Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
Cannibalism is a universal human taboo. Eating human flesh offends and horrifies everyone. It is the domain of the deranged killer. The Hannibal Lectors of fiction and their very rare real life counterparts. The very idea of consuming human flesh, and perhaps more so drinking human blood, is guaranteed to evoke horror, revulsion and disgust. Just now and then it has been suggested that some group of people, in the very remotest of locations in the world, in the deepest jungles of Brazil or Papua New Guinea, very occasionally it has been hinted that some group of people practices eating human beings as a way of life. But it has always turned out that these stories of what is called “cultural cannibalism” are unreliable. When they have been investigated by anthropologists it has always turned out that it is something that one group of remote people accuse another even more remote, group of people of doing. “That tribe who live over there, they are a really terrible group of people, do you know what they do? They eat human flesh. They are cannibals!” However when that tribe is visited, they will either point further into to the jungle “No, no, we don’t do that, but that tribe over there, now they’re the bad ones, they’re the cannibals.” Or they point back to the first tribe with the same accusation in return, “What do you mean we’re cannibals, we’re not the ones who eat flesh. They are the cannibals!” It turns out that if you want to say something dreadful about another group of people, the worst possible thing you can say about them is that they eat human flesh. Cannibalism is a dreadful thing that other people do. It is the taboo that your enemies break. It is what early pagans accused Christians of. Tragically it is also something, historically, which Christians have accused Jews of!
What Jesus says is genuinely shocking. We should not overlook the grossness of what he says. The idea of eating human flesh is disgusting. Jesus deliberately offends not just the social, human, sensibilities of his listeners, he also transgresses one of the most fundamental religious prohibitions; the drinking of blood. The prohibition against consuming blood, not just human blood, but any blood, is binding not only for Jews but for everyone who is subject to the covenant God made with Noah. It is prohibited because the blood contains life, and life belongs to God. As far Jesus’ listeners were concerned, according to their deepest religious convictions, no one should be consuming any blood, not Jews, people in a direct relationship with God, but not anyone else either, not Gentiles, people who are only in the broader sense “children of God”
Jesus’ words are quite shocking. So shocking in fact that we know that they cannot possibly be taken literally. Whatever Jesus is talking about, we tell ourselves, he can’t possibly mean eating his real flesh and drinking his actual blood. As with so much of what Jesus says this must be a metaphor. The trouble is Jesus doesn’t do much to help push us in that direction.
As sometimes happens there is a genuine loss in translation. The picture which Jesus paints with words is so gross that the translators find themselves compelled to soften the image. When Jesus says “eat my flesh” the word which is used in the Gospel to mean “eat” is not the ordinary one. It is instead the word that would be used for animals eating or when applied to humans the word used for eating raw food like fruit or nuts. What John reports Jesus actually saying is something more like: “gnaw my flesh” or even “munch my flesh”! And the same goes for the word translated as drink. Jesus suggests we should not just sip his blood, but gulp it. Jesus really is going out of his way to get the “eugh” reaction!
Around Christmas time in 1972 a story began to emerge from Chile. Two Uruguayan men walked out of the Andes. They were two survivors from a plane crash that had taken place ten weeks earlier. The plane, carrying a Uruguayan rugby team with their families and friends, had vanished in the mountains on Friday 13th October. The search for the plane was called off after about a fortnight. All 45 people who had been on board the plane were presumed to have perished. Who could survive crashing into a mountainside in one of the highest mountain ranges in the world? And even if you did survive the initial crash the cold and then hunger would finish the job. Then Roberto Cannesa and Nando Parrado walked down the mountains and directed the authorities to a further 14 survivors still in the mountains. What only slowly emerged was how that group of people had lived for so long on the mountain. Little by little it came out that they had survived by eating the bodies of those who had died! The public reaction was, unsurprisingly, mixed. There was the natural revulsion against cannibalism. But there was also a sense of wonder at the spirit and courage of this group of people who had overcome one of the most fundamental human taboos in order to go on living. The rugby team in question were “The Old Christians,” the team of former pupils of the Christian Brothers private school in Montevideo. They had convinced themselves to overcome their horror of eating the remains of their friends using Jesus’ metaphor: “eat my flesh, drink my blood.” They recognised in a painfully concrete way what Jesus is pointing to. Jesus declares that he gives himself in the most complete, and in the most intimate way, for the life of his followers. It is hard to conceive of a more powerful image of how Jesus gives life to his followers than his metaphor of consuming his flesh
These words come at the climax of the “Bread of life” discourse, one of the long conversations which Jesus has with the crowds, in John’s gospel. The movement of the whole passage is quite striking. The longer passage starts out with a crowd which Jesus had recently fed with real bread at the miracle we remember as The Feeding of the Five Thousand. The crowd then was ready then to proclaim him king. They come to Jesus looking for more. As Jesus continues to speak to them it ends up with the crowd scandalised. And in the verses following those which we read most of the crowd turning and leaving Jesus. What drives them off is Jesus’ words. Initially the crowd simply misunderstand. But their misunderstanding turns to grumbling, and their grumbling here turns to disgust. The more Jesus talks the further he pushes the crowd from him. They get further and further from Jesus until finally they leave.
The movement of the passage plays out one of the themes announced in John’s prologue to his gospel: He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. It is important to note what drives people away from Jesus. They do not leave him shaking their heads at the oppressive demands that he heaps on people. They are driven away by Jesus’ promises. What people find impossible to believe is that the reality of God should come so close, that God should be embodied in someone like Jesus. Despite the presence of food that endures to eternal life, they cannot eat it. The problem is not that Jesus unclear, confusing or even too demanding. It is that people do not have an appetite for what Jesus offers.
What is curious is that the same words which turn off, disgust and even infuriates one group of people can sustain and encourage the faith of another group. A passage like this is a problem for those who think that the problem of unbelief can be resolved at the level of human choice. What happens when people are put off and offended by the promises of God? The “gross out” moment which Jesus delivers in demanding that his followers “munch his flesh and gulp his blood” is genuine. Can the crowd really be held responsible for being disgusted by the disgusting? Insisting people are responsible for their reaction, and that they can change them if they want, is simply not true to human experience. Such visceral reactions perhaps can only change in the most extreme of circumstances, such as surviving a plane crash on a remote mountainside, or in the final recognition that human existence itself is just such an extreme circumstance. But as with so much in the Gospel at this point we are left at the mercy of a God whose Spirit blows where it wills. Because the movement of this passage is just the opposite for those on the inside. The playing out of the other side of that theme from John’s prologue: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. What starts out as vague and abstract to begin with becomes more and more concrete and more and more specific, more and more intimate as Jesus continues to speak. Jesus offers an closeness with God that is so real that we can hold it in our hands and taste it in our mouths. We recognise in Jesus’ language the gift of one who does not withhold himself from the faithful. Who gives himself utterly in very real and concrete ways for the life of his people Jesus talk of giving his life for our lives must inevitably lead us to the cross
And talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood must inevitably lead us to the elements of the Lord’s supper which symbolise those things. Which make real, the greater reality, that our life comes from his life:
Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
Munch My Flesh, Gulp My Blood by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0