While the lectionary splits this passage into four separate lessons to be covered on four successive weeks, it’s really important to take this passage as a whole.
First, some reminders about John’s Gospel.
1) The Gospel itself does not say that somebody named John wrote it. That’s a much later tradition. Instead the text says, using the first person plural, that the version we now have is a group production based on the testimonies of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,“ who is never named (John 21:24). We can still call it John’s Gospel, because that’s how it’s now known.
2) The fact that it actually says it’s a later group production helps to explain why the Jesus in John’s Gospel sounds so different from the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Instead of teaching in short, pithy sayings, John’s Gospel has Jesus sounding like a mystic or a philosopher. It seems to be bringing out the deeper meaning of what Jesus said and did, spelled out later by “the Spirit of truth” (14:26) that continues to animate the community.
3) There’s also a lamentable pattern of referring disparagingly to Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.“ It obscures fact that all of Jesus’ followers and friends are also Jews, and it probably reflects later disagreements between the beloved disciple’s community and the local synagogue. It doesn’t reflect the variety of relationships between early Christians and local synagogues across the Mediterranean, nor does it reflect the diversity of Jewish faithfulness in Jesus’ day, much of which actually supports Jesus’ own teachings. It’s stereotyping. It’s harmful. Jews are not and were not “the Jews” of this Gospel.
4) One more odd thing about this Gospel—it never shows Jesus getting baptized or Jesus breaking and blessings bread and wine at the last supper. And yet it repeatedly shows Jesus “immersing” himself in us and “immersing” us in him. And in this chapter it repeatedly and grotesquely talks about consuming Jesus’ flesh and blood. It’s arguably the most sacramental of the four Gospels.
So let’s look at this passage. First, Jesus keeps referring to himself as bread: bread of life (6:35), “heavenly” bread (6:41), living bread (6:51); then he says this bread is really his flesh (6:51). Finally, he also mentions his blood and says that our very life depends on eating and drinking this flesh and blood (6:53).
It all comes together in this passage: “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; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (6:53-58).
Obviously, in spite of John never telling us about Jesus’ first Eucharist, this passage is pointing to our later celebrations of the Eucharist. But as Jesus flings all these images around, they shift back-and-forth. Christians in my tradition like to say that consecrated food and drink are somehow really Jesus’ flesh and blood. Here Jesus says that his flesh and blood are somehow really heavenly, death-defying food and drink.
We cannot divorce earth from heaven, flesh-and-blood from spirit, the downright grotesque from the sublime, dying from living. In Jesus’ life, death, and risen life they’re all inseparable. And they’re inseparable in our lives too.
If we don’t “digest” this. If we don’t “internalize” this fleshy, bloody, earthy, mortal, all-embracing spirituality that Jesus embodies, we’re not really living. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” That doesn’t mean that you’d better show up on Sunday mornings for the Eucharist, or else. It means that to be fully alive, so alive that death itself is undone, we need to live out constantly what the Eucharist acts out intermittently—this fleshy, bloody, earthy, mortal, all-embracing spirituality that Jesus embodies with us even now.
It’s sometimes said that Luke’s Gospel is the most “materialist,” while John’s is the most “spiritual.” I’ve said that myself, and generally, one does get that impression. But Jesus is sounding surprisingly materialistic in this passage, or at least “materialistically spiritual.” The only way to a death-defying risen life is through internalizing a self-giving, flesh-and-blood dying life.
That’s bizarre. But isn’t that what we need to hear? Here we are in a world permeated by death. It’s a world threatened by a virus that keeps mutating, where a worse virus might come along any day. It’s a world where many of us fear death from those who should protect us, simply because of the color of our skin. It’s a world where we are tempted every day to demonize those who see things differently, because we realize that seeing things differently can actually get us killed.
There’s no getting away from this world of flesh-and-blood dying. But Jesus isn’t trying to get away from it. He’s living into it and drawing us to live into it with him. He’s promising that living into all of this flesh-and-blood dying is what finally brings us to a death-defying risen life. What’s keeping us from that?