“Chewing Jesus’ Flesh: An Ode to Love”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15B) - August 19, 2018
Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “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.”
In our Diocese, one of the things that all new priests are required to do is take a week of conflict management training. I took mine a couple of years ago, shortly before I joined you here at St. Matthew’s.
In the training, we are given some tips and techniques for handling tense and stressful situations. We practice disagreeing with each other and managing our own emotions so that we can keep our cool and be as loving and charitable as possible, even if we own up to feeling mad.
As you can imagine, this is easier said than done. And everyone has different approaches or first instincts when they get into conflict. Some people like to stoke the flames; others like to try to find compromises; others (like me) prefer to give in to the other person so the conflict can end; and still others just want to avoid it altogether.
In this week’s Gospel story, we find Jesus embroiled in a conflict that’s been brewing for at least a few days (we’ve been reading about it for the last five Sundays). And it’s worth paying attention to the fact that Jesus doesn’t avoid the conflict or accommodate to others who disagree with him or compromise or collaborate with them to land in some middle ground. In this specific case, Jesus competes with his opponents. He says what he says; they don’t like it; and Jesus doesn’t back down. He asserts that he meant what he said and that it’s the Truth with a capital T.
Jesus is daring and bold in this passage. He begins by teaching, “I am the bread of life.” And Many of his hearers don’t respond well. They don’t accept what Jesus taught. They thought it was too blasphemous or too crude. First, he made himself out to be better than Moses by saying that he will provide bread that is better than the manna of the Exodus generations. Then, he said that the bread he gives is his flesh:
53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
We have been taught to spiritualize this story and others like it, but we can’t forget how raw and strange Jesus’ language is. What he’s talking about sounds like cannibalism – human beings eating other human beings! In fact, one of the reasons early Christians were persecuted by their Roman and Jewish neighbors in the first few centuries after Jesus was because people thought that they were a twisted cannibalistic cult.
In verse 52, the people start arguing among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They must be horrified and offended. Regardless of what you think about someone’s skill as a teacher and speaker (Jesus was very gifted and charismatic), this kind of talk freaked people out.
And instead of softening the message, Jesus doubles down. He doesn’t try to back down and explain himself in plainer language. He doesn’t apologize for being misunderstood. Jesus stands firm in his message, in his God-given convictions. He proclaims the truth that God has given him about how to give life and love and healing to the world, even if that path is unpopular.
So, when Jesus responds from verse 54 onward, he uses a much stronger word to talk about “eating.” I can’t find a Bible translation that reflects this, but in the original Greek language, Jesus changes his vocabulary away from the ordinary word for “to eat” and uses a word that means something more like “to chew” or “to gnaw.” Think of the way a dog grinds away at a bone. He starts saying, “Those who chew on my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
Jesus isn’t trying to drive people away. He doesn’t want to be mean or a jerk. But he won’t back down from speaking the truth. He won’t compromise on this because it’s important. In Christ, God came down to earth to be with us. God has made the first move toward greater love and intimacy with us. Jesus teaches us how to respond to that love. As God draws close to us, he shows us how to come close to God. Jesus loves us enough to let us eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Eat the flesh of the Son, but don’t just swallow it quickly; chew on it; gnaw on it; savor it. We live through chewing on Jesus’ flesh “just as” Jesus lives through the Father (6:57). Jesus wants our connection to him to be as close and intimate as his connection to the Father. Remember, we believe that the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) are completely united in every way. They are one with each other. Jesus wants to draw us into that unified life through chewing on his flesh. He wants his flesh to unite with ours and unite us to each other. Because if we are all closer to God, we’ll all be closer to each other in the church.
Jesus isn't talking about taking a little taste or swallowing quickly. We must ruminate. We must chew slowly and deeply, meditating on our activity of absorbing the very Word of God into our flesh and bones and souls. When we chew on Jesus’ body and savor the taste of his blood, he says that we abide in him and he abides in us.
Abide is a powerful word that means to remain faithfully forever. Abiding means making a home together, like you do in a marriage. But Jesus wants to be closer to us than even our closest friend or spouse. But sometimes friends betray us or spouses divorce, and even in the best case, friends and spouses die and we can be left alone. But through the bread and wine of the Eucharist, Jesus promises to stay with us always, through thick and thin, no matter how badly we might sin and screw up our lives. Jesus’ love for us is everlasting. And Holy Communion is our promise that Jesus’ love never fails. Amen.