Today’s Gospel presents Jesus teaching in the Capernaum synagogue and his listeners responding. They start to grumble. “This is more than we can stomach!” they say. “Why listen to such talk?” Many of his disciples drop out and no longer associate with him.
The response of those known as the twelve disciples is different. Jesus asks them if they too want to leave him. Speaking for the group, Peter answers, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
All heard the same teaching. All know the same Jesus. But there are opposite reactions. Some reject what Jesus said and they desert him. Others welcome his words. They confess their faith, and as a result draw closer to him. The same man, the same message, but opposite reactions. Where does the difference lie?
The disciples who leave hear what Jesus said as a threat — a threat to their way of life, their accepted notions, their grip on reality. Those disciples who continue faithful hear what Jesus said as a challenge— a challenge to their way of life, their accepted notions, even their grip on reality. These disciples who continue with Jesus may not completely understand what he said. They may not be completely comfortable with it. But somehow they are intrigued by what he said, and they are intrigued by him.
“Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter says this as spokesman for the twelve disciples. I do not imagine him saying this in an over-eager way, or in a voice that is too serious, too certain. I think he says it with a gentle sense of irony, with a slight smile on his lips, with even a brief chuckle. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s as though Peter says to Jesus, “You’re not exactly what we pictured as the messiah, but that’s all right, because you’re really far more than that.”
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What is it, do you think, that causes those other disciples to drop out and go home? It seems to be something Jesus said.
The reason for all the fuss is that Jesus calls on his disciples not simply to listen to his words, not simply to follow his example, but to eat his flesh and drink his blood! Sounds like cannibalism, doesn’t it?
Jesus is utterly serious in what he says, but I cannot help but think that he is also amused by the dumbfounded reactions he receives from some people. There’s reason to believe that Jesus has sense of humor, and reason to believe he needs to have one.
In any event, down through the ages attempts have been made to tame the words of Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. But these attempts never enjoy lasting success. They demonstrate the sad and dangerous business, very popular among us humans, of trying to be more spiritual than God. The fact is that what Jesus says about eating his flesh and drinking his blood is among his boldest and bluntest and most shocking statements. It’s no wonder that some of his disciples are scandalized.
Consider, for example, what he says about eating his flesh. Most English translations grow fainthearted at this point. The original word here is not the ordinary one which means “to eat,” but a word far more vivid, which refers to “munching” or even “gnawing.” It’s a word that describes what a hungry man does with a turkey drumstick. And Jesus says we are to do this with his body.
What’s more is that Jesus links something so strange, so repulsive as munching on him with the gift of eternal life. In effect, he asks: You want to live forever? You want to enjoy that life which is life indeed? You won’t do it by eating junk food. You won’t do it by eating health food. You won’t do it by eating at the best restaurants in town. If you want to live that eternal life, starting now, then munch on me, gnaw on me!
To accept what Jesus is saying here, to act on it, to live by it, means that something in his disciples has to die. It is no wonder then if all these disciples are scared stiff, and if many of them pull back and no longer have anything to do with him.
Of course, Jesus never asks of his disciples — he never asks of us — what he has not already done himself. Something in him has already died. What is it? He has chosen to come among us as one of us, and in this way, he has died to the possibility of not committing himself to us.
Jesus commits himself to us, and commits himself forever. This unbreakable commitment has its echo in our commitment to him. Other options have been rejected; we are dead to them. We have no place else to go. Christ is one with us forever, and we are empty and hungry for new life.
There is always something specific about a commitment. No one really commits to an abstraction. And when we talk about commitment to people, we mean committing ourselves to people of flesh and blood. Christ demonstrates such commitment to us. He takes for his own our flesh and blood. Through human birth he is born, and through human death he dies. He accepts for himself our condition. He thereby enters into a new relationship, not only with all who are baptized, but with all who share with him this condition, with all human flesh. It is not too much to say that in Christ, God marries humanity, and the two become one flesh.
In a few moments, we will break the bread and share the wine of the Eucharist. Here and now, in this church on Gratiot Avenue, the mystery of Christ’s flesh and blood will be apparent again to the eyes of our faith. We will have prepared ourselves by prayer and confession to receive these gifts. In this way, we will have died to those things within us that keep us from rejoicing in our Christian cannibalism, and from rejoicing in the even more shocking fact of God’s limitless love for all human flesh.
But the Eucharist is more than a moment out of the week that is set aside as holy. It is a holy flame, meant to illuminate every corner of the week with the light of Christ. What we do this day is our model for how we ought to live our lives every day.
So look this day on Christ’s flesh and blood as you receive them for your spiritual health. But go beyond this celebration. Die to yourself in new ways, and in new ways recognize the flesh of Christ. See the flesh of Christ in the poor, and seek justice for them. See the flesh of Christ also in the rich, and pray that wealth does not destroy them. And see the flesh of Christ when you gaze in the mirror. Look at yourself, and say that this too is the flesh that God has married.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.