How many of you know someone who says they don’t believe in God? Most of us do. Many of us have had conversations with friends or family members or even strangers who tell us that they don’t believe. Sometimes their reasoning has to do with church history or personal experiences and sometimes they just feel like what we trust is true just cannot be. So in your conversations with these people, how many of you have ever offered today’s gospel passage as an argument support?
How many of you have just casually offered, “You know, Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 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 true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)
What? No one has used this passage as an argument or comfort in a discussion with someone who has difficulty experiencing God in the world? Why not? Why wouldn’t you use this passage? Because it sounds crazy. You might try to tone it down by saying, “Well, I know it sounds crazy, but we don’t really eat Jesus. I mean, we eat this bread and drink this wine and we believe he’s present in those things. We don’t really know how he’s present, we just sort of trust and eat and look at each other and go home and it’s very meaningful. But we’re not crazy. I swear.”
Well, that falls a little flat, doesn’t it? This passage sounds strange even to us. Even if we’ve come to accept that we’re a little crazy, we like for things to make sense, to seem logical, to be rational… and this passage brings us right up to the edge of what we believe and says, “Here it is, all laid out for you. And it’s a little bit more than you can swallow.”
What is Jesus saying here- to the people around him at the time and to us today? Part of this goes all the way back to the beginning of this whole section of John- with the feeding of the 5,000 and having leftovers, with the walking across the water and stilling the storm, with the phrase “I am the bread of life”. Part of what Jesus is telling his audience is that it’s not enough to participate in what is easy or obvious- the miracles, the healings, the supernatural events. It’s not enough to live based on the history of what God has done. In the case of the Jews in Scripture, it’s the memory of the freedom from slavery and manna in the wilderness. In our case, it’s not enough to believe in Christmas and Easter- the birth and resurrection. When we reduce God’s actions to what was and a vague expectation of what may come, we are missing the present, the current action, the contemporary revelations.
The bread of life is not fast food. We do not grab it and go. It’s not something we consume just to have eaten, to have enough to get us to the next meal. What Jesus is telling those who would hear him is that the body and blood is something to chew on, to sit with, to return to. It’s something to gnaw on- with your mind and with your body. We chew on the bones of our salvation- making the taste last, always finding one more morsel, one more piece that gives us the flavor of heaven.
And what is this eating for? Why do we chew over Jesus? What’s to be gained from eating the flesh and drinking the blood? True enough, eternal life. True enough, a better understanding of God. True enough, a very strange image to have in your mind. But what about the word Jesus uses, “abide”? What about abide? Eating the body and blood brings us to abide in Christ and Christ, in us. What does that mean?
This week, I’ve been reading a book called “God’s Hotel” about one of the last almshouses in the country. An almshouse is where people used to go if they weren’t really able to pay for a hospital stay, but still needed care and had nowhere else to go. In one section, the author, Dr. Victoria Sweet, talks about the difference between seeing a person alive and seeing the body of the same person after they’ve died.
“Much later I learned that medicine had once had a name for this, this something present in the living body but missing from the corpse. Two names, actually. There was spiritus, from which we get the English spirit, although the Latin spiritus was not as insubstantial as “spirit”. Spiritus was the breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the living body that is so shockingly absent from the dead. Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.
And there was anima. Usually translated as soul, the Latin is better for conveying the second striking distinction between [the body of the person] and [the person themselves]- its lack of movement. Because anima is not really the abstraction, “soul”. Anima is the invisible force that animates the body. That moves it, not only willfully buy also unconsciously- all those little movements that the living body makes all the time. The slight tremor of the fingers, the pounding of the heart that shakes the living frame once a second, the rise and fall of the chest. Those movements by which we perceive that someone is alive. Anima, ancient medicine had observed, is just as absent from the dead body as spiritus.” (p. 2-3)
I read this passage this week and I thought, “That’s what we get through eating the body and blood of Jesus. This is what happens with Christ abides in us! We have spiritus! We have anima!” When Jesus abides, resides, dwells, within us- we have something that we otherwise lack. We cannot always put our fingers on it specifically, which is what makes it hard to explain to doubtful listeners, but it is something that both comforts and motivates us, something that feeds and exhausts us, something that grounds us and gives us forward momentum. That’s what it means to have Jesus abide in us- as a result of our feeding on him.
And what does it mean for us to abide in him? It means our spiritus and our anima have an anchor, a solid base. It means that when we look around, we see Christ in all things. And it means that all things see Christ in us. It means when we are wondering how to respond to all that God has done in Christ, when we are asking the question, “What should I do?” The answer is “Abide.” When we rest in presence of Christ, we are even more able to be present to the people and circumstances of our lives. Having fed on the body and blood, the Spirit uses that fuel to help us brighten the corner where we are, to shine the Christ light right onto our every day tasks, to love our neighbors and to be about the work of justice and peace.
Yes, it all sounds a little crazy, but in the end… what we do here is not about bread and wine. What God does here is not about bread and wine. It’s about bodies. It’s about flesh and blood. It’s about life force and movement. It’s about Jesus, abiding in us and we, in him.