August can be an awkward time to bring a friend to church. At least August every third year, when we spend five weeks reading from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which for at least 50 verses could easily be dubbed the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Zombies. All this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. I’m imagining someone new sitting in the pews, someone who perhaps has decided to come find out what this whole Sunday morning thing is all about for the first or second time, and this is what we’re reading to you. “Well, that was worth a shot,” I imagine someone thinking, right before deciding to return to their prior Sunday morning routines of reading the New York Times Book Review cover to cover and joining friends in line for brunch. And if it isn’t really speaking to one of us, sitting here today, I can only imagine how much worse it was hearing it for the first time. I imagine two friends going out to hear this Jesus guy. “Yea, he’s pretty insightful, plus you know, the free bread,” I imagine someone saying to her girlfriend. Then they arrive on the scene with the rest of the crowd and here’s some rough-edged guy talking about eating his flesh. “Maybe we should just go get paninis instead,” I imagine the friend saying. She wouldn’t be the only one. Next week when we hear the end of this story a crowd of 5,000 will have dwindled to twelve. Something about what Jesus is saying here has the effect of refining, the effect of whittling away, the effect of making things more opaque and obscure than clearly, popularly, transparent.
To be fair, that may have been precisely what the authors of this passage were experiencing. Early Christians were frequently accused of practicing cannibalistic rites. Word got around quick that one of the principal tenants of this peculiar religious sect was the consummation of the flesh and blood of its chief deity and teacher. Some in the ancient world began to spread rumors that the followers of Jesus had to go so far as sacrificing babies for this strange ritual. What we see in John’s telling of the Gospel may more precisely reflect a conflict between early Christian Jews and early not-Christian Jews. The first followers of Jesus would have introduced a ritualistic aberration into the the practices they had been raised in by their synagogues. Not only were they looping in some of their own new stories and texts with the familiar scriptural texts of normal synagogue worship, but they were also treating common bread and wine as if they were plates and cups of bodily flesh and fluids, something which managed to offend common and religiously pure sensibilities all at once. The genesis of disgust in this passage may not have been a friend bringing her friend to see a crazy-talking Jesus on the hillside at all. It may have more accurately been a friend bringing her friend from the synagogue to partake in the life of a community which was reputed to treat bread like flesh and wine like blood. Who could explain it? The author of John’s Gospel wants to try. He wants to portray a Jesus who is right in the middle of this ritualistic theological debate.
Yet for each of the other Gospel writers, the Jesus who speaks of such incredible bodily intimacy is not in the middle of a public debate, but among friends. In John it is the opposite. In John, Jesus takes the most public moment of his career, the time when he had the most bodies at his disposal, and begins to speak of his own body and blood being given like food from heaven itself. In the other Gospel presentations, Jesus waits until the very last night of his life, when he is with the very innermost group of his friends, to share such intimate language. In John, the massive, public crowd is whittled away to this intimate core of twelve. The difference between John and the other Gospels makes one think of a family secret which has been held up to public scrutiny. It makes one think of something which was intended to be understood by a few being ridiculed by many. It makes one think of trying to bring a friend to church and hearing some archaic speech which is hard to understand or explain or even make sense of for one’s self. It may be that this scene, unique to John, of watching many people react with confusion and disgust to Jesus’ words about sharing in his body and blood is a reflection of a community in conflict with it’s neighbors, a reaction to a reaction of disgust at the way they remembered their beloved friend by imbibing him.
Apart from placing this dialogue in its possible historical context of ritualistic debate, the best I can do to approach the strange words of Jesus in this scene is to understand them from the perspective of someone in love. The only other kind of people besides zombies and cannibals who speak of eating one another are lovers. The trope is as old as poetry itself, but we even have a biblical precedent for it. In the Song of Solomon, (that King whose wish for wisdom we also hear of this morning) two lovers and a chorus of ecstatic witnesses sing of love in similarly edible language. “Oh, give me the kisses of your mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine… Let us delight and rejoice in your love, Savoring it more than wine.” At one point the lover compares her beloved to an apple tree found in the middle of the woods, giving shade and sustenance, “Refresh me with apples,” she then says, “for I am faint with love.” Certainly, we wouldn’t find all of the erotic compliments in the Song of Solomon as flattering today, at one point the young man compares his beloved’s hair to a flock of goats. But the metaphor of feasting on the beloved is universally present. Poetry has yet to set it down. “Go slow, my soul, to feed thyself/ upon his rare approach,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,” wrote Pablo Neruda. The metaphoric desire to consume the object of our love is so woven into our normal speech that we might scarcely stop to notice it. Certainly not as much as we quirk a brow at a Jesus who invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Why do we speak of love this way? Any average armchair psychologist might offer up the hypothesis that we speak of eating our beloved because we first learned of love by eating. In infancy, the line between our selves and the one who loved us into being first by feeding us is indistinguishable. In infancy, we crave sustenance and it appears. As we grow into toddlerhood we discover a terrible division between our hunger and the object we are hungry for, it turns out to actually exist outside of ourselves, a truth which only becomes clear by one major tremor in our worldview after another. As adults, our armchair psychologist might proffer, we crave to return to that unity again.
Does any of this belong to the way we hear Christ’s offer to eat his flesh and drink his blood? I’m not the first to think it does. Many of the mystics in our tradition make the same connection. In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich compared Jesus’ flesh and blood to a mother’s own self offering. “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself… The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side….” So which is more awkward for the first-time church goer? Hearing Jesus offer his flesh and blood as food and drink? Comparing that offering to cosmic lover? Or seeing Jesus as the mother of us all, cradled at his breast by open wounds? If any of it is awkward at all, it is only in that awkward way of being publicly caught in the act of something which seemed quite private to us at first, something which seemed quite personal and vulnerable and tender and exposed. But John shows us a Jesus who was never hiding any of that in the first place. There he is in the public square, singing of his love for us. We can be embarrassed, or we can lend our voices to the tune.