Sunday XX B 2012
For the past few weeks I have been insisting on the frequent use by rabbis of ‘bread’ as an image or metaphor for knowledge of God, which is true wisdom. The same thinking underlies today’s first reading from the book of Proverbs. Wisdom has built herself a house […] she has slaughtered her beasts, prepared her wine, laid her table. She then sends out her servants to invite guests to her banquet: Come and eat my bread, drink the wine I have prepared! Leave your folly and you will live. If bread is knowledge of God, then folly or ignorance is hunger. Wisdom is calling on the foolish to learn and so to walk in the ways of perfection.
Section by section during these last weeks we have been reading the Bread of Life discourse in St John’s gospel. I have suggested that in those early sections Jesus was using the word ‘bread’ as the rabbis did to mean knowledge of God. Anyone who understands the Law and the Prophets, and abides by their teaching, is pleasing to God and so eligible for eternal life. In talking like that, Jesus was reinforcing what the prophets before him had taught. He did, however, go further when he said: I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. His hearers may not have noticed any sort of claim to divinity there. Perhaps he was just saying that he could teach them all they needed to know in order to pleas God.
But what he actually says in today’s passage is this: I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world. Now this is a startling claim, and his Jewish hearers were duly startled. But there was more to come: I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you. Do I need to remind you? In Jewish thought, blood was the essence of human and animal life. You don’t drink blood. When animals are butchered for table or for sacrifice, the blood is drained out of them. Jesus says nothing to calm the repugnance his words provoke. Cannibalism has no place in Jewish religion. Instead he continues calmly: Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
With these words Jesus shifts the meaning of ‘bread’ from the image of wisdom to the Eucharistic. I, for one, am glad that we are not asked to consume anything that looks, smells or tastes like flesh or blood. Nonetheless, the Church believes and teaches that Jesus’ words mean what they say, and that in the Eucharist we do indeed receive his body and blood. My favourite Johannine scholar, Raymond E. Brown has written this neat phrase: “The gift of life comes through the believing reception of the sacrament”. For this is what Jesus goes on to say: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. Then he reverts to the bread imagery: This is the bread come down from heaven; not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.
I want to go back for a moment to a detail near the beginning of this 6th chapter of St John. The evangelist situates the incidents he is about to relate in time: It was shortly before the Jewish feast of Passover. Now if I ask you to tell me what you remember about Passover, I think you will recall that the feast commemorates the freeing of the Jewish people, led by Moses, from slavery in Egypt. In the course of their flight they were led dry-foot through the Red Sea, and later they were fed with manna – bread from heaven – as they journeyed through the desert. So John tells us that he’s relating events which happened near that festival. The first of them was the feeding of a great crowd with just five loaves and two fishes. Then, as the disciples – whom he had sent ahead by boat – were struggling against a strong wind and waves, Jesus came walking to them across the water. You might call it a Red Sea moment.
The escape from Egypt freed the Hebrews from slavery. Jesus, like a new Moses, has come on earth to free mankind from the consequences of sin. He will complete that Passover in his passion, death and resurrection. His hearers would not have grasped all that at the time. It was after the Ascension, and the receipt of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that members of the Church began to understand the enormity of what Christ had done for them.
Christians realised that although they were a minority, they were in the public eye. It was therefore important that their lives should make good publicity for their faith. Thus Paul writes – as we heard just now – to the Ephesians: Be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people. This may be a wicked age, but your lives should redeem it […] Do not drug yourselves with wine […] Sing the words and tunes of the psalms when you are together, and go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God. The Roman administrator, Pliny the Younger, in one of his letters wrote that the Christians meet together “on a certain day before daylight to sing a song with responses to Christ”. That is to say that the authorities knew about Christians and kept an eye on them. As a matter of fact Pliny was not very impressed by them. I expect you have heard, as I have, some people seize upon the faults of a few Christians, attribute those failings to the whole community, and speak ill of us. For that reason, Paul’s advice to the Ephesians continues to be relevant to ourselves down to the present day.