20th Sunday in Ordinary time

Cannibalism is forbidden in Scotland. Or so I believe, but I didn’t dare to look it up on the internet just to check, in case it were flagged up and the authorities were informed. I really didn’t fancy a long, serious chat with the police about my eating habits. In that respect, there’s no difference between modern Scotland and ancient Israel at the time of Jesus. So, I think we can imagine the astonishment and indignation of Jesus’ audience when he solemnly proclaimed: ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.’ We might be tempted to think dismissively of ‘those silly Jews’ who didn’t get it – but don’t be too hasty with your judgment. Imagine if a man you genuinely like and admire – like me (I’m only joking!) – told you that he was someone far superior to Jesus, and offered you his body for you to eat, how would you react? What would you think of him? Absolutely! Jesus’ audience was getting increasingly confused when he said this, but he offered neither explanation nor clarification. He did exactly the opposite; Jesus seemed intent on digging himself deeper and deeper into a proverbial hole. If this gospel reading is to be of any use to us, we must a) put this speech of Jesus’ into a wider context, and b) examine it more closely.

Anyone who has read the four gospels has certainly noticed that St John’s gospel is significantly different from the so-called ‘synoptic’ gospels ascribed to St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke. While the latter are quite ‘action-packed’, St John’s gospel is ‘slow-paced’. It contains a good number of long speeches that are sometimes quite challenging to read and understand. The synoptic gospels were ‘tools’ for recruiting new followers and believers. The gospel of St John was written later than the other three; it was addressed to well-established Christian communities, and its main purpose was catechetical. In his curriculum St John wanted to reinforce strong theological foundations for the already existing Christian celebrations and rituals as practiced in those early communities. Noticeably, St John’s syllabus is set strongly in opposition to ‘the Jews’ – in his gospel he uses that phrase as a derogatory, even degrading, term. Which is astonishing, because John himself was a Jew, as was virtually every follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry and for some time afterwards. Sadly, many Christians over the centuries have been guilty of using the gospel to justify their antisemitism; that just proved their ignorance. Let me explain: St John uses the phrase ‘the Jews’ as a generic term for the opponents of the Christian faith. The latter is rooted in Judaism and derives directly from it, but it wasn’t long before Christians and Jews drifted apart; and by the time of the writing of St John’s gospel, adherents of the two faiths were openly hostile towards each other. If St John had written his gospel in the 17th century in Scotland, he might have used as a derogatory term either ‘the Protestants’ or ‘the Catholics’ – it depends which side he would have taken.

‘The Jews’ wasn’t the only group against whom St John argued in his gospel, though certainly that was the only one that he openly labelled. St John presented theological and scriptural arguments against various splinter groups within the Christian community itself. At that time, it was a boiling cauldron of ideas, interpretations and tensions at every level and in every aspect of communal life. St John addressed many of those arguments in his gospel by effectively writing Jesus’ speeches. Most likely they were based on actual speeches, events and encounters of Jesus. But those prolonged and deeply theological lectures are not ‘word-by-word records’ taken verbatim by a stenographer sitting beside Jesus. Those speeches are genuinely Jesus’ own in spirit and in meaning; but in a strictly literal sense, they are not.

In this particular speech we’ve been listening to over the last three Sundays (including today’s), St John dealt with various interpretations of the Eucharist and how to understand the phrase ‘the Body and Blood of Christ.’ Some argued for a purely symbolic or metaphorical meaning. St John, however, insisted on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The consecrated bread is the actual Body of Christ and the consecrated wine is the actual Blood of Christ. That’s why there was no stepping back by Jesus in his speech in the face of his audience’s exasperation. St John made the link between the Eucharist and Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The closing sentence in last Sunday’s gospel: ‘the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world’ refers to that one, single, carnal sacrifice made by Jesus on Good Friday. The sacramental, bloodless form of that offering was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, the night before. Since his resurrection Jesus is present in each and every Holy Communion, offering his Body and Blood for the life of the world. ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. Whoever eats me will draw life from me.’ For St John, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is non-negotiable. There is one very important aspect to St John’s argument. The Body and Blood of Christ are not of his dead body, a carcass. They are the Body and Blood of the glorified Jesus, who is simultaneously alive and life-giving.

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