In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the past several weeks the lectionary has taken us on a detour from our course through St. Mark’s Gospel, into an excursus on the great Bread of Heaven discourse from St. John’s Gospel. In these readings from John, Jesus has told us that in order to have eternal life, we must come to him in faith, love, and humility, and that we must feed on his flesh. And we have seen the continuity of the spiritual dimension of this teaching with the bodily dimension, a continuity expressed and located, in the economy of the Church, in the consecrated elements – the bread and the cup that we share in the Eucharist.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” (John 6.63) – because it is the flesh of Jesus – his physical body – which is entirely animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and which in consequence, carries out the will of the Father, and brings the Kingdom of God to earth, so that it might truly be said that the Kingdom of God has come near (Luke 10.11), that it has come upon us (Luke 11.20), that it is in the midst of us, that, if we feed on Jesus’ flesh, animated as he is by the Spirit, then the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17.21). “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail.” St. Augustine wrote: “[But if you] join the spirit to the flesh, then it avails much: for if the flesh is of no avail, the Word would not have become flesh, and dwelt among us. The Spirit has done much for our salvation, by means of flesh.”
Today’s Gospel reading Jesus’ response to the scandal with which many of his own disciples heard his teaching about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Lets remind ourselves of what precisely Jesus had said that caused such consternation even among those who were otherwise well-disposed toward him and his teaching. In the verses immediately before today’s Gospel, which we heard last week, the Lord says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. (John 6.53ff).
And then it says: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” It is indeed a hard saying. A strictly literal understanding of the Lord’s words would lead to charges of cannibalism. And indeed in the early Church, in the days of persecution, cannibalism was one of the standard charges trotted out against Christians by unbelievers – and even today many, especially in the Protestant traditions, misunderstand the Catholic Church’s teaching about eating the Lord’s flesh and drinking his blood, in this way. But as St. Paul says, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3.6).
Notice that Jesus does not try to make it any easier for his disciples to understand. We are not cannibals. But the truth – the Word of God, which Jesus speaks – which Jesus IS – is perhaps even more difficult to receive. The eleventh century biblical commentator, St. Theophylact, said: the Body of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist “is not simply the flesh of man, but [the flesh] of God: and it makes man divine, by inebriating him… with divinity.”
Jesus does not equivocate in order to accommodate the incredulity of his hearers. He makes his teaching even MORE incomprehensible.
Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.
Faith precedes and seeks understanding, as the Latin phrase has it: fides quaerens intellectum. “Faith seeking understanding.” And the inability of many of Jesus’ disciples (then and now) to receive his teaching, has its genesis in a failure to BEGIN with faith in Jesus’ PERSON. St. Anselm of Canterbury said: “…the right order requires that we should BELIEVE the deep things of the Christian faith BEFORE we undertake to discuss them by reason,” (Cur Deus Homo).
“…The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.”
Saint Augustine says: “Christ became the Son of man, of the Virgin Mary here upon earth, and took flesh upon him: he says then, what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?[He says this in order] to let us know that Christ, God and man, is one person, not two; and [that he is] the object of one faith… He was the Son of man in heaven, as he was Son of God upon earth; the Son of God upon earth by assumption of the flesh, the Son of man in heaven, by the unity of the person.”
The real scandal – the real stumbling block – is the person of Jesus himself. He is the object of our faith, or the object of our incredulity: the stone, rejected by the builders, on which anyone who falls is broken in pieces (cf. Luke 20.18-19).
“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” Jesus is the Son of God – eternally begotten of the Father – the One by whom, and through whom, and for whom, the universe was brought into being out of nothing. Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” and this is the proof of the divine identity of this person: that the Spirit of God has given him life; and that after eons of human flesh, of itself, availing nothing but ending in every instance in death, it was not so for Jesus, who rose from death on the third day, in the power of the Spirit, never to die again, and over him death no longer has dominion (cf. Romans 6.9).
St. Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (Romans 8.11). And again, St. Augustine says, “For the flesh does not cleanse of itself, but the Word who assumed it: which Word, being the principle of life in all things, having taken up soul and body, cleanses the souls and bodies of those that believe.” And we return to the centrality of the person of Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, whose very flesh was given life by the Holy Spirit. What ultimately is the object of our faith? It is not doctrines or systems of ethics; nor even the Bible; and least of all is it the works of the flesh, however good they may be. The object of our faith is rather the person of Jesus, on whose flesh and blood we are invited to feast, in faith: faith working by love, and love working by humility.
Only by consuming him, and so being consumed BY him, and incorporated into his Body, does the Spirit come to dwell in us. And how do we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us? We look for its fruit, which, as St. Paul says, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” (Galatians 5.22-23). We do not attain the life-giving Spirit of God by striving for these things, rather we receive the Spirit by feeding on the divine flesh to which the Spirit has given life: by eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.
And it all begins with faith in his person, in believing that, in the flesh, he has come to us from God, and that he has returned, in the flesh, to God. And it is this faith to which St. Peter bears simple and eloquent witness at the end of today’s Gospel. Many of Jesus’ disciples had left him over the scandal of his teaching, and “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have BELIEVED, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God,’” (John 6.67ff).
Jesus is – in himself – eternal life; and in his flesh and blood, he gives to us what he himself is.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.