Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation,
Standing before the confused crowds of Jews and disciples, Jesus makes an astonishing claim. Maybe the wind blew his words away, or perhaps the crowd swallowed the essential point, but most heard him say something like: “…I will raise him on the last day.” During this sermon, he teaches this particular heresy multiple times. If you had heard just this bit, just this last part about how he will raise someone on the last day, you might find yourself among those who heard Jesus say during the Sermon of the Mount: “Blessed are the cheese makers.” And then you might find yourself having to explain why cheese makers will be raised on the last day, and then defending the broader notion that Jesus obviously meant that all of those in the cheese-making industry would be raised, or something else equally ridiculous and confusing. And just to toss another wrench into the works, let’s add the barely heard but nonetheless frightening phrase, “…unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man…” Did we hear that correctly? What bits did the wind blow away? Who’s this man that we are supposed to eat…? And why will eating his flesh and drinking his blood result in the raising up of some guy on the last day?
The strangeness of Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Life might have been caused—partially—by the bad acoustics in the synagogue or crowd-noise drowning him out or maybe even some translation problems. No doubt the primary difficulty had to do with the what most hearing him preach would say is his blasphemy against God. Here we are two-thousand years later, after centuries of solid Church teaching on the nature of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and we hear this gospel preached, and we think to ourselves: “Yea, of course, bread and wine become the Body and the Blood. Jesus is the Bread of Life. OK? Now what?” What we have missed is the raw, stinging smack in the face that Jesus delivers to those listening to him in the synagogue. Already infamous for his claims to be the Son of God, Jesus is compounding his blasphemy by claiming to be—flesh and blood—not only the only son of the Father, and not only the Father himself, but also—in his person—he is claiming to be, personally, meat and blood, the one whom they must eat in order to live. Can we blame them for quarreling? For believing that they have misheard or misunderstood? Is it unreasonable that we should think that we have had a Monty Python moment and simply got the phrasing, the words wrong?
Once the full text of Jesus’ homily was released on the web, everyone could see that, yes indeed, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink.” There it is in black and white. No way to mishear a written text. But what does it mean? Is Jesus speaking symbolically? Metaphorically? Is he just being cryptic again? Is this some sort of test? Jesus means what he says. He is with us.
The key to this difficult teaching, I think, is found in the phrase “remains in me and I in him.” Think about “remaining.” Think about abiding, staying put, bearing under, and even more interesting, don’t we sometimes use the verb “to stomach” as a way of describing how we might endure? “I will just have to stomach it.” To remain with is to stand beside, linger with and live near; it is the opposite of abandoning, leaving, disposing of, deserting. Jesus is telling us that if we eat his Flesh and drink his Blood he will abide, remain, linger with, endure with us. If we stomach him now—literally—, he will not vomit us out on the last day; he will stand by us because as a part of us he can do no less. He says plainly enough: “…I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life…because of me.”
Don’t mishear this. Don’t let the dead desert winds of the world blow his words away from you. Don’t flee in confusion to the easily swallowed notion that Jesus is preaching metaphorically or symbolically. He is with us. He remains with us. Not as divine residue or a godly leftover; he abides, Flesh and Blood for our eternal lives.