'Jesus said, “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.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.”'
--John 6: 51-58
Let’s unpack one of the most difficult passages in all of the Gospels, shall we? How difficult is it? So difficult that next week—yes, we’ve got one more week of this Bread of Life stuff—many of Jesus’ own followers will abandon him because, they say, it’s too hard for them to understand. Well, we don't shy away from the hard stuff. So let's dig in!
The language that Jesus uses about eating his flesh and drinking his blood might sound familiar because it reflects the language we use at the altar in our prayer before sharing Holy Communion—or Holy Eucharist, or the Great Thanksgiving, or the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper, whatever you want to call it. Take, eat, this is my body; drink this all of you, this is my blood. The Gospel of John is unique in that it doesn’t have a story of Jesus saying these words at the Last Supper with his disciples—something that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have and that Paul even recounts in his First Letter to the Corinthians—but this moment, the Bread of Life discourse that follows the feeding of the 5000, serves the same purpose. If you are to be full participants with me, Jesus is saying, you must eat my flesh and drink my blood. The point being made is the same one that he gives in the Last Supper, the same one we recount each time we share Communion together.
But here is where the teaching gets difficult, the piece that drives some of those followers to leave. Many in that crowd that day heard Jesus say eat my flesh and drink my blood and thought CANNIBALISM! One of the most common criticisms of early Christians, which set them up against virtually every other faith-based group, was that folks thought they were actual cannibals. "They eat flesh and drink blood," others whispered. That belief stuck with most non-Christians until the 4th century when Christianity came out of the shadows and was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. But there still remained a lingering question: if Jesus wasn't talking about literal cannibalism, what then was he talking about? The church’s answer was a doctrine we call transubstantiation. Stay with me now (especially if you're a Protestant)!
I suspect most of us have at least heard the term, but there is a good chance that we don’t fully understand its meaning or that what we think we know is actually incorrect. Since the 2nd century, with works such as the Didache—which is the earliest non-biblical Christian text and something of a proto prayer book—and the writings of Justin Martyr and St. Ignatius of Antioch, Christians affirmed that Jesus was present in the bread and wine of Communion. It was just a given fact about the faith. But, it wasn’t until an argument between two monks in the 9th century named Radburtus and Ratramnus—yes, those are their real names—that the question of how exactly Jesus’ presence was possible came to the forefront of Christian conversations.
Radburtus and Ratramnus....maybe.
Radburtus said that Jesus actually replaced the bread and wine, while Ratramnus said that he was only figuratively in present. So the church dug deeper into this question. By the time of the Great Schism in the 11th century, the term transubstantiation was in full use. The doctrine was born out of the predominant worldviews of the time, particularly how people thought about matter. Those thoughts could be traced back to Aristotle, who, as you may recall, declared that all matter is composed of two characteristics: its accidents and its substance. Accidents are outward signs that help us recognize a person or object, but these outward signs can be changed; for example, eye color, hair length, or height. Substance, on the other hand, cannot be changed and is the thing that we cannot see, that which is deep down at the core that makes a person or a thing who or what they are, like the soul. Accidents change, but substance does not. This was a very common, normal thing that everyone understood. The miracle of Communion, therefore, is that the opposite happens, and it is the substance that is changed. In our prayer, through the participation of both the priest and people and with the power of the Holy Spirit, the substance of the bread and wine are changed into that of Jesus, while the accidents remain the same, turning the natural order of matter on its head. In other words, we are still beholding the accidents of bread and wine (the look, the taste, the smell), but rather than taking in the substance of bread and wine we are taking in the substance of Jesus himself That is transubstantiation, the changing of one's substance, and to affirm that doctrine is to affirm an active engagement with the living Christ in this Sacrament.
For our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, this doctrine is a firmly held piece of their faith, as well as for many Episcopalians, even though the Episcopal Church does not officially use the word transubstantiation and instead, like Justin and Ignatius, simply affirms Jesus’ real presence in Holy Communion without having a dogmatic why for how that presence is conveyed—how very quaint and Anglican of us! Still, there are some churches born out of the Protestant Reformation that not only vehemently oppose the doctrine, but have gone so far as to demonize and viciously persecute those Christians who have held to it. In England alone some 300 individuals were killed for practicing Catholicism from 1534-1681, and even today there are members of the Body of Christ who believe that those of us who believe Jesus is actually in the meal—rather than simply seeing it as a memorial—are promoting a form of cannibalism. It’s sad. It's a complete misunderstanding of transubstantiation. And it's not what Jesus is teaching in his Gospel.
Saint John Southworth, an English Roman Catholic priest killed in 1654 (my wife's great-great-great-great-great-uncle)
From the earliest days of our faith, followers of Jesus heard these words about flesh and blood and knew them to be connected to the practice of Holy Communion. John's own community would've been steeped in the practice of Communion, seeing as how this Gospel is written some 70 years after Jesus' Resurrection. They knew, as we do still, the significance of calling this meal Communion, for it is in this meal that we commune with Jesus himself, which is why Christians have been participating in this Sacrament, this sacred meal, for 2000 years.
If we know anything about John's community and the Gospel it produced, we know that it does not use any of its words haphazardly. When we dig deeper ourselves and do a little biblical scholarship, we can see just how important active participation with Jesus really is in the Bread of Life discourse. Looking back over the last three weeks we see that the dominant verb within the discourse has been “believe,”a verb that does not imply actual, active participation. "Believe in me," is Jesus' response when the crowd asks what they must do, for example. But that changes here, where the dominant verbs are “eat” and “drink,” and "abide," action verbs, which call the people into an active participation with Jesus. It is not enough to believe that he is the bread of life, we must participate in the bread of life. It is not enough to believe Jesus' flesh is true food and his blood true drink, we must participate in them. And how do we do that? We do it through the Sacrament, where his substance, his life, mingles with our own.
Putting on our biblical scholars' hats again we notice something significant in Jesus' intentional instruction to drink his blood. By calling his followers to drink his blood Jesus is using an old Jewish metaphor that goes all the way back to the 9th chapter of Genesis; that is, that the blood of a creature represents its very life-force. This is why Jews are forbidden to ingest the blood of an animal, for to do so would be to mingle their lives with that of the animal. And so Jesus, using that metaphor and changing his verbiage is inviting the people there in Capernaum, and indeed us as well, to actively participate, by coming to the table and eating the bread of heaven and drinking from the cup of salvation, wherein we take in his very substance, his very nature, mingling his life, his flesh and blood, with our own. This is not to say that those who do not receive Communion cannot possibly know and love Jesus, but partaking of this holy meal binds us to Jesus in a unique way, and it is in this active participation that we abide in Jesus and he in us. As the Prayer of Humble Access reminds us:
"Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us."
--Book of Common Prayer, p. 338
Believing is important, but participation is what Jesus calls us into, participation in a relationship with him that begins in the waters of our baptism which graft us onto the Body of Christ, that is renewed each time we take in the body and blood of Christ in Communion with him, and that is continued each and everyday as we work together with Christ and one another to build up the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps you learned something about transubstantiation today that you didn't know before. Maybe you'll share that knowledge the next time someone gets their facts wrong on the subject! Regardless of where you stand on that doctrine, however, I pray that whenever you commune with our Lord in that sacred meal, that you will feel his presence mingle with your own, strengthening you to go and proclaim his Good News of hope and salvation to this broken world. Saint Ignatius called Holy Communion "the medicine of immortality." It is indeed that, for it is the Great Physician himself who invites us to the table to meet him and abide with him in this blessed Sacrament.