I actually overheard this monologue some time ago. It was a mother and her baby playing together while they enjoyed the summer sunshine and fresh air. They were laughing and playing and having a wonderful time together. It brought joy to many hearts who were passing in the busy green space downtown somewhere. You couldn’t help but smile as you watched the obvious pleasure they were taking in each other that day. It made you celebrate God’s design for families, it made you appreciate the power of motherhood and the blessings that this child would receive being raised in such an atmosphere of expressive love.
But then as I drew closer I could hear what she was saying. "I’m going to eat you up," she said with a gleam in her eye. "Yes, I am. I’m just going to eat you right up." And she would put the baby’s hand in her mouth, or nibble on his toes, to the obvious pleasure of the child. He would squeal with joy and reach for her, even as she continued her threat. "I’m going to eat you right up." And would sometimes even make devouring sounds while she played - "Nyum, nyum, nyum" she would say.
Needless to say, I was disturbed. OK, it was, as I said, a long time ago. B.C., as we say around here - Before Children (or BK - Before Kids, or BO - Before Offspring (but that gets problematic too)). Having children changes all sorts of things. You think differently once children are a part of the mix. Stuff that is disturbing to you suddenly makes sense when you have children. Things that you never in a million years thought you could or would do, now are fairly commonplace. At the very least language changes. You say and think things you would never say in another context. "I’m going to eat you up" made perfect sense that sunny afternoon.
But I didn’t know that then. It happened, as I said before I had children. And in fact, it was before I had fallen in love. At least love like I know now, love like I am blessed to experience. That too changes language. That too changes perspective.
The Gospel of John is full of the language of love. And if you take it out of that context, if you remove the relationships fundamental to the story presented here it doesn’t make much sense. On the surface it is disturbing. Like the passage for this weekend. Take a look:
John 6:51-58 am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
See what I mean? Before you go saying "well, it is obvious what he is talking about," let me give away a hint to next week’s reading and remind you that everyone around him at the time was deeply disturbed by these words. There were those who simply didn’t understand. Some of those closest to him were in that category. And there were those who were offended by these words. Offended and disgusted and ready to call for his death. Which was part of what he was saying.
But only part. Jesus was here offering his literal flesh and his literal blood. He knew what the rest would only discover later, that this faith, this relationship that he was offering to the world was going to cost him everything. The cost was going to be exacted from his own body. He would pay in pounds of flesh and in liters of blood. And here he is saying that he is offering this sacrifice as a gift, to any and to all who would taste the life that he brings. He hands over his flesh and his blood, he gives it up willingly.
That in itself would be hard to take. It is disturbing that someone is so willing to give away so much, to suffer so much on our behalf. It is troubling that he is so willing to endure such pain for us. Our modern - or postmodern - sensibilities are agitated by this sentiment, and worse, we are disgusted by such an idea. Even some of those who purport to be followers of Jesus Christ are known to say such things as "I don’t need all this blood, I don’t need such a sacrifice. I’m doing all right on my own, thank you." Which only goes to show that they haven’t understood the language, or the need. Or the opportunity. Or the love.
That’s the other side of these words in the sixth chapter of John, this is love talk. This is that mother and baby cuddling on a blanket on a sunny summer day. This is the love talk that runs out of words to express the depth of feeling, the depth of desire to be connected, to be united, never separated at least on the spiritual level and falls back on talk of devouring. "I’m going to eat you up."
In a few hours I am going to Aldersgate to preside over a wedding ceremony. This young couple took it upon themselves to rewrite the wedding ceremony, so I will be reading a combination of the traditional words, and some other words found on the internet (God bless the internet) and some that were written by the bride and the groom. Now, normally when this happens I get very nervous. Often the new creation leaves much to be desired as those young and in love struggle to put into words the kind of commitment our faith calls for. I have often been forced to radically edit what couple come up with. But this case was a surprising one. The words they cobbled together are beautiful and even more overtly Christian that the traditional words we use - if that is possible. It was as if what drove them was the desire to express not just their love for each other but also their faith. And at least three times there is a reference to the biblical injunction to "become one flesh." Even setting aside the sexual connotations from such a phrase, it is almost embarrassingly intimate. This bride and this groom want their family and friends and even their church and their Lord to know that they want to eat each other up, they want to consume and be consumed in their love for each other.
We’ve taken these words from the Gospel of John and turned them into a rather formal ritual we call the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is usually done with solemnity and habit and tradition. And often without too much thought, I’m afraid. Now, while I in no way want to diminish the sacrifice, and indeed the suffering on our behalf, I can’t help but wonder if we were to approach the bread and the cup, the body and body like that mother who wanted to devour her child out of love and the joy of relationship what would happen to our experience? If we approached the table like the couple this afternoon who comes to devour and to be devoured, to be made into one flesh with the object of our love how might that taste of a crumb of bread dipped into a chalice of juice change into something else?
"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them" said Jesus. And our ritual, liturgical response? "I’m gonna eat you up. Yes, I am."
Thanks be to God.