Sermon: Gnaw and Chew
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
1 Kings 2.10-12; 3.3-14; Psalm 111; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
Last week I noted that John 6 evokes some tough questions: First, where is the reference to a wrathful God who demands Jesus as a sacrificial atonement for our sins? Second, if we eat of Jesus flesh and drink of his blood, does that make us Christian cannibals? I am sure that many young people have raised the second question in confirmation classes, and I suspect most have been told they must have faith – to simply believe in what Jesus said rather than wrestle with the details. I recognize the need for faith, but I also recognize the need for tough-minded investigation of the text.
Given our familiarity with these passages, it is hard for us to understand how shocking, how offensive, were Jesus’ words. Let’s strive to get some sense of that by looking at a few Old Testament passages.
In Genesis 9, following the flood, God tells Noah and his sons, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Vs. 3-4; NRSV).
In sacrificial practices, the fat and the blood were reserved for the Lord – the fat was to be burned on the altar; the blood was to be sprinkled upon the altar. In Leviticus we read, “If any of you eats the fat from an animal of which an offering by fire may be made to the Lord, you who eat it shall be cut off from your kin. You must not eat any blood whatever . . . Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin” (7.25-26; NRSV). As Malina and Rohrbaugh note: “Thus, the prohibitions of fat and blood (from human consumption) single out those organs ... that serve as the seat of life. Life is from God alone and belongs to God alone. To ingest fat or blood is to strive to be like God. Page 136” (http://www.holytextures.com/2009/07/john-6-51-58-year-b-pentecost-august-14-august-20-sermon.html).
Consider this passage from Ezekiel 39 in which the armies of Gog have been vanquished and the corpses of the fallen are presented to the birds of the air as a sacrificial feast:
17 As for you, mortal, thus says the Lord God: Speak to the birds of every kind and to all the wild animals: Assemble and come, gather from all around to the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast on the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. 18 You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth . . . (Ezekiel 39.17-18; NRSV).
Human flesh and blood are herein to be consumed by the vultures, the birds of the air, and the wild animals.
Furthermore, the NRSV translation, and for that matter, several translations that I checked, do not differentiate the Greeks verbs phagein and trogein. Although I am not a Greek scholar, my research reveals the Greek is far more explicit—it communicates two very different senses of eating. Phagein is used 158 times in the New Testament while trogein is used only six times – four of which occur in this passage from John. Trogein conveys the sense of noisily chewing or gnawing on something (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/proper15b/). Imagine a dog delightedly gnawing on a bone. The dog gnaws until every scrap of fat, meat, and marrow are consumed. The dog gets everything it can! Woe be to anyone who gets between a dog and its bone!
With this distinction in mind, let’s substitute “chew/gnaw” for every instance of trogein in this passage while retaining “eat” for phagein. This renders the passage as follows:
51 I 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 chew/gnaw on 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 chew/gnaw on 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 chews/gnaws on 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 chews/gnaws on this bread will live forever” (http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/joh6.pdf).
Well, we can chew on that for a while!
We generally interpret this passage in light of the Eucharist – the partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in memory of his death and resurrection. The multitude would not have understood or interpreted the passage in this manner, for they knew nothing of the words of institution. The multitude found this so offensive that they began to leave Jesus. We will look more closely at this next week.
The exegetical notes to one of the sources I regularly consult, the Girardian Lectionary, presents us with an observation and raises some questions. The observation: “According to Raymond Brown (John, The Anchor Bible), the Aramaic phrase . . . “eater of flesh” is the title of the devil. This passage [John 6.51-58] is most often taken as a reference to the Eucharist, and it no doubt is, to some extent (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/proper15b/). Now the questions: “But shouldn’t the first reference be to the cross? If “eater of flesh” bears a Satanic reference (and doesn’t the switch to trogein support a Satanic reference?), then should we be first thinking about the Eucharist in this passage? Or should we first think of the cross (e.g., as a self-sacrifice to the Satanic powers), with our understanding of the Eucharist thereby deepened by our understanding of the cross” (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/proper15b/).
Jesus frequently speaks of himself metaphorically – “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the door,” “I am the way, the truth and the life,” “I am the vine.” Recognizing Christ’s self-sacrifice to Satanic powers, I submit that Jesus is metaphorically speaking of our gnawing and chewing on his body, of our drinking his blood. As noted before, the psalmist encourages us, “O taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34.8; NRSV). When we taste and see that the Lord is good, we want more; as we partake of Christ’s nature, we are transformed such that we become more like Christ. But Jesus wants us to do more than taste – he wants us to feed on the bread of heaven which came down for us. This reminds me of the old hymn, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou art mighty; Hold me with thy powerful hand; Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more.
Jesus wants us to gnaw and chew; Jesus invites us to consider the implications of his self-sacrifice for our own lives. The Cross without the Eucharist reminds us only of our violence. But the Eucharist without the Cross leaves us with the impression of cheap grace. God’s grace is not cheap. We must remember Christ’s self-sacrificial love calls us, and shows us how, to live our lives for God and others – we do not have to participate in the senseless violence of this world.