A hard teaching

Jesus said to them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” … “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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. … On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” — John 6:51,53-55,60 (NIV)

There are times when you can be forgiven for thinking Jesus was disturbed. C.S. Lewis famously said of him:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” (Mere Christianity)

Just the day before this teaching about his body and blood, Jesus had fed the assembled crowds a miraculous and filling dinner. Word quickly spread, because on this day many came both to listen and to eat, according to Jesus. Suspecting they were more interested in food for their stomachs than their hearts, Jesus began teaching about both.

Sourdough loaf

“I am the bread of life,” he says. So far, so good.

But then he says, in so many words: Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot have eternal life. His listeners were shocked. His disciples were aghast. Many left in disgust, thinking he’d gone mad.

Ever heard a sermon on this passage? I don’t think I have. Understandable. Christianity is already pretty weird, what with having to believe in a virgin birth and resurrected dead people. But this teaching about eating his body and blood would, I suspect, create a stampede for the exits in the modern megachurch.

How do I describe my position with respect to God and faith? Well, I’m a Christian, but that label is often misunderstood. There are people who call themselves Christian because their grandfather’s name is on the back of a church pew, there are people who call themselves Christian who have never read the Bible, there are people who think the label “Christian” is a political statement.

I prefer to call myself a follower of Jesus, which makes me sound like a mystic, but it expresses my approach to faith more accurately. The disciples thought of themselves as Jesus-followers, too. But if we consider what Jesus might be saying in this hard teaching in John, being a Christ-follower may miss the mark.

To be a follower of Jesus, or a follower of Buddha or Muhammed or even Karl Marx means that I have a commitment of some sort to these men and their teachings. I’ve read their books, I’ve internalized their words and their values, but in some real sense, I still stand apart from them. Being a follower is an intellectual assertion, a commitment of the mind and, perhaps also, a commitment of the feet. To follow someone may even entail an emotional entanglement of some sort: followers of Taylor Swift seem to enter into an ecstatic euphoria while screaming along with a concert hall full of other adoring fans.

But if I eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood, he becomes part of me. That’s different, isn’t it? His body infuses itself into my very cells. His blood becomes my blood. I no longer mentally connect to this person; I am inhabited by this person.

Which brings us to the odd phrasing Paul uses in his letter to the Galatians:

God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple. That is the substance of our Message. … Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. — Galatians 1:27, 3:3 (The Message)

Christ is in you and Christ has replaced your old life with something new. That’s way, way beyond following. That’s way, way beyond memorizing some life-altering aphorisms like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

What Jesus describes when he talks about his flesh and blood becoming our flesh and blood is a transformation of our essential natures, not merely an exchange of priorities or values or approaches or beliefs.

Christ is in us. Our old lives are crucified and we are reborn as new creations. Paul uses that phrase in a letter to the Corinthian church:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. — 2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)

Jesus says that he is the “living bread.” He says that his flesh is “real food.” Accept no substitutes, as the advertising tag line used to declare. When I eat a delicious, fresh-baked slice of my favorite sour dough bread (lathered in melted butter, of course), I experience delight, and my body receives nourishment. But both last only for a very short time.

When I commit myself to follow the teachings of Jesus, I do something good — very good, in fact — but my daily encounters with my self-serving desires will still trip me up and pull me away from his life-giving words.

But if, somehow, Jesus’ body and blood and Spirit were to become part of me, if his life was reborn in my life and his heart of love for his Father were reborn in my heart, what a different person I would become.

And this is the promise. This is the mystery, the treasure, as Paul writes to the Galatians. Christ in you. Not Christ with you, not Christ beside you, not Christ as one voice among many shouting for our attention. Not Christ as a label, not Christ as a mascot, but Christ giving us life, in fact, mingling his life with ours in such a way that we are not merely persuaded, not merely committed, but we become wholly new persons.

A hard teaching, indeed. A life-giving and transformative teaching. This is a teaching that sets Christianity and Christians apart from every other dogma and creed and belief. It’s hard because it demands everything we have to give, including our very lives. And paradoxically, it’s the only way to find something real, real food, food that lasts forever.

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