Have you ever read something that is as familiar to you as your own address, but suddenly you realized that it's been a long time since you thought about what it means? I had that experience with my Bible reading earlier this week. What this post contains is a record of how I struggled to reach new understanding about an overly familiar passage. It is not meant as definite teaching or firmly established theology. I offer it as an exploration. Please read it as such and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
Each morning, I try to read the scriptures for the Daily Office. If I can't read all of them, I try to read at least the psalms and the gospel. This week, my readings have included these verses:
"I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"So Jesus said to them, “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” John 6:48-58
God alone knows how many times I've read and heard and sung "I am the bread of life" during my lifetime. This time when I read it, I pulled up short and thought, Huh?! What did Jesus mean when he said to eat his body and drink his blood? What does that mean really?
Yes, of course, I know that it refers to communion. Many Christians view communion as simply a reminder of Christ's sacrifice, which saves us. Others have a more sacramental theology and believe either that the bread and wine actually do become his body and blood, or that they are transformed to contain his Real Presence in a mysterious way. That last view of Eucharist is the one I hold. I feel the Real Presence of Christ when I partake of the consecrated Eucharist, and I believe that taking the sacraments has power to transform us at a deep level we don't fully understand.
But the passage has to mean something more than just the physical action of taking communion. I don't believe that we have a faith based on magical superstition, so I don't think Jesus was saying, "Go get your morsel of bread and your sip of wine, and you will live forever." I think this was one of those complex teachings that is symbolic on multiple levels.
So I sat there wondering for a while, and as I thought about the passage, I remembered other verses, other passages.
"One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Matt. 4:4"I have food to eat that you do not know about. . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work." John 4: 32, 24
Jesus offered us his body and his blood to sustain us, to give us communion with him, to bring us life. According to the two passages I just cited, the things that most sustained Jesus were the word of God and the act of doing God's work and bringing about his kingdom.
Is it possible then that when Jesus instituted communion, he meant it not just to be a reminder of or even a re-enactment of his sacrifice? Perhaps it is that and something more. Perhaps the Eucharist is also an ongoing invitation to partake of the "bread" that sustained Jesus—doing the work of God's kingdom, as laid out in his word. These musings led me to another passage:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. Isaiah 1:11-18
This passage and others like in the Old Testament tell me that God has little tolerance for the performance of religious rites just for the sake of doing ritual. When he invites us to communion, he isn't just asking us to partake of a liturgical meal and then go on our merry way. He wants the other kind of communion--an act of sharing thoughts and feelings with another person. He wants to abide in us so that we think his thoughts and carry out his deeds.
At least, that's how I'm understanding the Bible this week. How about you?
* HT to Margaret at Leave It Lay Where Jesus Flang It. This post helped shape my thoughts this week.