Why is Jesus so weird? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” he says. That seems nice. A pleasant metaphor! But he won’t leave it there, he has to go full cannibal. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” We only read a short part of the monologue in John 6 so maybe it didn’t sink in, but in this chapter he repeats this idea so much that it starts to seem like it’s not a metaphor at all.
The broader context of John 6 only makes him seem stranger. At the beginning of the chapter is the feeding of the five thousand. Here is the courageous, comforting, wonder-working Jesus. Here is the Messiah we expected. When they’ve had their bread, the crowds say “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” But when they say this, Jesus runs away, afraid they will make him king.
The next day the crowds find him again and instead of welcoming them, Jesus scolds them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves!” This is the prompt for his long speech about being the bread of life that we read the tail end of today. After the speech, after our passage, some of the disciples are perplexed, naturally—their leader has just told them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” they say. Imagine it: you’ve just seen your teacher, the one you admire more than anyone else, do a miracle. Crowds gather around him. The hungry poor eat, and you eat with them. But in the moment of celebration he runs away, and then later gives a speech about how it’s not bread you need to eat, but his own flesh, his own blood. Something has gone wrong with Jesus, I’d think, in their shoes. The strain has gotten to him.
And the text does say that some of the disciples turn away and leave Jesus, at this moment. Some of the larger group of followers. So Jesus then asks the inner circle of the twelve disciples “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter answers with these poignant words, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I love this line. Peter is confused, he doesn’t understand what has happened, but he knows that whatever wisdom he will find will come through Jesus. To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life. But Jesus’ answer to him is once more a bit odd, a bit off-putting. “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil,” talking, we assume, about Judas.
Just when his followers pledge their loyalty, Jesus questions it. Just when the mood is good, when the hungry crowd feasts on an unexpected meal, he runs away, kills the party. Just when he announces a lovely image of himself as bread, he pushes it just a bit too far, takes it a bit too literally. “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life within you.” Why is Jesus so weird?
One of our other texts comes from Proverbs, where woman Wisdom summons everyone to follow her way. As the common sense of the world, the logic of creation, she calls the wise and foolish alike. “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live and walk in the way of insight.” We might hear this as a poetic summons for people to live with more sense, more justice. But Jesus takes these words and wraps them around himself. No longer is woman wisdom a metaphor for the dispersed common sense of the world, Jesus claims to be the incarnation of that wisdom. Wisdom says, “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Jesus says, “I am the bread…I am the wine.” You get this from the very beginning of the gospel of John—“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is the wisdom of God, the logic of creation. You can’t make that claim without sounding strange, or paradoxical. Jesus is an ordinary human being of flesh and blood, and he is also the wisdom and word through whom all things were created. “In him all things hold together”—as Colossians puts it. “All things have been created in him and for him.” And yet, he was also a toddler. The master of these kinds of paradoxes among later Christians was the hymn writer Ephrem the Syrian, in the 4th century. In one of his Christmas hymns, he includes these lines,
He sucked the milk of Mary, and of His goodness all creatures suck! While He was lying on His Mother’s bosom, in His bosom were all creatures lying! While on the Cross He quickened the dead, so while a Babe He was fashioning babes. While He was slain, He opened the graves…While [Mary Magdalene] anointed him with perfume, with dew and rain He was anointing all!
In these colliding images, it’s not that Jesus wasn’t really human, wasn’t truly a crying infant, a beloved friend, a dying man. It’s that he did those things, as God. And he did the things God does—give life to all creatures, open graves, send rain—as a human being. He did human things divinely and divine things humanly.
If all creation is a body, Jesus is its pumping blood. Blood circulates. It moves. It bears life to all—oxygenates, feeds—and blood bears death away from all—removes waste. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the pumping heart of God’s creation, from which we are ever being sent and to which we are ever being called back.
So, part of why Jesus seems weird—and I say part, because there is a lot going on in this chapter and what I’m saying doesn’t take away all its strangeness—part of why Jesus seems weird is this: on the lips of any other human, his words would be hopelessly self-absorbed. “Unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood you will not have life withing you.”
Big red flag. A deeply troubling thing to say, of any other person. But not of Jesus. In Jesus, the love that moves the stars took a body. The wisdom of God became blood, the blood that gives life to the universe and bears away death from all. You would expect a bit of weirdness from such a person.
If like Peter we remain with Jesus through this confusing episode, we might still wonder, how do I eat and drink Jesus’ flesh and blood? It helps, in answering that question, to remember that we are his body, and that his body comes from our bodies. Let me explain.
The fifth century Pope, Leo I, wrote some commentary on our passage from Proverbs about Wisdom’s house, summarizing this point. “We are his flesh,” he writes, “‘Wisdom built herself a house not just from any material, but from the substance that is properly ours.” In other words, wisdom made a dwelling with us not out of some magical substance, but out of the stuff we ourselves are made of. Leo reads that line in Proverbs about Wisdom’s house as a reflection on the incarnation, and adds that this house, is built from us. Jesus’s blood, the blood of God, is human blood—Mary’s blood, to be exact. The blood of one of our own. Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh.
In another sense we too are his body, as the church, the body of Christ. His body is from ours. Our body is his. Wisdom built herself a house, from us. So, when Jesus talks about his uniqueness—being the bread of life and so on, it is for the purpose of joining us to himself even more intimately. He sets himself apart, in order to unite more closely.
We are united to him, we do drink his blood, in all sorts of ways. We do it at communion, of course. There, as we eat and drink together we are joined to the Body of Christ really and truly. Together, we become what we eat. But communion is a special case of a general truth, I think, which is that Jesus is the life of the world who joins us in friendship to himself and to one another.
So we eat and drink Christ by fellowshipping with one another, too. This week Isaac pointed me in the direction of this great line from a letter by the 14th century Italian mystic Catherine of Siena. She was, like Jesus, a bit weird. She writes, “Our souls must always be eating and savoring the souls of our brothers and sisters…This, after all, was our gentle Savior’s food. I assure you, our Savior gives us plenty of them to eat.” The wisdom of the world is a person who knows us. And that wisdom gives us to one another to savor, to be nourished, in shared meals, in phone calls, in walks, in mutual aid and solidarity and care.
We eat Jesus, too, by immersing ourselves in the stories and poetry of the Bible, in which we catch his scent, and drink him in. In scripture we find ourselves as figures encountering Jesus in the stories we read—perhaps today as the disciples who turn away in this passage, alarmed by Jesus’ oddness. Or perhaps as the hungry and confused onlookers who tried to come close but feel put off. Or perhaps as the determined, faithful Peter.
In all these ways we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood. We never drink our fill, not yet. Communion doesn’t fix the world. Our fellowship is scarred. Our life with scripture is wounded. But through it all, Jesus circulates. The weird, unquenchable blood of God that resurrects dying flesh. “The one who eats this bread and drinks this blood will live forever.”
 Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Nativity no. 3.
 Leo the Great, Sermon 30.3.1.
 Catherine of Siena, letter to Sano di Marco di Mazzacorno, quoted in Ann Astel, Eating Beauty, 147.