fact, food has only been an issue during the last 3–4 years. I don’t want to get into many of the specifics. Many of you have heard these issues mentioned in passing. And some of you know lots about this.
I bring it up to say this: there are situations in life, where my issues with food are particularly challenging. These times are when food is more than mere fuel (I’m empty, so fill me up; I’m empty, so fill me up). When food is celebration, like at weddings for instance, it’s hard. And when food means thanksgiving, like we all celebrated last month, it’s hard.
You can imagine can’t you, that with so many things to avoid, it made our Thanksgiving dinner difficult. I will tell you that through the great creativity and effort of my wife, I did eat a good meal. And I did get full.
But there is a certain hunger that never goes away—not a hunger from not eating, but from rather from eating food that doesn’t satisfy, that is, fully satisfy.
If I asked you what are some of the chief metaphors used throughout the Bible, perhaps you would say things like “light and darkness” or “sickness and health.” And that’s certainly true.
But among the chief metaphors that the Bible employs from beginning to end, certainly we must mention “food and drink, hunger and thirst.”
Consider the prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah. There’s a famous passage in Jeremiah 2 where he says, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (2:13). The image is of one man at one of those little pumping stations, working like a dog, and the water pump is spitting out some brown water into a little Styrofoam cup with a hole in it, and the water is not even potable, not even drinkable. And next to him is a beautiful Colorado mountain stream. And God says, You’ve traded drinking me for sludge.
In Isaiah 55, the God famously speaks of God’s invitation to his people to come buy rich food even though we have no money, we have no moral capital to purchase such food (55:1–3).
And consider how at the end of the Bible, the eternal joy that we have with God is described as a huge wedding feast where we enter into the joy of our master (Revelation 19:6–9; cf. Matthew 25:21, 23).
But among all these passages that make use of “food and drink, hunger and thirst,” surely the most provocative (in my opinion) is John Chapter 6—our Christmas passage this morning. In it, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
So, with this introduction, let me share how we’ll go about studying this passage for the rest of our time. I’m going to ask three questions. First, how do we make sense of this passage? Second, how do we apply this passage to us? Finally, how do we relate this passage to Communion?
1. How do we make sense of this passage?
Let’s start with this first question. If we don’t know how to make sense of the passage, we won’t be able to do anything else.
Let’s go right at cannibalism, right at Hannibal Lector and Silence of the Lambs and vampires. But lest you think our provocative sermon theme of Christmas-cannibalism is made up, consider v. 52.
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
One thing I love about Jesus, which is also a thing that makes us uneasy about him, is that when someone accuses him of something awkward or controversial, sometimes rather than explaining it better, he just says something that’s perceived as more awkward or more controversial. When they grumble about what sounds like cannibalism, Jesus responds with “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).
And this controversy extended beyond this conversation into the life of the early church. In an important book by Michael Green called Evangelism in the Early Church, Green discusses three factors that made Christians seem scandalous in the eyes of their peers. The first was atheism (not that they were atheists, but Christians didn’t adopt the customary gods). Green continues,
In addition to their atheism, common rumor had it that they were guilty of both incest and cannibalism; Christians had constantly to refute such rumors. The well informed knew quite well that they were false. . . . However, those who were prepared simply to go on hearsay believed Christians could be guilty of anything. One can understand how it arose. The Christians met in secret; they used realistic language about feeding on Christ in [Communion], and they spoke of loving fellow-Christians, whom they called brothers and sisters in Christ. Gossiping lips and dirty minds did all the rest.1
Green goes on to footnote an early Christian leader who wrote,
You falsely accuse us . . . who are Christians, alleging that the wives of all of us are held in common, and made promiscuous use of; and that we even commit incest with our own sisters, and what is most impious and barbarous of all, that we eat human flesh.2
We’ll save the sermon on incest for next Christmas. Rightly understood, John 6 certainly isn’t advocating cannibalism of Jesus. So what does it mean? How do we make sense of it?
The language is provocative to be sure, but what’s going on here is that “eating and drinking Jesus” is being used as a metaphor to describe “believing in Jesus.” How do we know this?
Let’s consider several things. First, the context of the passage. At the beginning of John 6, which I didn’t read, Jesus performed what we call the “feeding of the 5,000,” although there were many more than this because it was only 5,000 men. Something to consider in that section is that they didn’t just eat a small meal. Jesus feeds them until they could eat no more (v. 12). It was a free all-you-can-eat buffet line. That’s important. Eating bread and being full and satisfied is on their minds.
Then, in the passage, Jesus miraculously crosses the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds come to find him. That’s when our passage begins. So it would be very expected to talk to people who have just eaten bread and to use that as a metaphor about eating bread that “doesn’t perish.”
But we can be more concrete. Consider the parallel between verses 40 and 54. I’m putting them on the screen together.
40 . . . Everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
Both verses end the exact same way. “Eating Jesus” and “believing in Jesus” have the same result: eternal life. Therefore, we’re talking about a metaphor, and one we frequently use: “I ate that up.” “I devoured a novel.” “Let me chew on that.”3
In summary, this passage has been controversial because it’s been wrongly thought to teach cannibalism, but what Jesus is doing is using provocative language to show that what a Christian must do—that is, if they want to have life forever with God—is to believe in Jesus and let that belief nourish you.
And so let’s stop there to point out the real controversy. Can you believe the arrogance of Jesus? How dare he say that if we want “true life”—a life of joy and satisfaction that begins now and lasts forever—how dare Jesus say that the only way to have that life is to have it by believing in him. I mean, we know his mother and father, right? We know that sweet Christmas story, right? Or do we?
I suppose what Jesus says is not arrogant if it’s actually true that he is the bread that came down from heaven to give life to all men.
2. How do we apply this passage to us?
With this in mind, let’s go to our second question: How do we apply this passage to us? What are we supposed to do with this reality? It seems to me that this passage corrects three things.
First, Jesus is correcting our misdirected hunger and thirsts. Look at v. 55,
55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
True food and true drink? What does that say about every other food and drink? It means they are not satisfying—at least in the end.
Consider what happens if you drink sexual sin. As I’ve heard Jason say sometimes, imagine what a life of sexual sin looks like after 50, 60, or 70 years? Does that look like living or dying?
And consider what happens if you try to quench your thirst with success. Listen to this statement from pop music legend Madonna:
I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. . . . I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and I think I’m mediocre and uninteresting. . . . Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.4
Let’s not throw rocks at superstars. I’m quoting her because I’ve felt this same struggle. Perhaps you have, too. We are hungry and thirsty people, but often our hunger and thirst is not satisfied. That’s because, as C.S. Lewis has said, we were made for another world. We were made to enjoy true bread.
The second thing this passage is doing is correcting our motivations for coming to Jesus. I didn’t spend much time on the beginning part of this passage, but they come to Jesus to get stuff, specifically to get bread and free meals. Look at v. 26,
26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me . . . because you ate your fill of the loaves.
They misunderstood the sign, the miracle. They thought the sign was the thing itself, but it was only a sign point to the real thing. In other words, the crowds drove the highway, and when they saw a sign that read, “Jesus is the Bread of Life and will Satisfy. Exit Here,” they pulled their car over and parked . . . at the sign! The sign was good (free meal), but it was meant to point to Jesus. But when the find Jesus, they want to go back to the sign.
At the end of the chapter, many people walk away from Jesus because they didn’t get what they wanted. What might be the comparison for us today of not getting the meal you wanted and walking away? Would you still want Jesus if he didn’t fix your marriage? Or sell your house? Or save your kids? Or take away your food allergies? I want to follow Jesus because Jesus is worth it even when life is hard. And so I want us to be a church where we help each other in the low moments by telling each other not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.
The third way this passage speaks to us is that Jesus is correcting our misunderstanding of casual Christianity. What do I mean by “casual Christianity”? I mean when we treat Christianity as though it were a hobby, which it’s not. Too many think, take it or leave it. If I feel like God today, okay. If not, that’s fine too. Question: how long would it take you to notice if your Bible was misplaced, for example?
And think about church attendance. I fear that about half of the people who call Community “their church” only come to church half of the time . . . or less. If you’ve only just started coming to our church for a few weeks, I’m not talking to you. And if you have a job that does not allow you to be here on Sunday, I’m not talking to you.
But to be clear, the issue is not church attendance or Bible reading. The issue is what do these symptoms communicate about your misunderstandings about the all-consuming, all-satisfying life and death and resurrection of King Jesus. We can say he is satisfying, but does our casual Christianity indicate that we believe something different?
3. How do we relate this passage to Communion?
Let’s transition to our last point to talk for just a few moments about communion. There is so much that could be said. I could, for example, explain the different names for Holy Communion, such as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. And I could talk about why some prefer to use the words sacrament and others prefer to use the word ordinance. For the most part, I’m leaving those questions for books and Sunday School classes.
But I do want to say just two things. First, some believe that when Christians participate in Communion, the elements actual become the body and blood of Jesus. If you saw the 2003 movie about Martin Luther, you can see that theological view creating extreme nervousness as he prepared to lead his first Communion service.
That view is not true. Jason pointed this out to me that we know this isn’t true because later in the gospels when Jesus said, “This is my body and blood” (while holding bread and wine), his body was still his body and his blood was still inside of him. Do you see what I mean?
Look at it like this. If I help up a picture of my wife and said, “This is my wife,” would we have this same confusion? No, we wouldn’t. Jesus is doing something like this as well.
The second thing to consider is how this passage in John 6 relates to the realities of the Lord’s Supper. Some would say that Jesus in John 6 is foreshadowing the realities of Communion. In the interest of time, I’m not going to get into the reasons why, but I think the reverse is actually true. As one scholar puts it, “John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper; rather, the Lord’s Supper is about what is described in John 6.”5
Every time we take the Lord’s Supper, we are going back to the realities of John 6 that were purchased for us when Jesus went to the cross and died for us.
Let me come back to where I began when I mentioned my troubles with food. Let me mention two particular struggles. First, there is the fear of what tomorrow will bring. So often I find myself eating a meal and wondering if I’ll be sick for the next two or three days. I have so little assurance.
And second, there is the expense involved. To eat this way requires more money.
As long as we are talking about food as metaphors, I think this is how we all are, that is, how we are in a spiritual sense. We have hunger and thirst, but often we have so little assurance that the way we quench our thirsts won’t end in pain. And with respect to money and cost, the things we pursue cost us something.
I know this passage has many challenges to it. It corrects our misdirected thirst. It corrects our misdirect motivations for coming to Jesus. And it corrects our casual Christianity. This is difficult to hear.
But don’t miss the good news in this passage. Don’t miss what Jesus is promising. Jesus says that if you believe in him, you will never die and you will have the hope of forever with God. There is not maybe about it. He’s promising.
And consider this. We didn’t read these verses, but when Jesus promises this to them, the people ask him, What do we need to do to earn this, what work do we need to do (v. 28). In a sense, they are saying that every meal I’ve ever known I had to pay for. How much does this cost?
Jesus says, No, the work of God is to believe (v. 29). In short, the bread of life is a free gift that is to be received by faith. You don’t earn it; you can’t earn it. They would have known that to eat a meal, something had to die. In the gospel, we get the free gift of eternal life because Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world.
At this time, the worship team can come forward. This morning, we are going to do Communion a little differently than normal. Instead of our normal practice of passing it out, we are going to have you come forward to receive it.
The worship team is going to lead us in several songs as we close. As they are playing, we are going to have people come up to receive communion in two lines down the center aisle and then walk back down the outside. There’s no rush. We are doing this differently because we want to give you time to reflect on the bread of life. Maybe there are ways you are trying to quench your thirst you need to confess to God. This would be a great time to pause and talk to God.
When you come through the line, you can bring the elements back to your seat and take them as you feel ready; you don’t have to wait. As well, if you’re not able to get up, Jason is going to serve the worship team and he can bring some to you as well. Also, I’ll point out that here in the center is a gluten-free option.
The Bible records that on the night that Jesus was betrayed, as they were eating, and when he had given thanks, he took the bread and he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Would those who were asked to help with Communion come forward now?
People often wonder who should participate in this supper, and different churches have different understandings about this, but at the core, we all can say that the meal is not for people who deserve it. That is for sure. The Lord’s Supper, like salvation, is for those who know they need grace from God, then need mercy from God. It’s for people that worship God for his free grace to them through the Son.
In this way, the meal is a meal for Christians. So if you are not a Christian, we ask that you not participate because by participating you would be saying something untrue of yourself and we would never want to put you in a place where you had to do that.