Eating flesh, drinking blood

19 August 2012
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15B (RCL)

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

I’m always suspicious when one of our readings leaves out verses. The conclusion of chapter 2 in 1 Kings provides a list of all David’s enemies whom Solomon had killed. Joab, Shemei, Adonijah (Solomon’s own brother). Joab he had killed, even as Joab clutched the horns of the altar. He sent the priest Abiathar into exile. All of them had backed Adonijah as the heir to the throne. Only after all these things is Solomon’s sovereignty firmly established. Kings (and the rest of us?) only feel comfortable when our enemies have been destroyed. There is no thought of living in community with them. And this is the king who prays for wisdom and understanding. He didn’t have to pray for the life of his enemies — he’d already taken care of that!

The reading from John for this week is (or should be) a real shocker. The language is very graphic. The verb for “to eat” which John has been using up till now is phagein. Phagein is a defective verb. It exists only in the aorist — there is no present form. So, to speak in the present, an author has to use a participial form, or one of two other verbs for “to eat” — isthein or trogein. John chooses trogein, which is usually used of animals eating, especially ruminants. Whoever does not chomp or gnaw on the flesh of the son of man has no life. Icky.

But even more shocking to a Jewish audience, would be the image of drinking blood. Anyone raised in a sacrificing culture would be used to eating flesh (even if not human flesh), but Jews were absolutely forbidden to eat blood of any animal. All blood was to be spilled at the altar of the Temple, and was sacred to God (Leviticus 17). The blood was the seat of the life of the animal, and the life belonged to God. Blood makes atonement between God and the people. On the Great Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Holy of holies and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat, and then on the people, re-establishing kinship between God and God’s people.

And now, Jesus is telling the Jews in his audience (John is speaking to the synagogue which has thrown his community out) that those who do not drink the blood of the son of man, and eat his flesh, has no life among them, regardless of whether their ancestors ate manna or not. The language is eucharistic: John’s community sees its eucharist as partaking of the flesh and blood of Jesus (note, not body and blood). This is an “in your face” reminder of the flesh-and-blood reality of the incarnation — no spiritualization here.

But it also raises the community to the level of the divine. If the blood is sacred to God, for it is the life of the creature (and therefore of Jesus), then we are put in God’s place, consuming the life.

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist announces of Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” At the end of the Gospel, Jesus dies at the very hour the passover lambs were being slaughtered. But, the passover lamb doesn’t not take away sin. Only the scape-goat does that in the OT. The blood of the passover lamb on the door posts reminds God of God’s kinship with the people, and the meal “atones” the people, makes them one. Jesus says, in our reading today, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in that one. Just as the living father sent me, and I live through him, so also the one who eats me will live through me.” Here is that wonderful blurring of boundaries between God, Jesus and the believer. In the eating, we become divine.

So, what is it we are eating? Only domesticated animals could be sacrificed. They represented the God-given life-principle as well as the human effort of domestication. We can’t offer anything in which we have had no part. We offer our whole social, economic and communal reality, as well as the God-given life-principle in it. We offer and eat ourselves and one another. We chomp on that reality, savor it, consume it for God, so that we live through God and each other.

How different from Solomon, who carefully excises from the community everyone he doesn’t like.

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