Commentary on John 6:52-59
The discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life continues.
Understandably enough the Jews are deeply shocked at Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It sounds like a primitive recipe for cannibalism. If we were to put ourselves in their shoes and hear those words for the very first time I think that we too would find them very strange, to say the least.
For the Jews it was even more shocking because they had the greatest reverence for, even a fear of, blood. It was the source of life and should never be touched. To come in contact with blood was immediately to become ritually unclean. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), one of the reasons why the priest and the Levite did not come to the help of the injured man lying on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was almost certainly because he was bleeding and they were on their way to the Temple to pray or offer sacrifice. The woman with the chronic bleeding problem (Mark 5:25-34) did not dare to reveal herself to the crowd or even to Jesus because she should not have been in such close proximity with people. She could have been lynched if they knew.
To this day Jews only eat meat from which the blood has been previously drained (kosher). And here is Jesus inviting, even telling, people to drink his own blood! We have heard these words so often that they have lost their impact.
Yet Jesus makes no apologies for what he has said. On the contrary, he tells his hearers that if they do not eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will not have life. Those who do eat and drink are guaranteed life. Because Jesus’ flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. “Whoever eats me will draw life from me.”
What are we to make of all this? What do the words mean? Obviously they are not to be taken literally. Rather, to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is to assimilate totally into our very being the whole way of thinking and acting of Jesus, the very Person of Jesus. To be able to say with Paul, “I live, no, it is not I, but Christ who lives in me.” “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”
Nor are the Body and Blood of Christ only to be understood in the context of ‘receiving communion’ in the Eucharist. Certainly there are Eucharistic references in what Jesus is saying but we need to understand the Eucharist as a sacrament or sign of a much wider relationship with Jesus. The Eucharist is primarily a community celebration of what we are – brothers and sisters who are the Body of Christ for each other and for the whole world. Jesus’ flesh and blood come to us through the Word that we hear during the Eucharistic Liturgy as well as during the sharing of the Bread and the Cup. But Jesus also comes to us through every loving experience that we have in community. The Eucharist is not the whole of our eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. It is the sacramental celebration pointing to our total experience of meeting Jesus in our lives. It is something which should be happening all through our day wherever we are, whatever we are doing.