Jesus conversation with his disciples in the context of his feeding the five thousand comes to a climax in his declaration to the Jews and the disciples that their relationship to eternal life is dependent upon their relationship to Him, His flesh.
“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.” (v.53.)
This is an exclusivist declaration, some might call it an elitist claim. (σκανδαλον 1 Cor. 1: 21 ‘stone to trip over’ ‘to stumble’) It runs directly counter to the culture in which we live in the church and in the world. In contemporary post-modern culture we live in a world in which truth claims are not simply ‘50 shades of grey’, it is ‘a night in which all cats are grey.’ This is a foundational dogma of our world. As in Judges 17:6, ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’.Everything is relative; there can be no moral or ideological distinctions or judgments because individuals or groups rights or views are as good as or as valid as any other. This is the contemporary anti dogmatic dogma of inclusivity; some call it multi culturalism or the politics of identity or victimhood. It is the catch cry of contemporary ideologies generally categorised under the label of post modernism, for such there is no truth that is external to the knower; so to some feminist ‘all men are rapist’, to some ethnic groups ‘all white Anglo Saxons are racists; such judgments are held to be true by definition, because they conform to the individual or group think of the persons associated with such views. And so like ‘the many disciples who turned back and no longer went about with Jesus’, as we read in verse 66, we, and the world, are offended by this claim which ties eternal life to the person of Jesus. A person, external to us, who claims eternal life is not some idea which we imagine, not an idea about God, but an action of God in Him for our sake and the sake of the world. Such a claim is drastically counter cultural, it is offensive to our self-understanding and self-sufficiency and that of the world.
While it is true that in this same chapter Jesus says, ‘It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.’ (v.63) This saying does not in any way qualify the particularity of the flesh of Jesus. For when Jesus says, ‘the words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and life’: What are these words which are ‘Spirit and Life?’ They are, “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.” (v.53.)
But this has not stopped some people at the time of the Reformation, and in today’s churches, attempting to establish an independent interest in the human Jesus; apart from the fact that He is the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. With these words of Jesus, ‘It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.’ the ‘Jesus of history’ movement so prominent in 19 century Protestantism and again so much in vogue in many forms of Christian and secular piety today, promotes the idea that the most important thing about Jesus is that He was a historical figure, like Caesar Augustus, Plato or Aristotle. Jesus is understood without remainder, simply as a historical person with whom we can relate in terms of our self-understanding in either psychological terms (as a friend) or socio-political terms (as a social justice warrior). The Jesus of history movement was created or invented to indicate an approach to Jesus Christ that circumvents or avoids the embarrassment that in this man the Creator of the universe is present with and for us as saviour and judge. It was and is an attempt to make God’s action in Christ manageable in terms which we define and understand and feel comfortable with. It answers in the negative the decisive question Solomon’s asks in his prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee.” 1 Kings 8:27)
The gospel lesson insists we cannot understand the flesh of which Jesus speaks in verse 53, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you,” and that this flesh is the flesh of God”, apart from the gracious condescension of God’s incarnation in His Son for our redemption. If the flesh of Jesus Christ, His humanity, is not understood in terms of who the eternal Word of God is, then His humanity becomes a cipher, a container, for whatever religious disposition or feeling we care to put into it. We make Jesus Christ into our own image, into an image of our own religious or non-religious disposition and lose Him who, as the eternal Word of God, gives His humanity to be the source of our life before God and each other. It is the particularity of Jesus flesh, which defines the action of the triune God, and that is offensive to us and the world in our understanding of ourselves in relationship to God. For the scandal of Jesus’ claim is that our relationship to eternal life is conditioned by this unutterably miraculous free condescension of the triune God; and not by the decisions or experience of the divine with which we would want to qualify and define the truth of our relationship with God. This offends us because our relationship to eternal life is taken out of our hands and placed in the hands of another, who wills to relate to us in this unheard of and offensive manner. That is in the form of one who is on His way to the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and therefore as One who has ‘no comeliness that we should look at Him and no beauty that we should desire Him”, is One, ‘from whom men hide their faces.’ (Isaiah 53:2-3)
The particularity of the relationship that Jesus establishes with people because of His condescension brings to expression Jesus relationship with the Father. Jesus’ scandalous words about our relationship with God “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” (v.57): These words are grounded in and bring to expression Jesus exclusive and therefore unique relationship to the Father. The personal relationship of the Son to the Father which establishes the relationship the Son has with people as particular and personal. The eternal life of which Jesus speaks, is not participation in an eternal sea where persons are engulfed in an undifferentiated sameness. It is an eternal life in which the personal relationship of the Son to the Father, in which God constitutes His own being as God in the unity of the Spirit, this relationship in the person of Jesus is accommodated to the godforsakeness of our human condition in such a way that, through the atonement and reconciliation achieved in Him, we are given to participate in the Son’s unique relationship with the Father. Jesus insistence upon the uniqueness of his flesh and blood being the basis of our relationship to eternal life is grounded in the uniqueness of His relationship with the Father and is given in Him to each one of us. His unique relationship with the Father is made ours at the infinite cost of His self-humiliation even to the cross.
A further consequence of this mystery of grace is that our relationship to eternal life cannot be thought of apart from the church, since those who are united to Christ in their eating and drinking of His flesh and blood are thereby constituted the Body of Christ. If Christ is the source of our eternal life by His gift of Himself and as such is the source of our relationship to the Father, then we must see that He is the mediator of our relationships with each other in the fellowship of the church which is His body. Our relationship to eternal life is not apart from our relationship to those with whom we are joined by Christ in Baptism and Eucharistic fellowship. These earthly relationships are the means that Christ provides by which we are enabled to understand the nature of eternal life as particular and personal. In their own way these relationships, as mediated by Christ, become the human created instruments of our relationship to Christ within His Body; and thus, also of our relationship to the Father, and consequently our relationship to eternal life.
It is in the central act of Christian worship called the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, that this reality of life in Christ, of which both the gospel and the epistle speak we are invited to participate.
Jesus said, “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.” (St. John:6 v.53.)
Pastor Dr Gordon Watson