John 6:51-58 – A Very Gross Assertion

Why do we seek God?  For meaning and purpose?  When we seek God we are acknowledging something that is beyond our immediate realm of perception; something that points to something else beyond this life.  God is the one we seek when we are scared or confused, lost or sad, exploited or in pain.  When life doesn’t make sense, when things seem hopeless, when we are filled with despair, we seek the face of God hoping that this whole show is being run by a being who has the power to make the struggle stop or go away, or at least make sense.  And when we find the capacity to believe that there is more, that there is something waiting for us on the other side of this life, we find hope that somehow things will be balanced, and that all the pain and suffering will have meant something and will have been worth it.    We sense that with God, our lives have meaning and purpose; without God, we are reduced to being no more than a tiny speck in a vast universe.

But sometimes seeking God is like being lost in a big city. We know the truth is out there, but every turn leads us further away from our destination.  We stop at a few spiritual gas stations; we approach people who have never heard of what we’re seeking.  We want to know God, to love God, to discover and explore God’s majesty, to roll in God’s holy goodness and experience God’s power. We desperately want to find God, but how? Where? When? And why don’t we feel as close to God as everyone promised?

For most of us, the hunt for God never stops, but for all of us God is not available on demand. So we deny God; we curse God; we demand proof of God’s existence that we will never get. But the search continues, motivated by a sense — often just a hunch, or the slimmest instinct — that there is holiness in our world that only God’s presence can account for. We know that what we believe about God may be wrong, in fact probably is wrong; but we prefer the possibility of false belief to no belief at all.

Some 3,000 years ago wise King Solomon wrote that God has put a sense of eternity in our hearts, but not the capacity to behold it (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In other words, God gave us the longing to ask the questions, but not the ability to know the answers unless we come to sincerely seek and rely on God.   St. Augustine once said: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  God has placed the desire for God within us, and our sacred texts are a record of how others before us, faced the exact same questions and doubts that we face.  When we are lonely or isolated because God eludes us, we can find reassurance, inspiration, and guidance in carefully studying how others navigated this course, connecting with God in ways that — at this moment, at least — we cannot.

But sometimes even our sacred texts appear to lead us down blind alleys that have nothing whatsoever to do with a real life of seeking and faith. Today’s scripture is one of those texts.  There are a multitude of Biblical scholars who are more than happy to provide logical explanations for the very gross assertion Jesus made about eating his flesh and drinking his blood…  They are quick to point out the controversies that were raging in the early Church over the nature and the importance of the Lord’s Supper – controversies which John attempted to settle with his own record of Jesus’ speech about giving his flesh and blood so that the world might live.

But academic controversies do not satisfy our need for meaning, and so the question looms… “So what!” What exactly does flesh and blood, heavenly bread and even the Lord’s Supper really have to do with the ins and outs, and the ups and downs, of everyday living? What does it have to do with the things that really matter, our hopes and fears, loves and hates, our living and our dying? What does it have to do with us, here and now, two thousand years later, struggling just to make ends meet?”  And most importantly, what does it have to do with our desire to know God?

You see, when I turn to scripture I am seeking all of the comfort and the counsel it can offer to get me through today.  I am seeking meaning that makes my life worth living.  Scripture is the closest thing I have to a roadmap that helps me navigate all of the crazy pitfalls embedded in life.  And in this particular passage I am stopped dead in my tracks just like everyone who stood around Jesus that day wanting to know what the heck he was talking about.  What do you mean I have to eat your flesh and drink your blood?  Are you crazy?

And maybe Jesus was being a little crazy – because sometimes that’s what it takes to get people’s attention.  I recently read a story by Flannery O’Connor called “The River,” where a little five-year-old boy drowns when he tries to baptize himself in a river. After the story was published in 1955, there was a lot of criticism about this horrifying illustration of baptism which some thought was too extreme. But the whole point of telling the story was to remind people of how vividly powerful baptism is, and that it really does symbolize the death of the old self and the resurrection of a new self in Christ.  When she was criticized, Flannery O’Connor said, “In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.”

In this particular conversation, Jesus draws a really big caricature and throws everyone for a loop by suggesting something which has always been regarded as an abomination by the law and the prophets – cannibalism.  And upon hearing it, instinctively, we too shrink back because this just doesn’t compute.  It is morally and fundamentally wrong, and not only that it’s gross.  Yet every week/month what do we do?  We eat bread and sip wine together and reenact the caricature.

We observe sacraments in order to create and nourish our faith, but how often do we really think about what we are doing and saying?  When we take the bread and wine what are we thinking.  What are we receiving as we partake of that meal?  Are our imaginations big enough, or are our expectations too small, because what Jesus is offering is a slice of eternal life, a slice of the very Life force that pulses as the heartbeat to everything that exists, or existed, or ever will exist.  God has placed the desire for God within us, and right here, in these verses, we finally encounter the heart of it all. Jesus is offering us the way to God.

In these verses we begin to recognize just what is at stake for Jesus – what is at stake for God, and just how much we are worth to him as he offers to us his very own flesh and blood, flesh which will be stretched upon the cross for our sake, and blood which will flow freely from his hands, feet, and side, also for our sake.  In this passage, Jesus gets downright immoral in his imagery in order to confront us with the claim and the promise of a God who takes on flesh and becomes just like us, so that we may one day be like God.

In Jesus, the Word was made flesh, and in the sacrament of communion, the Word is made flesh once again, as we meet the God who is satisfied with nothing less than our whole selves. This is why Jesus speaks of giving us his flesh and blood.  Flesh and blood is a Hebrew expression which refers to the whole person, hearts, minds, spirit, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, everything. In Jesus, the whole of God meets us to love, redeem, and sustain the whole of who we are – all of it – the good, bad, and the ugly.  In this passage, language is stretched to the outer limits in order to express an eternal union and participation of one life in another.

As we come to sincerely seek and rely on God, this then is the intersection where worlds collide, where flesh and blood encounter the promise that God not only cares about our births and our deaths, our dreams and our fears, our marriages and our divorces, our successes and our failures, but that God has also joined God’s own self to them and to us through Christ, the Word made flesh and given for us.  It is at Christ’s table where we come to eat and drink this promise made by a God willing to meet us right where we are.  And as we receive the real food of Christ’s own body, the real drink of Christ’s own blood, we discover that we have support in living in this very real and difficult world. Come, then, to meet the God who offers us, not just meaning, but life itself – life in Christ both now and forever.  Amen