Body and Blood

Body and Blood

by the Rev. Tom Johnson of St. Michael's in Alturas

There was a nasty rumor circulating around the Roman Empire in the 1st Century that led people to despise Christians, and made it easier for authorities to persecute them. The rumor was that Christians were cannibals. Purportedly, when they met early in the morning of the first day of the week for their religious observances, they ate human bodies and drank human blood.

It is not difficult to see how this rumor started. Anyone who overheard a Christian service could easily draw that conclusion. Perhaps they’d hear someone reading Paul’s words about the Lord’s Supper: “This is my this in remembrance of me. This is my this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Or they might have heard Jesus’ own words from John’s Gospel: “I tell you plainly: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Shocking... to the outsider!

For the outsider, there were two problems here. First the apparent sound of cannibalism. But perhaps more significant, there was the complication of the kind of meat that was typically consumed at that time.

People regularly ate the meat that had been first offered as a sacrifice to a god. In the Roman world, most of the meat available at the butcher shops had been first offered in a sacrifice. Often it was the only meat available. What is more, if there was a choice between sacrificial meat and unblessed meat, most people (apart from the Jews) would choose the sacrificial meat every time. It was the preferred meat. The Prime cut, if you will.

The widely held view was that when meat had been offered to a God, something of that God’s power was added to the meat. It would nourish your body better than secular meat. It would also nourish your soul as well as your body. Your life would be linked in fellowship with the god to whom this meat had been offered.

So, when John tells the people in the wider Roman world about Jesus, he deliberately chooses material that picks up some of the local sacrificial understanding. “Eat my flesh” suggests that this is the sacred product of a costly sacrifice to a mighty God. The blessing of the one God of heaven and earth rests on this Jesus. Eat this holy Bread and you are in fellowship with Christ and with God. You “consume” your God. Eat this flesh and you will have the limitless life of the one mighty God within your small life. John risks the charge of cannibalism to make the point about the unique quality of the sanctified, sacrificial body of Jesus given for us. It is truly the holiest of Mysteries.

Today we still celebrate this Lord’s Supper, the Mystery. As we Christians come together to eat the bread from the Lord’s Table, the fullness of the Body of Christ is present and enters into the recipient. We feed ourselves on Christ. The recipient becomes the communicant; a person actually in communion with the fullness of the Lord.

This sense of Mystery is amplified by the use of the words “drink my blood.” Both for Jews and many non-Jews, it was forbidden to use the blood from any sacrifice. The blood was regarded as belonging exclusively to God. Indeed, the blood was thought to contain the life-force of God. To drink it or to consume it in any way would be seen as utter sacrilege.

When John speaks of Jesus saying: “Drink my blood” the audience would have been shocked. It would seem like stealing that which belonged exclusively to God. But John obviously thought the offense was worth it. Through this Christ whose blood most truly belongs to God, we receive the very life of God. Through Christ God gives us himself. Through his blood our mortal lives, which are subject to decay and death, are gathered up into the eternal flow of the life of God.

In Holy Communion, it is not something secondary we receive. Not something second-rate that God offers us. It is “very God of very God.” It is God’s own life-force that flows into our lives, nourishes our nerve cells and brains, bearing fruit in our thoughts and feelings, our worshiping and working, our playing or sleeping. Christ gives us his total being -- nothing less than that.

You know the common saying: “We are what we eat.” Never is that so true as when we eat and drink from Christ’s table. This is the ultimate food and drink. The glorious Mystery that reshapes our lives. The holiest thing imaginable is taking place in common creatures like us.

Unfortunately, one of the saddest aspects of Christian behavior, I believe, is that the Lord’s Table, where we are meant to be one, is the very place where different streams of Christianity separate! And the thing that separates us is doctrine. There are differing understandings of the Eucharist which have been formulated into doctrine, and fixed like cement.

The early Christians didn’t have this problem. Not because they were so loving that it did not arise. They were no more loving than we are. In fact, they were a contentious bunch, who brought some stern rebukes from the Apostle Paul. Yet they did not have this problem of separation at the Lord’s Table because doctrine had not yet been carefully formulated and approved by church councils as being “the only truth.”

They believed that Jesus had told his disciples: "Do this in remembrance of me." They believed that he said “This is my body, this is my blood.” They did what he had asked. They shared the bread and wine without having to give assent to a particular explanation in words of what was happening. There was no authorized interpretation which either admitted you to the holy meal or kept you out.

As the centuries have rolled on, we have tried to reduce the holiest of Mysteries to words. As a result some churches ban certain other Christians from the Table, not because they don’t love the Lord, but because they cannot embrace a particular “true” doctrine concerning the Holy Table. The Roman Catholics use one set of approved words, the Anglicans another, the Lutherans another and other denominations have their own special phrases.

This appropriation of the sacrament by particular doctrinal words is disturbing, in my opinion. Words are never greater than the body and blood of Christ given for us. Words are pathetic little sounds in the Presence of the Mystery.

If Jesus is as totally right, as I absolutely believe him to be, then I cannot see how the words of any doctrine should prevent those who love the Lord from coming together as one family to his Holy Table. The love test is the only one. Not some syrupy notion of love, but love as revealed in all its passionate, costly beauty in the person of Jesus.

I know that some people plead their right to an “exclusive” Table on the grounds of integrity and truth. But what is this truth that makes one group’s doctrine superior to another? Is there any truth greater than Christ’s love?

The fullness of Christ, his body and blood, is here with us today. Any explanations which I, or the smartest theologians in the world, want to add, are always secondary. Any doctrines which our church or any other church holds, are also secondary. Here Christ is all in all. Here we are caught up in the Mystery. Here we are immersed in the vast ocean of God’s love.

Thanks be to God!


2 comments (Add your own)

1. Renee Crevelli-Gross wrote:
Wonderful article! Thank you.
p.s. I agree whole-heartedly!

Tue, August 28, 2012 @ 10:01 AM

2. Andy Stock wrote:
The article puts light on how we can unify. Perhaps to not allow interpretation of phrases that came from a completely different reality come between us. The spirit of a law is more important than the letter of the law.

Tue, August 28, 2012 @ 12:12 PM

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