We are at a point in the Gospel of John where Jesus has recently healed a lame man on the Sabbath and angered the religious authorities, whom John calls "the Jews." So whenever you hear "the Jews" in the gospel of John know that he's not being anti-Semitic, it's just his term for talking about the religious authorities.
What else has Jesus done to get himself in trouble? Well, even more recently, Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The result of that great act of care and compassion is that Jesus developed a huge following of regular folks who want more miracles but he also gathered more enemies along the way as well.
Our text picks up with Jesus preaching in Capernum, his adult hometown, and his listeners don't necessarily like what they hear. They say to him things like, "Isn't this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then does he say, 'I have come down out of heaven?'" (6:42).
So if Jesus' words stir up the regular folks, you can imagine how they might really get under the skin of the religious authorities who demand some sort of proof, some sort of validating sign that would prove his claim to be the bread from heaven.
This is where we pick up our text, with Jesus speaking primarily to the religious authorities in provocative but polite terms. When that doesn't seem to get much of a rise out of them, Jesus uses shocking language.
Shock has always been a double-edged sword. On one edge there are those who shock for the attention it brings. Think about how Hollywood and the media try to out-do themselves just to get our attention. "We need more blood in the sequel!" "We need more salacious stories on the news!"
Then there's the other edge of the sword that seeks to shock us in an effort to wake us up or kick-start our stopped hearts by forcing us to come face-to-face with an important issue. Think about the pictures that came out of the Holocaust and the impact those shocking visuals had, and continue to have, on our lives.
So what's Jesus up to? He begins by talking about himself as the bread of life sent down from heaven. And, at first, his language is provocative, but polite. Jesus talks about the need for us to eat this bread from heaven if we want to live forever and that his flesh is this very bread. He uses the polite word "phage" which means "to eat" or "to partake of" or "to dine." But that doesn't get much of a rise out of the religious authorities. They think he's talking about cannibalism, they say to one another, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus ups the ante. He changes his language. He uses a shocking term, “trogon”, which means "to gnaw" or "to chew" or "to munch." It means "to eat like an animal at a trough!"
What in the world is Jesus up to? Why the shocking language?
I don't know about you, but I'm kind of with the religious authorities on this one. It does sound like cannibalism especially when you start talking about munching on his flesh like an animal. It's pretty confusing stuff.
A couple of things to keep in mind. The first is a theory regarding why Jesus uses such shocking language. What do we do when someone's heart stops? We get the defibrillator out and we shock them, right? We shock their heart back to life!
Jesus sees dead hearts in the lives of the religious authorities. If anyone should get what he's talking about, it's them. They are the learned ones, the educated ones, the theologians! They should understand Jesus' provocative, metaphorical language, but they don't. Their hearts have stopped. They need shocked.
The other thing that comes to mind also has to do with Jesus' choice to up the ante and use this shocking language. Maybe it's not so shocking after all? When I was a kid, I often came to the dinner table famished. My mother would say to me, "Slow down! Take human bites! Stop eating like an animal!" Have you ever seen teenagers devour a pizza? Thirty seconds and it's gone.
I think another reason Jesus uses such shocking language is to say the bread of life sent from heaven is for the hungry, for the really, really hungry; for those of us who recognize our need to be fed, to eat this bread and drink this blood. It's for those of us who are so hungry that we eat like animals, like famished teenagers who can't get enough. I think it's a call to put politeness aside and eat and drink God’s grace like our very lives depended upon it. And that is what we do when we celebrate the Eucharist. But it's also what we do every day when we recognize Christ's presence in our lives.
Jesus says, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him" (6:56).The Eucharist is symbolic of our taking Jesus into our lives, digesting him, eating and drinking salvation. And if we take Jesus in, he promises to abide with us, to stay with us, to never leave us alone.
The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, and always will be, shocking! And the shocking Good News is that Jesus came into the world to to feed our hungry ravenous hearts on the bread from heaven and the saving blood of grace.
May we never, ever cease to be shocked by this good news, for it is a gift that gives us life here and now and in the age to come.