Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18            Psalm 34:15 – 22                    Ephesians 6: 10-20                  John  6:56-59

Jesus told his followers that his flesh was real food and that his blood was true drink—and to eat his flesh and drink his blood meant eternal life.

So people stopped following him.

It was an offensive statement.  It’s still an offensive statement, if you’re paying attention.  Oh, it may be that you’ve been nurtured on what one theologian calls the ‘sweetened and condensed version’ of the good news, that allows you to accept Jesus as your personal savior and buddy without all those hard sayings to think about, and all those hard commands to follow.  ‘Investment-free Jesus’, you might say. 

But at that time, even the disciples grumbled about how hard a teaching this was. They griped so much Jesus had to ask them if they wanted to walk away too.

So, what was the big deal?   The answer (to their disgust), and the point Jesus was making, lies deep in the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus chapter seventeen contains a forceful and simple law about how the People of God were to handle blood:

 

Leviticus 17:10-14
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.

 

Do you notice that when God lays down this law there is no wiggle room whatsoever?

You don’t eat the blood. End of discussion.

There were no exceptions where that law could be set aside due to special circumstances. To ignore the command meant that you were cut off from God forever.

This divine ruling was deeply ingrained in the daily life of the Israelite. The commandment governed what was possible for lunch and what wasn’t, for every day of their lives. It was such a basic law, and so much a part of the ancient Jewish people, that it’s still a cornerstone of modern Jewish eating. A slaughterhouse in America that produces meat that bears the identification as “kosher” still follows the basic laws of Leviticus 17.   Along with other rules like not causing the animal any unnecessary suffering, and not processing an animal that has any physical blemish, the blood is always immediately and thoroughly drained and discarded. 

So, when Jesus said that in order to inherit eternal life you must drink his blood, he was using startling, incendiary language that seemed to go against a millenium of biblical teaching. In other words, this teaching was like nails on a chalkboard for an ancient Jew.  In their minds it would have put Jesus’ religious credentials into serious question.   No wonder it made some of them question whether they could still follow him. Could they subject their children to this blasphemous, anti-biblical teaching?

And so many of them left. Even Jesus’ closest followers did a double-take.

Now, Jesus’s words have been offending people for around 20 centuries, so this isn’t particularly new for us.  But it WAS a shock for the disciples, and a harsh thing to say to people who worked hard to follow the Law.   Even now the church tends to gloss over these words a bit, because taken literally it’s still horrifying to us.  We are not given to cannibalism or vampirism any more than the first followers of Jesus.  We don’t want visitors to be scandalized, and leave in a huff.  As the Church, we want there to be people in the pews, so we attempt to smooth over the more shocking bits of the gospel. 

The upshot is that today, for most Christians, these words don’t have the same jawdropping effect they had when first proclaimed.  We immediately picture bread and wine.  It’s much safer that way.  For Christians who participate in the breaking of bread and sharing of a cup of wine each and every Sunday, this teaching from the sixth chapter of John is an obvious allusion to the Sacrament they know so well.   What a relief!   And after years of standing behind an Altar each Sunday, distributing and consuming the Eucharist, this teaching strikes a deep chord in me.  But it may be that there’s more to consider here.   

Mostly because of this passage, many scholars and theologians identify the Gospel of John as the “most Eucharistic” of the four gospels. Between the Bread of Life verses and the feedings of the multitudes, there’s enough evidence here to make their claim ring true. However, it is helpful to know that there is no story of the Last Supper in John. On the night before Jesus’ death, he gets up from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. We might assume that the table Jesus got up from had the remains of the Last Supper on it, but John doesn’t say anything about that.

You see, despite all the emphasis on faith and belief in the Gospel of John, I have a hard time believing that Jesus is teaching that participating in a liturgical action is the doorway to Heaven here.   I seriously doubt that what Jesus is saying here is merely receive Holy Communion and you receive eternal life.  I think He meant it the other way around.  I think He meant for us to be completely absorbed into the life of Christ, for eternity.    He will always be with us.  We will always be with Him.

The source of disgust in Jesus’ listeners is God’s clear prohibition of consuming blood in Leviticus 17.  And I believe that Leviticus 17 is exactly what Jesus was getting at, just by a different route.

Leviticus 17:14
For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.

 

Blood wasn’t forbidden territory for being dirty, but for being holy.

 

A good portion of the Book of Leviticus concerns itself with what to do with the blood and body parts of sacrificial animals. When animals were sacrificed to God in the rituals that are carefully laid out in Leviticus, various portions of the carcass were given back to the person making the offering, given to the priests to consume, or burned on the Altar and totally given over to God.

But the same thing always happened with the blood: it was always given to God. Usually it was poured onto the Altar directly. Why? Because God considered it holy. And God considered it holy because it was the blood of the animal that embodied its very life. 

The life force of the creature is its blood.   Because God is the giver of all life, life is holy. Life is sacred. And it’s not to be misused or mistreated—and certainly not consumed.   It belongs to God, and God alone.  We reflect those beliefs in the way we treat the elements of the Eucharist.   Leftover bread and wine has to be thrown on the ground; we don’t put the bread in the trash or send the wine down the plumbing. 

So, when Jesus says that his followers are to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls.  And by pouring his eternal-life-blood into our life, we are the recipients of eternal life ourselves.  Because Jesus’ life runs through our veins.

Jesus’s words in today’s gospel are still hard, still offensive.  His ways of confronting powerful institutions, and challenging our individual weaknesses, demands more commitment than seems humanly possible. His insistence on compassion, charity, and service, is still unpopular.   It’s always been hard.   Maya Angelou once said “I’m trying to be a Christian, I’m working on it, and I’m amazed when people walk up to me and say ‘I’m a Christian.’  I think Already? Wow!”   

There is no doubt that this teaching is hard. 

Yet no one else offers the promises of Jesus.   Eternal life.   Where else could we go? 

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