By Jeff Boldt
The pandemic changed all our Sunday habits. If you don’t have four little kids, streaming a service could be a viable option. If, like me, you do have four kids, you gave up on that after they spilled your coffee on the computer and face-planted off the kitchen table. It’s much the same now that our family is back to in-person worship. We’re pretty distracted from the Word of God, but we can at least eat the Word in the form of bread.
Toronto is still hardly “back to church.” And until I found the only open parish, the pandemic was a double burden because I could neither listen to an online sermon, nor join my prayers to the prayers of the priest at the altar, nor even show up in person for the Eucharist. The prophet Amos seemingly wrote about me when he said,
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land —
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. (Amos 8:11)
I had hardly heard or tasted the Word of God for a year. I’d say to myself, “Why do I have to go through this? Can I just get a break?” When the Israelites were freed from Egypt, they went into the wilderness where their stomachs rumbled and their mouths grumbled. Yet God was good.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. (Ex. 16:4)
This year I’ve written a series of articles about discovering Jesus in the Old Testament (here, here, and here). It’s convenient, therefore, that our Sunday lectionary has been dwelling on John 6, which is about the bread and the test that all of us must endure to enter the Promised Land.
There are a lot of weird passages about food in the Bible, but my vote for the weirdest is when Jesus tells his disciples that they must eat his flesh and drink blood. Revolted, the Jewish leaders and many of Jesus’s disciples ended up walking away. The early Church lifted up this scandalous teaching to the point that the Romans even accused us of cannibalism. So why not just tone down the weirdness, Jesus?
Many churches have aimed to do just that. This odd passage from John 6 is about Holy Communion. Yet the church I grew up in made sure everybody knew that the bread and wine (or, rather, grape juice) was not Christ’s body and blood, and that Communion was not supernatural at all! The motivation was to distance ourselves from the Pope, who allegedly teaches that under the illusion of bread and wine are real hunks of Jesus-meat. Of course the Catholic Church never claimed to serve up “Jesus pieces” at the altar (each piece of the host contains the whole Christ). And most mainstream Protestants affirmed that Christ is really present in Communion — whatever that means.
But what does it mean? Clearly Jesus didn’t make it easy for his disciples to understand him here. He wanted to weed out the ones who would stick with him. But he wasn’t just testing their tolerance for weirdness: “I dare you to drink this blood!” The test was deeply connected to Israel’s test in the wilderness –– to the manna from heaven. So, firstly, let’s be clear that the manna prefigures Christ’s body. Jesus says,
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
He then says that because he holds the power of life and death, he will resurrect the dead on the last day:
For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (John 6:40)
We should have no doubt in our mind why the Jewish leaders began to grumble here: only God raises the dead; therefore, Jesus claimed to be God. This was as scandalous as cannibalism, to put it bluntly. God cannot become flesh.
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)
In other words, “Jesus is too familiar. How can he be the Son of God?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:43-52)
The Jews found two things disgusting: first, the notion that the Almighty God would humiliate himself by being clothed in our flesh. That would make religion too easy and God too familiar. We much prefer a God who is far off. How much better if I could compete against others in a race to heaven? Then I’d get to trash-talk my opponents like Muhammad Ali or Rick Flair. There’s the story, for example, of the Pharisee who thanks God that he’s so much better than the sinful tax collector. But if God is made human, then the tax collector gets equal access alongside the religious experts. And then what’s the point of religion if I can’t use it to virtue-signal, right? The point here is that in becoming man, the Son of God humiliates himself so that humble people can access him. That’s what these leaders didn’t like.
Second, it is precisely Jesus’ flesh that gives us eternal life. Without food, we die. Without God incarnate, we die. We die because God is Life: he’s the Immortal, Eternal, Undying, I AM. He is the source of life for all creation. Without him, we are nothingness and death. He dwells in inapproachable light; totally transcendent, unknowable, and untouchable. Untouchable, that is, unless he becomes flesh. For how else can I hear his words unless his vocal chords strike the air? How else can I see his face unless it reflects the light of the sun? How else can my body live unless it tastes Life?
Is this idea too earthy: eating God? Does it make any more sense to believe that we can comprehend God with our grey matter than that we can taste him with our tongue? Your brain is meat! How can you fit God in your skull? It’s utterly absurd, but true. God has spoken to our mind; he has become our meat, our food!
Explain that however you will; the point is our need for sustenance. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). So this is the test in the wilderness: Do you recognize your need for God himself? If you don’t, you will starve.
But again, God’s divine life flows into our life through the human life of Jesus. There is no access to eternal life unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood. “Oh, but why is Jesus so gross?” He wouldn’t be talking about blood, were we not tearing each other’s flesh every day! Who else nailed him to the cross but humanity: you and me? Who else has failed to “discern his body” but the Church (“For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” 1 Cor. 11:29)? “Oh, but we don’t need to actually eat Christ’s flesh, right? I meet God in a good sunset.” But we also need to meet God humiliated, beaten down, and bloody or we won’t meet him at all. Don’t look up at a sunset; look under your boot. Your foot’s on his neck!
To recognize our need for Jesus’s bloody flesh is to recognize that we are murderers. This is why so many would-be followers ditched him in John 6. Two chapters later, the religious leaders are planning to murder him. Not pulling any punches, Jesus tells them “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning…” (8:44). We are disgusted by the Eucharist when we are not disgusted by our own bloodlust.
The Israelites wanted flesh, not bread. So they tested God by grumbling a second time in the wilderness:
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost — also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:4-6)
The story continues:
Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits deep all around the camp, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had craved other food. (Num. 11:31-34)
This passage compels us to think about the kind of food we crave. Are we hungry for the flesh and blood of Jesus? Are we starving for the Word of God? Or do we crave other food? “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). For myself and many others, this plague has consumed every other kind of comfort in the world. Nothing is normal; nothing satisfies but Christ alone. And the place where he can be tasted is in Scripture and sacrament. Here is where we must discern his body, for nothing else can sustain us.
Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest in the diocese of Toronto.