Have you ever been misunderstood? I think that at one time or another we all have – sometimes people think they hear something they don’t, or sometimes speakers intentionally use vague language, and misunderstanding abounds. You need look no further than a Sunday morning children’s talk if you’re looking for misunderstanding.
When we hear Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel passage (John 6:51-58), we tend to domesticate them, which isn’t to say that we misunderstand them (necessarily). We hear Jesus talking about his flesh and blood being food and water – true heavenly bread and living water – and we think of the Holy Communion, and Him giving Himself in the sacramental symbols of bread and wine. That’s what we hear, and rightly so – He is certainly talking about Himself as sustenance: He creates and sustains our life. That said, the Jews who first heard Him say these things, that day long ago, thought that He was talking about cannibalism. Such an interpretation can be excused, given the words that Jesus says, but they couldn’t believe their ears. No Jewish teacher would ever use such language literally, and so we read that they asked one another, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How are they to understand this cannibalistic imagery?
While this talk was alarming to Jesus’ first listeners, they wouldn’t be the last. Decades later, it was not an uncommon charge to be brought against Christ’s followers by secular Romans, who misunderstood what Christians meant when they said they ate and drank the body and blood of their Saviour. Along a similar vein, they were also brought up on charges of incest, because they called one another brother and sister and yet married. Misunderstanding can abound in such a situation. We tend to sit with Jesus’ words rather easily, as we hear them through the lens of our sacramental theology of the Holy Communion.
What tends to scandalize people these days is Jesus’ “unless.” That’s the kind of clause that lends itself to our misunderstanding. Look at verse 53 of that passage and you’ll find the “unless” clause. “Unless” is a word of condition, and while we might generally take it as exclusionary I wonder if we might take a moment this morning to recognize its inclusive intent when Jesus speaks it. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” If you can swallow it (pun intended?), Jesus is saying that you are what you eat. Unless you eat and drink of the One who really lives, fully according to the will of God, you have no life in you. If you do eat this bread and drink this cup, then His life will be in you. Jesus transforms our lives by nourishing us with His. John Chrysostom noted that the manna the Israelites had received as Moses led them through the wilderness only sustained their physical lives, and failed to give them the true life, the life of salvation. This salvation-life, lived in justified and sanctifying union with God, comes from the true bread, the One who came down from heaven, Jesus Christ.
John Wesley described human reception of this salvation-life in this way: “This great gift of god, the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is a ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them.’” We hold that Jesus is the way of salvation; there is no other. This is the exclusive claim that Jesus is making, and it is here that we need to avoid misunderstanding. We want to understand Him correctly. While He makes an exclusive claim on being the source and way of salvation, He does not set boundaries or limits on who this salvation is available, or extended, to. Who lives outside of His love? Who is beyond His help? Who is beyond the radius of extension to receive His grace? There is none.
“Sick, we truly stand in need of the Saviour;
having wandered, of One to guide us;
blind, of One to lead us to the light;
thirsty, of the fountain of life, of which whoever partakes shall no longer thirst;
dead, we need life;
sheep, we need a shepherd;
we who are children need a teacher
universal humanity stand in need of Jesus.” -Clement of Alexandria
Jesus is for everyone, whatever state they find themselves in – whatever state He finds them in. There’s a lie going around, that you need to be good enough for Him to be interested in you; there’s a lie going around, that a person can actually be too far gone. But the very act of Jesus’ incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, says otherwise. If the Son of God can loosen His grip on equality with God and be born of Mary, then there can be no one who is so far lost that He cannot find them, and having found them, save them. This is the great Good News of Jesus, entrusted to the Church. May we be found faithful witnesses to what He has given us. Amen.