Sunday’s gospel lesson on August 16 from John 6 was about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood in order to have new life. It’s a pretty disgusting thought that caused many of his followers to desert. Carried into the liturgical language of the early Church, it caused some critics to accuse Christians of cannibalism. Many modern day denominations deliberately avoid any language that would imply eating flesh and drinking blood, treating Holy Communion as an infrequent memorial. Eucharistic churches are known to have strangers express revulsion at the idea of the flesh and blood of Jesus being present in the bread and wine of Communion. A few have told me that it is the one thing they cannot abide about our theology.
All of that was going through my head as I prepared for a sermon yet to be written. Was there, I wondered, a more acceptable example of new life brought into being by the consumption of one’s body and blood, and there is.
Maybe only women who have borne a child can fully appreciate it, but isn’t that what happens in the womb? A woman gives of her body and blood to bring the potential of embryonic life into the fulness of personhood. That’s the way new human life comes into being, and there isn’t another way. What if Jesus was trying to help his followers understand something like that?
Remember way back in the winter months when we read about Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask about new life. What did Jesus tell him? “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The eating of Jesus’ flesh and the drinking of his blood is to be enfolded in the womb of God being nourished by the very essence of God until we are ready to be born into new life that is as much greater and more fully human than an embryo is to a new born baby.
Those of us in the Eucharistic tradition perhaps understand the nourishment we are receiving in a more viscerally materialistic way than others do. We believe, even if we don’t always understand, that in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are absorbing into our very being the physical presence of God as the necessary nourishment for our growth into new life. Having said that, I have no doubt that the Spiritual womb of God can, and does, enfold and nourish all of creation, each part of it according to its own needs. I don’t need to know how that works, nor do I need to know what sort of new birth will take place for the parts of creation that do not follow my tradition. What I do know is that our birth into new life cannot come from any source other than the source of life itself, and that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh that has brought that source of life into face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, blood-to-blood communion with our lives.
Being born again is a popular topic in contemporary Christian conversation, but I suspect the kind of rebirth Jesus and Nicodemus talked about was of a different order. To be sure, we can claim being born again through baptism, and of course there are many who claim to be born again through their acceptance of Christ as their personal savior. I’ve never found the latter to be persuasive, but if it works for them it’s OK with me. However, I’m more inclined to believe that when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again, he was talking about being born into a new life beyond this life in God’s immediate presence. And there is no other way to be born again than to be nourished in the womb of God by God’s flesh and blood. Of course these are human words using human examples for that which no human word or example can suffice, but it’s the best we, or at least I, can do for the time being.