In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we conclude our several-week lectionary excursus on the great Bread of Heaven discourse in St. John’s Gospel. We have seen that in order to have eternal life, we must come to Christ in faith, love, and humility, and that we must feed on him. 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 of the Holy Eucharist. For it is the flesh of Jesus Christ – 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 Christ’s flesh, it is within us (Luke 17.21).
Today’s Gospel reading begins with the scandal with which many of the Lord’s own disciples heard his teaching about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Let us remind ourselves of what precisely Jesus had said that caused such consternation even among those who were otherwise well-disposed toward him. In the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel, verses we encountered 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 we pick up with the action of today’s reading: “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” And it is indeed a hard saying. But where does the difficulty lie? 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 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).
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. Theophylact said: the Body of Christ which we receive “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 soften the lesson to accommodate our incredulity. He makes it even MORE incomprehensible. He says, “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 to receive his teaching, has its genesis in their 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 – his person – 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 of Nazareth is the Son of God – “begotten of his Father before all worlds” – 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, over whom 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 works of the flesh, however good they may be. The object of our faith is rather the person of Jesus Christ, 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. 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, 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.
It all begins with faith in the person of Jesus Christ, 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’s 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 Ghost. Amen.