The Shocking Nature of Holy Communion – August 19, 2018
A man who left the Church as an adolescent and never returned traces his disillusionment to several incidents, including a memorable discussion about the Lord’s Supper in his Confirmation class. He asked his teacher how the sacrament was any different from the ritual cannibalism practiced in some tribes in which they eat the body of the departed leader in the belief that by doing so they will manifest the leader’s powers. The teacher was annoyed by the question and responded, “What a disgusting suggestion! Holy Communion has nothing in common with cannibalism. We’re talking about a blessed sacrament not some primitive ritual. It’s completely different.” The teacher refused to discuss it any further. (Source of story unknown)
In one way that teacher was right. Christians regard Holy Communion as a beautiful sacrament. Look at the artwork in our sanctuary. The beautiful scene of the Last Supper in half-relief carving based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, behind St. John’s high altar. Priests wear ornate, flowing robes with silk stoles and chasubles hand stitched with gold embroidery. We use our finest linens at the altar. The altar is draped in beautiful cloths with handsome candlesticks, silver chalice and paten, bread box and crystal cruets. The majestic words of the liturgy with song and deep reverence. We regard the sacrament as holy.
And yet, listen to the words: “This is my Body, this is my Blood, take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you. Drink this in the remembrance that Christ’s blood was spilled for you.” One little girl spoke out suddenly in a loud voice when she heard those words, “YUCK!” The congregation looked horrified, as if someone had splattered blood all over the altar – which in effect is just what the little girl had done with her remark. (Source of story unknown)
In medieval times they understood the Sacrament literally. There is a graphic portrayal of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist hanging in an art museum in Holland. It is a painting from the middle ages. It pictures a medieval altar with a crucifix behind and a tabernacle for the keeping of the reserved sacrament below the crucifix. The setting is normal, except that the crucifix is empty, with no body, only the nail holes in the wood. What is strange is that there is a ladder from the crucifix down to the tabernacle on the altar with what is apparently a trail of blood leading down from the ladder to the tabernacle. The artist represents the holy consecrated elements of bread and wine as the literal broken Body and Blood of our crucified Lord.
Most of us, today understand the Sacrament symbolically. We eat the bread and drink the wine representing Jesus. Even if we believe (as I do) that we partake of the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament, no one expects that the bread is physically anything other than flour, yeast and water and the wine other than fermented grape juice.
In the long section of the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, which we’ve been reading these past four weeks, beginning with the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus then has an extended discussion about being the bread come down from heaven. In today’s reading Jesus speaks some shocking words:
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. (John 6:54-55)
Jesus spoke of himself as the new manna, the bread of heaven given for God’s people to eat. Here he makes the image even more explicit and gruesome: “eat my flesh;” “drink my blood.” In verse 54 the Greek changes from the milder “eat” to literally “munch.” Offensive words. And his listeners took offensive. As we’ll read next Sunday in the last of 5 weeks spent on John 6 in the lectionary many of Jesus followers left him after hearing these words.
The young teenager who shocked his teacher by noting the similarity of Holy Communion to cannibalism was quite right to do so. The accusation against Christians by the Roman authorities in the early Church was that they were cannibals who ate their leader’s body and drank his blood in a secret ritual. And, is not the purpose of Holy Communion for Jesus’ followers, just as cannibalistic rites, to gain some of the strength and identity and life of Jesus by partaking of his Body and Blood?
The Gospel of John does not contain an account of Jesus taking bread, breaking it and saying, “this is my body,” or pouring wine into a cup, blessing it and saying, “this wine is my blood of the new Covenant.” But in this 6th chapter his Gospel John provides us with Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching. Jesus says, “I am the living bread come down from heaven…. 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.” (John 6:51, 56-57)
One of the heresies prominent when John was recording his Gospel was Gnosticism. Gnosticism claimed that Jesus was spiritual not a real flesh and blood person. John wants us to know that Jesus came in the flesh. He wants us not only to know it, but to choke on it if need be. Jesus is fully human and fully God. He reveals God to us precisely in his humanity. Jesus breaks the hold that death and sin have over us precisely in his very messy and painful death on the cross and bodily resurrection. We are not meant to receive Jesus or receive life from his apart from his humanity.
We must also drink his blood. Blood in the Hebrew language and understanding represented life. That’s not hard to understand. As blood flows from a wound, life ebbs away. In Hebrew law an animal’s blood belongs to God. In Jewish dietary law the blood is completely drained from an animal. Its blood – its life – belongs to God. When Jesus said, “you must drink my blood,” he was telling us, you must take my life into the very center of your being – and that life of mine is the life which belongs to God.
To take Jesus’ blood – his life – inside us means we don’t just know him externally as a character in a book, as the object of our religious faith, but internally, personally, in our hearts, in our lives. He was telling us to fill our hearts and souls with his story, his life, his humanity, his cross, until we are filled with the very life of God.
In Semitic thought the flesh and blood together represent the whole animal. Jesus’ Body and Blood represent all of Jesus. When we partake of Holy Communion, the bread and the wine, which we receive and eat as his Body and Blood, we are eating and drinking all of Jesus: his birth in a stable in Bethlehem, his teaching, his miracles, his healing, his calling the disciples and sending them out, his death on a cross, his bursting out of the tomb on Easter, his promise to be with us wherever we go, our personal relationship with him as Savior and Lord, his presence in those in need, his presence in our neighbor, his coming again, his humanity, his divinity, his transfiguring love. In receiving the bread and wine, his Blood and Blood, we receive all of Jesus, never merely a corpse! We receive the fullness of Christ.
Christianity is a kind of ritual cannibalism. At this table we share the flesh and blood of Jesus. We eat the bread of heaven, the bread of life. His warm, salty life’s blood beats in us, his people. We partake of his incarnation and become his present incarnation – his ongoing presence and life in this world. We insert him into ourselves. We absorb him into our very cells as food, as nourishment, as sustenance, as life. “Grant us therefore gracious Lord,” we pray, “so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. Amen.” (Prayer of Humble Access, BCP, pg. 337)