In John’s gospel, Jesus is using these great “I am” statements to tell us the truth about who he is. He calls upon the great traditions and stories of Moses, here specifically echoing the words that God whispers to Moses upon finding the bush that would not burn down. What is your name, what shall I say to the people, Moses asks? And he receives this wonderfully mysterious answer from God: “I am who I am.”
Jesus uses this same wording to describe himself and to describe the nature of the relationship between himself and God and between those who would follow him. These statements were bold claims meant to push the envelope of people’s understanding of Jesus and of God. They weren’t always easy statements to digest and John records the people’s unease with what Jesus was saying.
Unlike the other gospel accounts, in John there is no story of the last supper. Jesus, here, is teaching about bread and wine, flesh and blood, eternal life in God. Those of us within the sacramental traditions of baptism and Holy Communion, hear the text today and think immediately of Holy Communion. However, set within John’s gospel, the only story we have that occurs during the festival of the Passover is Jesus with his disciples and his washing of their feet and commanding them to love one another as he has loved them.
So today, Jesus is not necessarily speaking of the institution of the Lord’s supper, but he is most definitely talking about communion. Communion, a coming together as one, abiding together, with Jesus, with one another, and with God.
This is not an easy teaching as he speaks to the Jews in the synagogue about consuming his flesh and, even more abhorrent, his blood. Remember to be a righteous Jew is to remain clean and to not ingest the blood of any animal, or human in this case. This is not an easy teaching, even to those of us who have been practicing holy communion, especially as we hear Jesus lay it out like this. It is especially difficult for outsiders to understand, those who have not grown in the practice, those who have not grown in the church.
On an internet search on the early practices of Holy Communion, I stumbled across a website called “God is Imaginary” and its claim is that in 50 simple proofs the authors can show you how God is imaginary, a delusion, and those who have faith are really just kidding themselves. Proof # 29 is on Holy Communion. This is what is written: “Because Christians have been participating in the communion rite for many years, they tend to forget just how bizarre this ritual is…The whole idea of eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood is grotesque in the extreme… Normal people wouldn’t do this. This is evidence that Jesus is not God.”
When we read a little further on in John’s gospel, those who had followed him from his own Jewish community, can no longer do so based on this teaching and leave him.
As with the authors of the website, those early followers, tried to understand what Jesus was saying in a literal way. They failed to understand that Jesus spoke in terms of signs, sacramentally, and mysteriously, like God did when he spoke to Moses at the bush. In his teaching about eating flesh and drinking blood, Jesus is offering us a different way to see; a way of opening our eyes to something new and experience something new, an understanding to the connection of what is, where boundaries of what we consider provable and normal get crossed and we see something and experience the more that is God in Christ.
I like the way Frederick Buechner defines Holy Communion in his book “Wishful Thinking”.
He writes this: “It is make believe. You make believe that the one who breaks the bread and blesses the wine is not the plump parson who smells of Aqua Velva but Jesus of Nazareth. You make believe that the tasteless wafer and cheap port are his flesh and blood. You make believe that by swallowing them you are swallowing his life into your life and that there is nothing in earth or heaven more important for you to do this.
It is a game you play because he said to play it. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this. Play that it makes a difference. Play that it makes sense. If it seems a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.”
As children, we don’t have the answers, we come with more questions than anything else and with a rich sense of imagination and mystery about the world. Normal, literal, doesn’t seem to matter too much to children. This is what Jesus is asking of us. To remind us that there is something more that we experience in the mystery of communion with God.
Just recently, I made a visit to one of our parishioners at a long term care facility. As is so often the case, we were not alone, other residents sat in their chairs or wheelchairs. In this case, we sat outside in a communal space and we were about to have communion together. An older woman sat in her wheelchair near us and she saw that I was a pastor, we spoke a little. I found out she was Presbyterian. As soon as she saw that I was getting ready to share communion, she wanted to participate.
And I wanted her to participate, but as a matter of practice, I always ask the staff if it is alright – I simply don’t know if there are swallowing issues or restrictions on what can be ingested because of medicines that the person might be taking. I said to this woman that I would ask and excused myself to search out a staff person. They told me she did, in fact, have swallowing issues and that it would be best that she didn’t take it.
I went back to our parishioner and to this woman. I moved us all closer together. I told her she would listen to the words and that I would give her a blessing. When I was using the words of institution and then offering the bread and wine to our parishioner, I looked at the other woman and there she sat, waiting in her wheelchair, with her mouth open. Like a child, almost. For me, it felt like refusing someone food when they are starving. I know she understood her need at a practice level, like we all do, those of us used to participating regularly in communion. But I also think, like the rest of us, she understood the meal at a deeper level, a mysterious, sacramental level, and that she needed that food.
She, like us, understood that there is a hunger that can only be satisfied by the living bread from heaven. That there is a thirst that can only be quenched by the living water. She, like us, understood that we need to take his body and blood into us in order to have life, abundant and eternal. His body must become part of us, inseparable from our own flesh and blood.
All too often, in our normal every-day lives, based on what we see before us, we eat and drink too many other things that aren’t good for us, things that do not satisfy, in our search for something more. We are taught to feed ourselves poorly with possessions, or money, alcohol, or drugs. We eat too much food, or go on too many diets. We think it’s ok to feed our egos, our pride, our sense of power. In these pursuits we forget what truly feeds us: being one with God in Christ, feeding ourselves with his body, and offering up our own selves, our bodies and our blood, as food for a hungry world.
In his strange and difficult teaching, Jesus was fully aware that he would offer his life, his body, his flesh and bone, and his blood, for us so that we would live in him and he in us. In this promise of the Word made flesh, in the mystery of presence and communion with the holy One, Jesus knew out of his body would flow life for the whole world.
He invites us to eat. And to live.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg