51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 Then the Jews debated among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
53 Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. It isn’t like the bread your ancestors ate, and then they died. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
This well-known passage in John is first and last an invitation. It resists analytical resolution as surely as its meaning eluded the Jewish leaders who debated it among themselves (v.52). Whether it is Eucharistic or not or any of the other things commentators regularly concern themselves with, Jesus’ words here stand at the end of the day as an invitation to a whole new experience of and quality of life.
Critics of the early church charged it with cannibalism. Yet what Jesus says here reeks of a realism far deeper and profounder than that. Theologians of a later era have labeled his words as mere imagery, a symbol (in the weakest sense of the word) of a reality far distant from it. I’m reminded of an occasion when Flannery O’Connor was in New York with a group of well-heeled women. Discussion came round to the Eucharist. The group waxed eloquent about the grand symbolism of the rite. O’Connor, for her part, quipped that if the Eucharist was only a symbol, “to hell with it”!
These kinds of discussions, however important or necessary in other respects, tend to obscure more than they reveal for those reading the Bible seeking God’s Word of life for us. I think that if we resist the urge to analyze the details, or at least, after we have done our analytical work, seek to read the passage whole and open ourselves to its total message and impact, we will hear in it a divine invitation to a new order of existence that can only be captured by such outlandish “bread and blood” imagery.
Such an invitation beckons us to realms seldom experienced though the door stands open to any who will ask. It’s not mysticism, at least in the usual sense of that term. It’s more of a depth of living, truly living as opposed to the less than fully human existences we normally inhabit. Life as God intended it is perhaps the best way to describe it. Life in all its moods and modes, dimensions and depths blossoming into the unique persons God designed each of us to be.
This life, true life, is as frightening as it is attractive. It scares us even as it beckons us draw near. The God whose life Jesus embodies and invites us to share is a God who is, as C. S. Lewis styles his famous Narnian Christ-figure, the great lion Aslan, “not a tame lion.” He is good and terrible at the same time. Yet in all this, this God is love, undistilled and undiluted.
If we hear this Johannine text this way, perhaps its best commentary comes from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s story The Wind and the Willows. It is a scene when Mole and Rat have unexpected come into a presence, august and majestic, that thrills and frightens them to the core of their being. Finally mole speaks. 'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?' 'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid? Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!'"
“I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me lives because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven."
Sisters and brothers, this invitation baffles, frightens, and attracts me. I don’t quite know what to make of it; I barely sense what it aims to make of me. Yet, am I afraid? “Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – (dear friends), I am afraid!”