I have to make a confession: every 3 years when this text from John 6 comes up I struggle with Jesus’ words. I struggle with the context of the passage; I struggle with the literal meaning of what Jesus says to those who are following Him.
I feel for the folks who were the first ones to hear this. I can understand the struggle with the interpretation of what Jesus is saying. Is He speaking literally? Or figuratively? And what is the meaning of all this?
John chapter 6 is aptly title, “The Bread of Life” chapter. Jesus is comparing Himself with the Bread that sustains earthly life-like the bread God gave the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus says that He is the true bread that came down from heaven that gives eternal life, unlike the bread the Israelites had to gather daily. This is also like the ‘living water’ Jesus compares Himself with as He visits with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4. In both of these instances Jesus says that what He will give leads to eternal life. He concludes this part by claiming, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
What a dramatic twist! In no uncertain words, Jesus claims to be the Messiah—the One the Jews have been waiting for. But Jesus goes on to claim that in order that we find the life He has come to bring, we must “eat his flesh, and drink His blood!” To the original hearers, this must have been incredibly offensive! John writes that many of those who were following Jesus left Him. They couldn’t take it.
Can’t you hear the people saying to one another, “Did Jesus just say what I think He said? Did I hear that correctly?” They were caught off-guard and took Jesus literally. This was totally offensive to them.
Sometimes God’s Word catches us off-guard too. Sometimes the Words in the Bible pierce right into our hearts in such a way that we are offended. In those times we naturally want to deny the presence and power of the Word of God. We want to push into the background the call of God to change our lives or undo a wrong. When the Bible exposes our sin, and we’re not ready to admit it, we shirk it off, tell ourselves it doesn’t apply to us or to the modern world we live in. When our language, our actions, or our feelings toward others don’t gibe with the Bible’s message, we usually poke around until we find something like ‘bloody animal sacrifices’ and say that we don’t do those anymore either. We try to rationalize our way out of a sticky situation. And, like those following Jesus, many simply walk away from faith.
Sometimes Jesus’ words in the Gospel, or one of the other lessons, point out something we do that is sinful. Or maybe we feel guilty about something we have done, and the Bible just seems to hit on this subject the next time you read it or hear it read. Inside you may feel angry. You may want Jesus to stay out of whatever it is and let you do what you want. I’ve had people say to me, “Don’t talk to me about Jesus…” over something that is causing a problem. Or someone might comment that my sermon was aimed directly at them. These may be times when the Word of God catches us up short and starts doing business with us. That’s actually a good thing!
And then there are those times when you’re reading something from the Bible that just doesn’t sit well with your standard of right and wrong. Those bloody animal sacrifices and wholesale killing of one’s enemies, that goes on in the OT are repulsive. Or maybe the sexual overtones in the Song of Solomon don’t seem appropriate in the Bible and you feel uncomfortable.
How many of you have thought about Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel? – I mean really thought about them. Do they bother you? Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” And He also said, “…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…”
On person told a friend of mine that she just shudders when she hears this text. She doesn’t enjoy it at all. How do you feel about this—when Jesus talks so bluntly about His life and His body of flesh and blood? We understand Jesus to be talking about the meal of Holy Communion today. We carefully repeat Jesus’ words, “This is my body, this is my blood;” when we celebrate Holy Communion. We don’t understand them as being offensive. But many people struggle with our Lutheran understanding of Holy Communion. They don’t believe the presence of Jesus can be in the bread and wine, making it His body and blood. It is still a difficult concept to come to grips with.
These words are offensive. They are offensive to the Old Adam inside us that wants to be the one in power. They are offensive to satan as well. So often when the Word of God is offensive to us it is calling us to change our way of thinking and living. It is calling us to repentance. Jesus was attempting to explain the road to eternal life by following Him. He was setting them up for a strong belief in His Real Presence in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
What is of utmost importance is that Jesus Christ has burst upon the world as God in human flesh. He has made Himself known to us in terms that are bold, far-reaching, and yet offensive. We are reminded that there are times when we would rather not have to bother with a God who is in our midst, who “gets in the way” of our thoughts, words, and deeds. It reminds us that God in Christ is very interested in the lives of His people and goes to extremes to reach us with His gift of salvation.
And, of course, His Holy Supper becomes even more important with these words. We may not want to believe that Jesus is really present in, with, and under the bread and wine, but the fact remains—He is present. It may be easier for us to think of Jesus only in spiritual terms, that He is watching down on us from somewhere in the ‘Great Beyond.’
The Gospel tells us that Jesus is truly present with us, and that in the Sacrament, His body and blood are the real, tangible reminders of His Covenant with us.
The Jews knew Jesus, and for them His words were deeply offensive. It may be easier for us to believe, not having experienced Jesus earthly presence, because it becomes easy for us to mold Jesus into our image of what He is and what He should say. In essence, we can make Jesus sound like we want Him to sound when we pick and choose the passages we like best.
An offensive Jesus is not pleasant or easy to accept. When Jesus upsets our ways of thinking and acting, we are challenged to ask ourselves why, and let the Spirit move us to change. God, our Father, desperately wants to be in relationship with us and has given us His Son to bring us back. May we always be open to hearing His Word and responding to our Savior’s call to us.