For those of us using the lectionary, the next two Sundays are what I call cannibal Sundays. They are Sundays that I hope we get few visitors coming in to see what Christianity is all about. Let’s face it, John’s language about Jesus requiring the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood seems pretty strange. Even otherwise loyal disciples couldn’t take it and turned away. What could possibly have been more repulsive to them? The devil himself was sometimes known as “the flesh eater.” Moreover, the laws of Moses were clear – no blood is to be eaten under any circumstance. The blood of every living creature was sacred to God. Why then would it be surprising that early Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism, as in this famous citation from a Roman commentator on the new religion:
Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.
From Minucius Felix, Octavius, R. E. Wallis, trans. in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, N. Y.: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), Vol. 4, pp. 177-178.
I’ve experienced a few visitors who loved everything about Christianity but this part of John’s gospel sent them running for the exit. Even life long members of the church wonder at the language of these passages. For the most part, they hope the preacher focuses on the Epistle reading, or simply close their ears and wait for the return of sensible, no-nonsense Mark. I’m supposed to be a reasonably well educated and well read theologian of some kind, and I wonder what the heck John was thinking.
Ray Brown, among others, believes that John 6:52-59 is authentic Eucharistic Jesus language associated with early traditions of the Last Supper dialogue. But John does not have a Eucharistic scene in his recollection of that last meal, so it is likely that a later editor, not wanting to lose it, stuck it into the bread of life dialogue of John 6. Considering that John 6 makes perfect sense without 52-59 lends considerable credence to that idea. So the language of 52-59 is really Eucharistic not cannibalistic. Try to work that into a teaching sermon for wannabe Christians if you can!
It brings me back to my question. What the heck was John, or a later editor, thinking? Didn’t he recognize right away how difficult this would be to explain? Maybe it was just ordinary editorial incompetence. I certainly see enough of that in our city’s local daily. Maybe there were local conditions among John’s people that made this passage easily understood. After all, they already had at least one of the synoptics, and maybe all three. They already knew the story of Jesus quite well, including the setting of the Eucharist. John’s gospel had no intention of repeating all of that, being more focused on demonstrating Jesus as Word of God made flesh.
For my part, I would prefer to introduce seekers to Christianity through a different door, and will spend the next few weeks explaining these peculiar passages to a very confused congregation of life long believers.