Then the Jews debated among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
....At this, many of his disciples turned away and no longer accompanied him.
John 6:52-55, 66 CEB Translation
I would see it in the eyes of the little children as they came in their parents arms. They were too young to be in school, but old enough to comprehend most of the words we said in worship. I would go to hand them some bread and they would purse their lips closed and violently shake their heads no.
I do not know for certain why they did not take the bread from me. I do know that many of them normally devour bread, but they would not do so at this moment. Maybe it was because their parents would scold them for trying to eat other food, like Cheerios, in the sanctuary. Maybe it was because a relative stranger was handing them food. But maybe, just maybe, it was because we told them, “This is Jesus’ body, given for you. This is his blood, shed for you.” Creepy.
Youth, on the other hand, or kids going through confirmation, they have the words. They will straight up ask you if we are cannibals. Or if we drink blood to get eternal life, aren’t we vampires?
It’s a legitimate question.
I wasn’t raised in the church, and so I was denied communion for a long time since I was always a visitor. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in high school that I visited a church with an open table. I never assumed we were actually eating flesh and drinking blood, though, in the sense of taking a big bite of an arm or something. But then, I also am one of those people who does not look at the world with literal eyes. I was writing poetry on the elementary school swing set, poems about the persistence of time and metaphor. I was never going to be thrown by Jesus’ words. Now especially as a trained biblical scholar, I understand this is an elaboration of one of Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, which are all metaphorical means of helping people conceive of Jesus’ divinity amidst his humanity.
But then I think about my brother. He and I to this day argue about Frankenstein. I say it is an allegory for the Industrial Revolution; he says it is a scary story. We are really both right, but it illustrates that we both view the world through different lenses. We are not alone. Some of us speak in metaphor, and some of us speak in concrete reality. The “I am” statements are meant to take a concrete reality and give them divine meaning, which is really the only way we have of conceiving God. That doesn't stop them from potentially sounding weird, though.
This coming Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary passage picks up most of the verses I quote above, but I went ahead and borrowed from the following week’s verses as well. I will also admit that the disciples leave after Jesus has talked about how he knows some will betray him, not directly because of the creepy talk about eating flesh and drinking blood. But Jesus’ response is a response to their response when, after hearing these words about eating flesh and drinking blood, they said, “This message is harsh. Who can hear it?” (John 6:60b).
There were similar objections from the wider society in the early days of Christianity. Christians were actually accused of being cannibals from time to time. In The Octavius of Minucius Felix, a man named Caecilius is raising objections to Christianity for his fellow traveler Octavius, a Christian, to address. One of the points of contention is whether Christians kill infants and drink their blood. Octavius says that only someone who is interested in trying such a thing would come up with such an absurd idea; either that, or someone who worships a god who devours his own children, like Saturn did. In point of fact, says Octavius, Christians rescue the babies that Romans expose when they are born with physical differences. (see Chapter XXX of The Octavius of Minucius Felix, found at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/octavius.html).
In the early days of Christianity, communion was practiced as a secret rite that took place immediately after baptism and was only open to those initiated into the community. Between the secrecy of the sacrament and the publicly known words of Jesus calling on people to eat his flesh, is it any wonder there was confusion?
But can't we also admit that there may still be confusion today?
As we confront reading this passage in John this coming week, we have a real opportunity to explain something that may be difficult for some. First, I think we take for granted what all our people know about the theology of communion. But even for those who do get it, there is an opportunity to remind them how strange the Christian witness sounds to others. Look, I read this passage with a full blown comprehension of communion, able to teach the difference between transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorialism and real presence, and this passage still seems just a little too graphic - even for my metaphorical self. So perhaps addressing that reality head on, particularly in a post-Christian context, would do some real good. Perhaps it would keep some of us from thinking this faith is too hard to understand, or even too weird to want to understand. Do we want to take a chance that some will stumble, will find it too difficult (or disgusting), and will decide that they need to leave? So take a moment and explain it, even if it seems obvious to us. It is not obvious to everyone - children, youth, and adults alike. And very few of us want to sign up to be cannibals or vampires either one, no matter how sexy Hollywood can make them seem.