John 6:51-58, I Corinthians 12:12-27
“This is my body broken for you. Take and eat, as often as you do so, in remembrance of me.” In the last two weeks, I have preached about the layers of meaning in the Communion bread, our daily needs, and Communion wine, a sign of celebration and thanksgiving. The idea of the body of Christ adds the next important layer to understanding communion (Eucharist). This morning, I will preach about how the image of the body represents a fundamental oneness between ourselves and God, and with each other.
We may forget how strange and offensive Jesus’s words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood are because we think of it symbolically. Jesus’s audience is dumbstruck and asks, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It would be great if Jesus answered, “I’m speaking symbolically. It’s a metaphor that means if you follow me, you must make an effort to take it all in and be a disciple. I will nourish your soul like bread nourishes your body.” But he didn’t. We forget Jesus is not an 18th-century enlightenment rationalist philosopher. He is a first-century Jew who uses the cultural forms of hyperbole. He says, “Pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin. Pick up your cross and follow me. You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” It is even worse in Greek, where the word translated “eat” means chomp or chew. Jesus says eat my flesh seven times in seven verses. If we were devout first-century Jews in Jesus’s day, we would have been appalled:
Eating human flesh was forbidden. It was associated with vultures (Ez 39:17) and evildoers (Zech 11:9). Drinking blood was equally offensive. Genesis 9:4 says, “You shall not eat flesh (in this case animals) with its life, that is, its blood,” “You shall not eat…any blood,” said Leviticus (3:17). “You shall not eat flesh and drink blood,” said Ezekial (39:17). https://onemansweb.org/this-terrible-eating-of-bread-john-6-51-58.html
Drinking blood was also a phrase for murderous violence, as in “My sword will drink the blood of my enemies.”
Why is Jesus being so emphatic about this? In the context of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus just fed 5000 people. People wanted him to become King, and perhaps many wanted more bread. Or they wanted Jesus to champion their economic and political interests. He would not be the crowd’s tool. I’m sure Jesus would approve of hosting a food bank (and I just blessed a new Community Refrigerator this week!). But Jesus did not want to stop feeding stomachs; he tried to feed hearts and souls. He was emphatic because he wanted people to align their lives with God’s hopes, not just hang around for the free food. Jesus wanted disciples to take in his teachings and vigorously pursue holy work. To follow him, you need to eat, drink, chew, swallow and digest what you receive so it becomes part of your being.
There are a few verses in the Old Testament where tasting and eating are symbols for seeking God. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” In Ezekiel 3:3, God says to the prophet,”Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and in my mouth, it was as sweet as honey.” Jesus’s words to take and eat his body teach us that God is a generous God who provides the sustenance of life for body and soul.
Most early church theologians understood the symbolic nature of communion. Transubstantiation, the doctrine that the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the real flesh and blood of Jesus, was not mentioned anywhere until the 11th century.
The earliest communion prayers from the Didache of the second century refer to the elements of the table as “spiritual food and drink.” Several other early church theologians, like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, recognized that bread and wine stood for Christ as visible signs of grace. https://blog.tms.edu/did-the-early-church-teach-transubstantiation
In the year 202, Bishop Irenaeus said, “[Jesus] took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup, likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood.” Irenaeus implies that all creation is a part of Christ’s body. Therefore all of it is sacred, and all of it is a gift from God. When we receive the bread and cup, it stands for the whole package; daily food, the beauty of Fall and Spring, the harvest, the night stars, the joy of sex, and all the good and tangible things that flow from the creator.
Bodily life was essential to early Christianity as some theologians, known as Docetists, thought Jesus was a spiritual being without a natural body. Docetists taught spirit is good, but matter is evil, maybe even an illusion. At the table, we confess that the body, our bodies, and all matter, all material things, are gifts of God, not illusions from which we need to escape. Bread and cup shared manifest the oneness of all life and physical beings. When we justify exploiting earth’s resources in ways that damage life on this planet, we are acting against the oneness of creation which we affirm at the communion table.
The Apostle Paul understood that the sharing in the body of Christ had ethical implications for how we treat each other. I Corinthians 12 tells us that we are all unique parts of Christ’s body, and our work is to make Christ real through our life together. We may all be different, but we belong and need each other. We are one, whether we like it or not.
I discovered a thought-provoking essay by Douglass Campbell about how Paul was writing this letter amid a culture war. Roman imperialism was not just about armies; it also brought Greco-Roman culture to conquered peoples. They imposed religious values, displaced people from their land, and had a strict social and family relations hierarchy. In Palestine, this conflict led to revolt and, eventually, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Paul’s letter addresses 15 separate issues which were causing conflict in the community. Paul’s church in Corinth brought together Jews from the local synagogue, others who were pagans and unchurched in our vocabulary, a few wealthy Romans who were probably seen as elitists, and slaves and servants who were drawn by Christianity’s inclusive message. All the issues of class, ethnicity, family values, sexuality, and even the food you eat were on the table. People raised pagans thought eating meat sacrificed to idols was okay because they could buy it cheaper. The idols weren’t real anyway. Devout Jews who kept kosher were deeply offended.
This passage in I Corinthians 12 is one of the best reflections on pastoral theology. Paul tells us three important things that are essential for unity. First, Paul shows how unity is not accomplished by trying to make everyone the same. Homogenization is not unity.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as God wanted them to be…. As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
Second, Paul says you need each other. Nobody is good or moves closer to God on their own.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
In fact, we are so deeply connected that when one suffers, all suffer; if one is honored, all rejoice in it. The spiritual journey is made with community. Communion, Eucharist, is a communal act, not an individual practice.
Third, Paul gives equal concern for every part of the body. There is no hierarchy, in fact, the lesser parts are sometimes the most important. Paul probably did not know what a white blood cell was, or that we need bacteria in our intestine for good health, but he would have appreciated how many essential parts of the body are unseen. The body isn’t here just to serve the brain. The brain can tell the body where to go, and the foot can send back the message, “I hurt, and we aren’t going anywhere.” The stomach says, “I’m hungry, I need food.” The eye says, “It’s too dark, I can’t see where to go.” It’s all got to work together, just like Deacons, Trustees, Mission and all our committees and staff. We have different hopes, needs and functions, but we are all a part of one body, and we accomplish nothing on our own.
We often use this language when we say, we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world. When we act in kindness and do justice, we are making Christ’s love real here on earth. This helps me when I feel my contribution is so small, my ability is limited to bring goodness. But we are part of a wider body when we work together. Think for a minute, what part of the body of Christ are you?