Living Bread, Flesh and Blood (John 6:51-58)

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The content of this Gospel reading would have been thoroughly shocking to its original hearers in its original context. To be candid, it can even sound shocking to us today, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of theology, eucharistic and otherwise, to interpret it. Here is the crux of it in excerpts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

If it sounds jarring, it was meant to be. Jesus knew his audience and knew his context, and sure enough, many in the crowd of listeners deserted him after this one. But the thing that made these words so hard to grasp also happens to be the very key to interpreting them. Leviticus 17:11-14 prohibits the Israelites from drinking the blood of any creature that they eat. They are to pour the blood out onto the earth, for it represents the life of the creature, stands for atonement in the case of sacrifice, and may not be consumed. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). Continuing in verse 14, “For the life of all flesh is its blood. Thus I said to the Israelites, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever consumes it shall be cut off.”

This was the cultural and religious context that Jesus’ listeners knew very well. The Gospel tells us that some of them, therefore, could simply not accept his words on any level, and dispersed. Jesus understood that. But with these words, he is really talking about two central things: his coming into this world from heaven for our sake, and the giving of his life in a definitive sacrifice that demonstrated his love for the very creatures whose dark and murderous impulses led to that sacrifice. It is this divine sacrificial love, culminating in Resurrection, that “makes atonement” for our lives and redeems them from sin and death. 

It is in this way that Jesus’ “blood” is the life that we need to consume. When he says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he knows exactly the background context that is Leviticus 17:11-14. He knows it is written that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and he knows it is written that the blood, by means of its life, makes atonement. So he tells his followers that he gives his body and blood in the definitive sacrifice, fulfilling the first Covenant yet also inaugurating “the new Covenant in my blood” — as he says during the Last Supper, the institution of the first Eucharist. 

The reading from Paul for today, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, speaks of this Eucharistic meal that Christ instituted for us: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and practiced even by the earliest Christian community, beginning immediately following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as his disciples began to carry out the teaching he gave them about the life that comes from his body and blood. 

Atonement and redemption through self-sacrificial love are his divine gifts to us. But we must, he says, “feed on him” — that is to say, we must rely on him, turn to him, get our nourishment from him. We must draw from him and remain in him, and he will remain in us, giving us the gift of eternal life, which is nothing less than to abide in the glory of God’s love forever. 

Redeemer, help us to draw on you, the “living bread from heaven,” for our true sustenance. Help us to open our minds to what your self-sacrifice of redemptive, atoning love means individually for each one of us, and help us to accept that gift of your love. Inspire our hearts to drink in your life, which you want to give in abundance, so that your life may remain in us, and we may dwell with you eternally. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011