To receive or devour

The bishop and his wife went to see a movie; it was a Canadian movie, The Gospel of John. It goes through the Fourth Gospel, word for word, start to finish, in about three hours. The bishop and his wife loved the movie; they found it beautiful and engaging. A few days later, when the bishop mentioned it to a friend of his, the friend said that his wife looked at him midway through the film and asked, “Will Jesus ever shut up?”[1]

The Gospel according to John is known for its high christology, its rich imagery and poetic style, but also for its relentless redundancy. “Wordy is the Lamb,” one commentator quipped, I don’t remember who it was – but who says that the Gospel word has to follow the rules of screen writing?

John isn’t fast food. John’s Jesus isn’t a quick word for the busy who love to quote the memorable one-liner. John is slow food. John’s Jesus is meant for slow reading and ruminating and for the joy of discovering new layers of flavor, texture and meaning. The Gospel of John is no summer blockbuster; it’s daily bread for a lifetime.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” says Jesus; “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He keeps talking about bread; three times the word pops up in just this one verse. And of course he’s still talking about bread to people who have eaten. Barley bread he had given them, good bread that fills the belly and strengthens the heart. And to some it was all like manna in the wilderness, the bread of angels for men and women who knew all too well that hunger is more than a metaphor.

I love his talk about bread because I love bread; I love making it, I love breaking it, I love how it fills the house with its warm fragrance, I love eating it; I love the many ways each loaf, every slice and piece, tells stories about our life together. But then, and it’s like Jesus is saving it until the end of the sentence, because he knows that this one’s going to be hard to swallow, then he says that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. And as if that wasn’t enough to raise a few eyebrows, he adds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And he keeps talking about flesh and blood as food and drink. Who can be surprised that many turn away in disgust? Who can stomach such teaching?

Even Martin Luther (certainly not a man known for being squeamish) asked, “What could he mean? Is one man to devour the other? Surely this cannot be the meaning.” And he insisted that this is not the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made.

Is one man to devour the other? Surely not. But that doesn’t mean human relationships can’t be bloody and violent. Listen to this; this is the prophet Micah, crying out against wicked rulers: “Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”[2]

Should you not know justice?—Micah’s indictment finds an echo in the psalms, “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?”[3]

Should you not know justice? When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, all those relationships become abusive; they become deadly instead of life-giving.

The gospel according to John teaches its attentive, slow readers that the world that didn’t know how to receive the word become flesh, certainly knew how to devour him violently. Receive or devour – the two verbs represent two utterly different attitudes toward life. One knows life as a gift that is given, received, and shared. The other knows life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. One is communion, the other we call these days consumerism.

Years ago, William Ralph Inge said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[4] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future.

For any creature to live, countless seen and unseen others must die, often by being eaten themselves. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and insects eat animals and plants and transform them into soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. God created a world in which every living creature must eat. The question remains, how we eat. Are we receiving or devouring?

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and prophet, said it beautifully, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”[5]

The sacrament is life shared in communion, the desecration is life devoured. We will know the difference, when we know Jesus. Not just his words and teachings, but him. Abundant life is not a question of better knowledge, but of participation. That is why in the Fourth Gospel Jesus encourages us not only to come to him, follow him, listen to him, and learn from him, but to consume him, to eat and drink him, to participate in the life he embodies.

Consumerism is not about whether or not to be a consumer. Everyone must consume to live, because God created a world in which every living thing must eat. But not all practices of consumption are conducive to abundant life for all.

Consumerism teaches us to see ourselves and one another as sovereign choosers and shoppers who are detached from other people and who appropriate our choices for private use, the only real constraint being our respective credit limits.

Communion is a practice that heals that deadly detachment and draws us into the membership of abundant life. In communion, eating and drinking are not acts of private consumption, but acts of mutual abiding.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus. The individual consumer of the Lord’s supper does not simply take Christ into herself or himself, but is taken up into Christ. The life of Jesus becomes part of our bodies, and our lives become part of the body of Christ. In Paul’s words, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[6]

Augustine of Hippo heard God say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you (…), but you will be changed into me.”[7]

When we gather around the Lord’s table, the act of consumption is turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it. We do not stand detached, as individuals, from the rest of creation, appropriating, consuming, and discarding to satisfy our hunger for life. Instead, we become participants in the life of Christ who gives himself for the life of the world. We become participants in the love that redeems life.

Men and women who feed on Jesus simply can’t continue to relate to others in ways that desecrate their dignity. Men and women who know Jesus in this most intimate way of mutual abiding can’t go on and use  others, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, without regard for justice or mercy. Men and women for whom Jesus is food and drink participate in his life of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. That life is the liveliness at the heart of life. It is the abundance that seeks to make its home in us as much as we desire to make our home in it. It is the bread our hearts crave. Let’s eat. Let’s eat well.


[1] Will Willimon in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 357

[2] Micah 3:1-3

[3] Psalm 14:4; 53:4

[4] quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), p. 17

[5] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981), p. 281

[6] 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

[7] Confessiones, VII. 16