Proper 15(B): Irrationally Incarnational
By: The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews
“Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This appointed text is week four (of five) of John 6 in Year B, the “Olive Garden unlimited breadsticks” of the Revised Common Lectionary. This chapter from John is directly and indirectly why I am an Episcopalian and why I am a priest. I’m also fairly certain that I didn’t encounter this chapter from John, certainly not verses like these, until I was in college—and I grew up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible.
Today’s passage comes between Jesus saying that eating this bread, unlike eating manna, brings life eternal and the disciples saying that Jesus’ teaching is difficult to understand. This is a difficult teaching! It is mystical, spiritual, and irrational—but undeniably tangible, physical, earthy, and incarnational. Jesus is talking about heaven and eternal life, but he’s also talking about bread: a basic substance of human subsistence in almost every culture around the globe.
Jesus says that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven. Jesus says that whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Jesus says that the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. Then there are complaints and questions. The structure of John 6:51-58 is suspiciously similar to John 6:41-51, which may indicate that this is a different tradition of the Bread of Life discourse added to tease out and emphasize Eucharistic themes.
In the verses before this, there is no mention of blood. Furthermore, the requirement for reaching or having eternal life shifts in 51-58. Previously Jesus has talked about belief. (v. 35, 47) In this second, more clearly Eucharistic version of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus changes the standard saying, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (53)
John’s tone toward Jewish leadership and how the church has used that to enable anti-Semitism over time must be acknowledged whenever it arises. This is no exception, even as Jewish leaders serve as a counter point to Jesus, inviting him to elaborate on his flesh and blood in the tradition of rabbinical debate. Jewish leaders have complained (twice in this chapter) about Jesus saying that he brings the Bread of Life. He has now upped the ante that unless one engages in cannibalism, eating flesh and drinking blood (see Brown for why the Greek is not metaphor here)—against most social taboos across centuries, and anathema to his first century audience—one cannot have eternal life.
This is a difficult teaching! That’s probably why I never encountered it until college, despite growing up in a tradition that emphasized knowing the Bible. In these passages Jesus repeatedly describes his real flesh as real food, and his real blood as real blood. He says that by eating him his followers abide in him and he in them. It’s not rational, but it is incarnational. Eating—whether Jesus is eating or his followers are eating him—is an inherently embodied act. Jesus says it is this act that brings eternal life, and without this act, one has no life in themselves.
The irrational, mystical spirituality of this passage is probably why I didn’t encounter this text growing up in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition. Looking at the Eucharist as an act of works-righteousness, and not a sacramental gift of God’s grace, doesn’t leave a lot of room for the mysticism of how completing the action, feeding on Jesus’s true flesh and true blood, brings salvation. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Jesus’ direction to eat his flesh and drink his blood is deeply spiritual, but necessarily incarnational. There is a paradox here that modernist rationalism has difficulty with. There’s a willingness to engage the paradox of the incarnation itself, but a resistance to engage with the idea that the plain and ordinary bread could be the flesh of God made human. Better to ignore it…despite Jesus’ promise that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, his followers abide in him and he in them. This is a promise that stands, even if they don’t always have special, warm feelings. He promises to show up in Bread, to be a body, to be held in hands and tasted on tongues.
It was this promise of showing up, this assurance of ongoing relationship, this deep abiding, that brought me to The Episcopal Church through the Eucharist, and to the priesthood to say week after week, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” This isn’t manna that keeps you alive just as long as your body lasts. This is the true bread, the real bread of life, the bread that brings eternal life. It’s not praying a prayer, or getting a warm feeling. It’s showing up in a body and doing a basic human act: eating.
As an out, gay man who grew up in Alabama in a modernist, rational American Protestant tradition, this passage has not only brought me deeper into my faith and helped me find a tradition, it has helped me — like the way John uses the Jewish leaders in this text — invite others to wonder about their blind spots in their biblical knowledge, or to notice ways that they aren’t as literalist as they think they are.
As an out, gay man from Alabama I still encounter those wielding scripture in an effort to clobber my vocation and call. For the last number of years, however, when confronted (in varying degrees of friendliness) with those clobber passages, I ask the person opposite me what they do with John 6:51-58. Are they familiar with it? What do they read into (or read out of) it? Do they know it the way they know Romans 1, as they emphasize “the whole body of Scripture?”
Jesus saying that the only way to eternal life is to eat his flesh and drink is blood isn’t easy to understand; it is mystical and spiritual. Abiding in God by eating and drinking is also deeply incarnational. Feasting on Jesus’ Flesh and Blood and it yielding eternal life is irrationally incarnational.
 Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1966), 284-287.
The Rev. Joseph P. Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph-St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Washington. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their two cats Maggie and Stan. Joseph is an avid baker (but not eater of Olive Garden breadsticks) and enjoys lifting weights, trivia, show tunes, and refereeing very amateur adult soccer.