Are we cannibals?

Scriptures: Psalm 130; John 6:41-58

The title of my sermon might seem a little strange to some of you. “Are we cannibals?” Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Our immediate thought about cannibalism is “No way!”

It’s a disgusting thought in the modern world (it was a disgusting thought back in Jesus’ time too), the idea of eating the flesh of our fellow humans. Some of the most infamous criminals and events deal with people who ate the flesh of other people, the Donner party, for instance. We just recoil from the thought of that eating of flesh.

Back in Jesus’ day it wasn’t much different. They too understood how disturbing that was. And yet, it was a question that the early church had to struggle with and which we even struggle with today. Some of the rumors that were spread about the early church, that caused persecution, dealt with their eating babies.

The way the worship service went, according to Acts, is they would have a time together with the larger crowd, to preach an evangelistic sermon and have an altar call, they probably sang their version of praise choruses. Then the members of the church, those that had been baptized, would go off on their own.

They would have an offering, they would have Communion, they would have fellowship, and they would also have a special time of teaching. So only the members could do that. Some people think it was like Paul warns about, that they didn’t want those who didn’t understand to eat and drink damnation by taking Communion incorrectly.

Some modern scholars believe they were trying to prevent identification, because of the persecution that was occurring with a lot of the house churches. It’s just like today in China with a lot of the house churches – as soon as the government finds out about one, they’ll send a spy to find out the names of everybody who goes to that church, and then they will start moving against them.

Whether it was for that kind of reason or the other, they went apart. And because they went apart, people just told stories, sometimes with malicious intent, sometimes out of ignorance. So the church struggled with this idea that they were cannibals, these believers in Christ.

We do today, believe it or not, as we do mission in new areas and meet new people, particularly aboriginal groups, and translate the words of Jesus, the question comes up there. Are we cannibals? After all, some of these tribes are cannibalistic. They might think this is cool – how do I get this guy?

Even in the Western church, it is underlying what we believe and what we practice. The Catholic Church, because of this very passage we’re talking about today, believes in something called transubstantiation. And what they believe is there is a mystical, supernatural transformation of the bread into the actual body of Christ and the wine into the actual blood of Christ.

This affects the way they take Communion in their Mass. This is not to knock the practice, but this is why they use wafers – there are no crumbs that can fall on the floor. If you believe that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ through mystical transformation, it makes sense. Would you want to be stepping on the body of Christ?

If you’ve ever been in a Mass, you may have seen that the priest drinks all the remainder of the wine afterward, at the end of the Eucharist part of the Mass. If the wine becomes the blood of Christ, it would be sacrilegious to throw it down the sink. Just think of the disrespect you would be giving to Jesus.

Even the Lutherans – I had a Lutheran friend in seminary, who was trying to explain their version, which is called consubstantiation. He said, “Think of it as a pig in a blanket.” You all know what a pig in a blanket is? The little hot dog, that you surround with a croissant? It’s both bread and meat at the same time, and you have the meat wrapped in the bread so you can’t see any of the meat.

And with the cup, it’s still just juice, but it’s also mystically the blood of Christ. It’s not actually transformed, the way the Catholics believe, but it’s there. They call it the Real Presence. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, for instance, won’t let you partake of Communion unless you believe in what’s call the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and the juice.

Now some people, out of rejection for this idea of cannibalism and what Jesus said, went the other route and said, “Jesus was just saying, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ so it’s just a memorial, and we just do it because he gave it as an ordinance, because he said to do it. It doesn’t have any meaning beyond that.

We Presbyterians and Reformed believers, as usual, kind of walk the middle road. We believe in – write this word down, it’s a five-dollar theological seminary term – pneumasubstantiation. That’s what we believe. It’s literally “spirit” plus substantiation. It means the Spirit is there. Christ’s Spirit is infused in the bread and the juice.

Therefore when we partake of the bread and the juice, we partake of the Spirit of Christ. He is present with us. It is more than just our daily filling of the Holy Spirit. This is a kind of filling that occurs that joins us with Christ and the whole rest of the Church – through all the ages, all the places – the “big C” Church, as the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.

We do, in our own way, partake of Jesus. Are we cannibals? Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” People cried out in shock, “How can this be?!” They didn’t like it.

I think that you have had to actually be a part of that culture, to be in that crowd at that time, to realize just how provocative what he said was, to the people that were there. If you read this in the original language of the New Testament, that is, in Greek, you realize that Jesus makes things even worse by a change of verbs.

When earlier he talks about eating his flesh, he uses the simple word for “eat.” But then in verse 54 and onward, he uses a different verb, trogo, which means not only to eat, but in a sense of chew, gnaw, or crunch. He wasn’t just saying, take a piece and pop it in and swallow it. He was saying, “I want you to chew on it.”

They were already offended, and he makes the statement even more offensive. At this, the Bible says that the people said to each other, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

Gail Ramshaw states in her commentary:

The stark nature of the language in these verses has occasioned much conversation among scholars and has led to the church’s preferring synoptic, rather than John’s terminology for the Eucharist… Yet the vocabulary in John 6 captures more closely than the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper what Jesus may have actually said. Since neither Hebrew nor Aramaic has the word “body” that appears in the Greek accounts of Jesus’ instituting the sacrament, that is, “This is my body,” the gutsy noun “flesh” is more indicative of the Semitic worldview at the time. Indeed, “flesh and blood” was a Hebrew idiom for “the whole person.”

In other words, Hebrew didn’t have a way of saying “body” like that. So Jesus, since he had a bunch of Jewish guys with him, probably was speaking Aramaic and said “this is my flesh, torn apart for you,” when he was speaking of what we call the breaking of the bread.

How do we reconcile this? How do we work through this idea that is so repugnant, and yet permeates so much of our faith and understanding?

I think that John approaches it and tells us at the very beginning of his Gospel. John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word.” (with a capital W) “The Word was with God and the Word was God, and everything that was made was made through Him. Nothing was made without Him.”

The “Word” there is logos. It means more than just a word. It means the defining principle of things. Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and in this passage today, Jesus tells the people who are listening, basically, “I’m God.”

He said “No one has seen the Father except the one who comes from heaven” in this passage. Then he says, “I’m the one who came from heaven. I’m the bread from heaven.” Logic says, he’s the one who came from heaven, so he must have seen God, in fact, he might be God. People didn’t like that. That was hard to hear. That was part of why they were riled up.

But we understand that Jesus is the Word, the Word of God. John is depicting Jesus as saying that he is, in the very flesh, the incarnate “Word of God,” the very presence of God, Emmanuel, among us. We cannot separate the humanity of Jesus from the divinity of Jesus. We even see he changes from “bread of life” to “living bread.” He’s not just bread that gives life; He is bread that is living!

This is an important point because He starts to talk about union, first union with the Father and then union with Him. No one can be in union with the Father unless they “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

Also, when Jesus says that “He is the bread of life that came down from heaven, to give his flesh and blood for us to eat, so that we might have eternal life,” he is telling us that he feeds us through every aspect of his total being. The Word of God.

So we can’t ignore his teachings or treat them as if they were simply the most profound philosophical truth of an age long ago, from which we have progressed over the ensuing two thousand years. Nor can we fail to see in the miracles which he is recorded to have performed, signs that point to the presence of God among us. But more importantly, we cannot ignore that fact that Jesus gave his whole being as the incarnate Word of God, giving his life on the cross for our redemption.

When he was speaking, in part he was pointing to the cross, where his flesh was beaten and stripped apart, his blood was shed for our sins, yours and mine, as he became sin for us and washed us clean, then was resurrected so we could become new creatures and have new life. How? By living in Jesus. Only through Jesus. Only through the Word and the Spirit.

So we understand this passage as being more symbolic and referring to both the crucifixion and the Eucharist. We have come to realize that Jesus is not asking us to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood, as if we were cannibals, in order to know God’s redeeming grace and live in the faith and hope of eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Quite frankly, that would be hard to do, given the centuries since Jesus gave his life for our redemption.

This is a side note, but one of the things I find amusing about certain other denominations is relics of saints and things like that they have, even the cross of Jesus. You know how many splinters of the cross have been sold? How many bones of saints? They would make up a whole lot more than one cross or one saint.

It’s not literal in that sense, but it’s still literal in one sense. Jesus is the Word of God, the incarnate Word. And we still have that Word with us today [holds up Bible]. Jesus is the Word of God. We need to partake of the Word of God. “Give us this day our daily bread,” each and every day.

We’re not supposed to, as I said earlier, pop it in and swallow it. We can’t just turn our Bibles open to anything, and say, “Let’s see…” [Opens Bible at random and begins to read.] “The descendants of Hobab, the Kenite, and Moses’ father-in-law went up with the people of Judah from the City of Palms to the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negev near Arad. Then they went and settled with the Amalekites.” Whew – that was a lot of words.

We can’t do that. We have to gnaw on it. We have to chew on it. We have to process it. How? Through the Holy Spirit, asking for the Holy Spirit’s intervention, the Holy Spirit’s filling, the Holy Spirit’s presence, giving us the wisdom and eyes to see. It is only through feeding on the Word of God that we grow and mature as Christians. The good Word.

You know, Americans on the whole are much larger than the rest of the world, and I’m not talking about this here [gestures to belly]. I’m talking about height and general size, and health. Do you know why that is? It’s because we get to eat more meat. We get to eat healthier foods than most of the rest of the world, but particularly meat. Some of us may have meat every single day and even twice a day. Most other places are lucky to have it once or twice a week.

If we want to be healthy, we have to have the meat of the Word, each and every day. We can’t separate ourselves from it. And it’s not enough to just have it here on Sunday – though I am ever so thankful that everyone comes here on Sunday. Tell me, how many of you could survive eating once a week? (I have enough stockpiled here that I probably could for a while.) No, we couldn’t, could we? And even if we did survive somehow, we certainly wouldn’t be healthy. We would have malnutrition. We would have illnesses. It’s not any different spiritually. If you want to be one with Christ, if you want to be living in God’s presence, you need to be in the Word every single day.

This is hard. The people who heard this in John 6 said, “This is a hard saying,” and many of them fell away. They weren’t followers, they were fans. They loved Jesus’ miracles. We talked about that a little last week. They were there for the show. They were there to be given the rules. They didn’t understand what Jesus said, in the process, because they couldn’t wrap their minds around it. So they left.

How many of us are fans rather than followers? How many of us would fall away if we heard Jesus really saying these words to us? Because it’s hard. It’s hard to be a follower of Jesus. This is a hard saying, and this is a hard question. But you know what? Jesus asked hard questions. Jesus gave hard sayings.

That’s what it means to be a disciple. My challenge for you, my prayer for you, is that you would ask this hard question. Are we eating of Jesus’ flesh through the Word of God each and every day? Are we partaking of the blood of His Spirit in our prayer life, in our worship, in our devotions? Do we even want to think about it? I hope you do. And I pray that your answer will be yes.

Are we cannibals? Not in the literal sense of the word. But we can’t do it without Jesus.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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