The following is a reflection on John 6:56-69, the Gospel lesson appointed for Proper 16B, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. This post is from the tenth chapter of my book, “Going to Hell, Getting Saved.”
Jesus told the people that his flesh was real food and that his blood was true drink—and to eat his flesh and drink his blood meant eternal life.
And people stopped following him.
The disciples grumbled about how hard a teaching this was. Jesus had to ask the disciples if they wanted to walk away too.
So, what was the big deal?
The answer (to their disgust), and the point Jesus was making, lies deep in the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus chapter seventeen contains a forceful and simple law about how the People of God were to handle blood:
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.
Do you notice that when God lays down this law there is no wiggle room whatsoever?
You don’t eat blood. End of discussion.
There was no circumstance where that law can be broken or swept aside. To ignore this law means that you are cut off from God forever.
This divine commandment was deeply ingrained in the daily life of the Israelite. In fact, this commandment governed what was possible for lunch, and what wasn’t, for every day of their lives. It was such a basic law, and so much a part of the ancient Jewish people, that it’s still a cornerstone of modern Jewish eating. A slaughterhouse in America that produces meat that bears the identification as “kosher” still follows the basic laws of Leviticus 17.
So, when Jesus said that in order to inherit eternal life you must drink his blood, he was using incendiary language that seemed to go against a millenium of biblical teaching. In other words, this teaching was like nails on a chalkboard for an ancient Jew.
In their minds it would have put Jesus’ religious credentials into serious question.
It would have made some of them question whether they could still follow him. Could they subject their children to this blasphemous, anti-biblical teaching?
And so many turned away from Jesus. Even Jesus’ closest followers did a double-take.
However, today, for most Christians, these words don’t have the same sting.
Some Christians, and especially those from the more “Sacramental” and liturgical denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, etc), hear in Jesus’ words a direct reference to the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. For Christians who participate in the breaking of bread and sharing of a cup of wine each and every Sunday, this teaching from the sixth chapter of John is an obvious allusion to the Sacrament they know so well.
As an Episcopal priest myself who stands at an Altar each Sunday celebrating and consuming the Eucharist, this teaching strikes a deep chord.
And yet, I seriously doubt that what Jesus is saying here is akin to this: merely receive Holy Communion and you receive eternal life.
Mostly because of this passage, many scholars and theologians identify the Gospel of John as the “most Eucharistic” of the four gospels. Between the Bread of Life discourse and the feedings of the multitudes, there’s enough evidence here to make their claim ring true. However, it is helpful to know that there is no story of the Last Supper in John. On the night before Jesus’ death, he gets up from the table to wash his disciples’ feet. We might assume that the table Jesus got up from had the remains of the Last Supper on it, but John doesn’t say anything of it.
And, with all the emphasis on faith and belief in the Gospel of John, I have a hard time believing that Jesus is saying that participating in a liturgical action is the doorway to Heaven here.
The source of disgust in Jesus’ listeners is God’s clear prohibition of consuming blood in Leviticus 17.
And I believe that Leviticus 17 is exactly what Jesus was getting at, just by a different route.
For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.
Blood wasn’t forbidden territory for being dirty, but for being holy.
A good portion of the Book of Leviticus concerns itself with what to do with the blood and body parts of sacrificial animals. When animals were sacrificed to God in the rituals that are carefully laid out in Leviticus, various portions of the carcass were given back to the person making the offering, given to the priests to consume, or burned on the Altar and totally given over to God.
But, the same thing always happened with the blood: it was always given to God. Usually it was poured onto the Altar directly. Why? Because God considered it holy. And God considered it holy because it was the blood of the animal that embodied its very life.
The life force of the creature is its blood.
Because God is the giver of all life, life is holy. Life is sacred. And it’s not to be misused or mistreated—and certainly not consumed.
It belongs to God, and God alone.
So, when Jesus says that his followers are to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls.
And by pouring his eternal-life-blood into our life, we then are the recipients of eternal life ourselves.
Because Jesus’ life is coursing in our veins.