A friend of mine 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 ritual cannibalism.
The teacher was visibly agitated by the question and responded, "What a disgusting suggestion! It has nothing to do with cannibalism. We're talking about a blessed sacrament, not some primitive ritual. It's completely different." The teacher refused to continue the discussion.
There are times when the sacrament of Communion seems like a refined expression of religious devotion. The table may be set with starched linen and a gold-plated chalice, as if for an exclusive banquet. The pastor may speak the words of institution in mellifluous tones, adding a soothing dignity to the proceedings. But, occasionally, the startling imagery of the sacrament comes slashing through all of our refinements.
On one such occasion, when I repeated Jesus' familiar words, "This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you," a small girl suddenly said in a loud voice, "Ew, yuk!" The congregation looked horrified, as if someone had splattered blood all over the altar--which, in effect, is something like what the little girl had done with her exclamation.
John's Gospel is the only one of the four gospels that does not include an account of the Last Supper, but the sixth chapter of John is soaked with Eucharistic imagery. Jesus first speaks of himself as "the bread of life" that has "come down from heaven" and invites his hearers to partake of this bread--that is, to believe in him. It is a palpable image and an evocative one.
But then, in the 51st verse, the image turns and begins to sound rather gruesome. Jesus says, "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." According to John, Jews then ask the obvious question: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Perhaps they responded in that way to give Jesus a chance to explain himself. He must have misspoke. Surely Jesus meant to say something else. After all, to eat someone's flesh only appears in the Hebrew Bible as a metaphor for great hostility. And the drinking of blood was considered an abomination forbidden by God's law.
So they ask for clarification. But Jesus responds by repeating the image and in still more explicit terms. He says, "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."
You don't have to be a good Jew to want to avert your eyes from such an image and cover your ears at such language. It does sound like cannibalism. Please, Jesus, would you mind if we talked about something else?
So what's going on here? Well, for one, the imagery employed by Jesus in this passage forces a kind of "in-your-face" confrontation with the incarnation. Gone are the abstract, almost disembodied terms about "abiding" in him that Jesus used earlier. Now he uses such starkly corporeal images that we cannot escape the implications of incarnation. Jesus was not a disembodied spirit. To encounter Jesus is, in part, to encounter the flesh and blood of him. The startling images he uses are meant to get our attention in that way.
Then, too, in Hebrew the expression "flesh and blood" means the whole person. It is something like our expression "body and soul." If I say, "I love you body and soul," it means, "I love you with my entire being." In Hebrew, the idiom "flesh and blood" means something like that--the whole person. To receive the whole Jesus entails receiving his flesh and blood.
The New Testament uses many different images to express the intimate relationship between Jesus and those who believe in him, and John gives us many of the most familiar expressions of this relationship: Jesus is the shepherd and we are the sheep. He is the vine and we are the branches. He abides in God and we abide in him.
In this passage, however, language is pressed to its limits to express the indissoluble participation of one life in another. For those who receive Jesus, his life clings to their bones and courses through their veins. He can no more be taken from a believer's life than last Tuesday's breakfast can be plucked from one's body. It is the ultimate communion--the coming together, the union of the Savior and the saved.
Many attempts have been made to explain this mystery. The early church simply affirmed that the risen Christ was with them at their celebrations of the Lord's Supper, but during the Middle Ages laborious attempts were made to explain how and when Christ was present in the sacrament. It was in this period that theories such as transubstantiation were forwarded. Transubstantiation is the belief that somehow the very substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the flesh and blood of Christ, even though the outward appearance of the bread and wine remain unchanged.
The medieval church began to affirm that when the priest lifts the host and says, "Hoc est corpus meum" (that is, "This is my body"), the bread is miraculously transformed into the physical presence of Christ.
Protestant reformers, while affirming Christ's presence at the church's celebrations of the sacrament, were disturbed by such interpretations. To them, such interpretations reduced the sacrament to alchemy, a form of sacred magic. It is telling that the phrase Hoc est corpus was later transformed into the familiar magician's incantation "hocus-pocus."
Unfortunately, many people assume that if they do not believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, they do not believe in the real presence of Christ at the Lord's Table. But today there seems to be wide consensus in both Protestant and Roman Catholic circles that the manner and means of Christ's presence cannot be captured by this or any other explanation. Christ's presence is real in this sacrament, but the manner and means of that presence may remain mysteries to us forever.
The ways in which Christ is present at this meal are not mysteries in the same way that a magician's pulling a rabbit out of a hat is mysterious. If we were to examine a magician's hat and insist that he repeat the act again without his cape, then we might very well understand how the feat was accomplished. But the mystery that is present at Christ's table is forever beyond the reach of explanation.
It is more like the mystery of love. Where does it come from? How is it sustained? How does it sustain us? We will never fully know, but the power is no less real because of our inability to explain it. It is nothing less than the mystery and the power of Jesus made real and made available to us.
In our cerebral approach to religion, we often assume that the most important religious truths can always be reduced to words. But just as an art critic once observed about great art, the part of the sacrament that really matters is the part that will forever remain beyond the reach of explanation. Sacraments are important, in part, because they take us where words cannot go.
There are times when we can be particularly grateful that the presence of Christ is not something that can be grasped only by the intellect, that such a presence can be experienced by other means. A woman suffering from dementia who cannot hold a point in a sermon long enough for it to make any real difference can still hold the cup of blessing to her lips and receive the presence of Christ. A child for whom theological explanations are about as incomprehensible as molecular biology can still receive the blessings of this table.
Occasionally, I will hear someone say that children should not receive communion until they fully understand what it means. When I hear that I always think, "At what age is that? Who can claim to fully understand all that the sacrament means. John Calvin, after a long dissertation on the sacrament, summarized his understanding of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper by saying, "I would rather experience it than understand it."
And to a startling degree, children know how to experience the sacrament. At an intergenerational worship service in our church, we have communion every Sunday and the children are always the first ones to the table, eager for the gifts of bread and cup. They somehow know that this is both a simple meal and, at the same time, something special, set apart, holy even. Children somehow "get it." Although most often without being able to articulate any of these understandings, they get the experience of communion. And who wouldn't rather experience communion fully than to understand it fully?
How is Christ present in this meal? We cannot fully know. Such close love is always a mystery. But his presence is no less real for all of our inability to explain it. What we can do is seek the mysterious blessings of the table and receive the palpable gifts of a palpable God.
For all who receive the presence of Christ, John's affirmation is good news, indeed: You are what you eat.
Let us pray. O God, let us be patient with all that is still mysterious and beyond the reach of our limited minds. Amen.