John 6:52-66: (52) The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?" (53) Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (54) Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (55) For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (56) Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (57) Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (58) This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever." (59) These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. (60) Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" (61) Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you? (62) What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (63) It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (64) But there are some of you who do not believe." Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (65) And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father." (66) As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
For the longest time whenever I read chapter 6 of John’s Gospel I felt like there was something I was missing. I felt like there was some inside-story that I didn’t know about. There are several verses in this chapter of John that gave me this impression. In verse 52 we hear that the Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat. Then in verse 60 we hear many of the Jews saying, This saying is hard; who can accept it? Then, in verse 66, many of the Jews left Jesus and returned to their former way of life. Somehow in less than 20 biblical verses, Jesus managed to say something so controversial that he lost a majority of his followers. Why? What did Jesus say that made everybody so upset that they left him and returned to their former way of life?
My intuition years ago that I was missing something was correct. I was missing something big. To show you what I was missing, I want to take you back in the Bible. I want to take you all the way back to the book of Leviticus. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “Oh Dear Lord, No!! Not Leviticus!!! Leviticus is so boring. It’s just a bunch of odd purity laws concerning animal sacrifice. Please don’t bore me with that weird stuff.” Well, I’m sorry. I have to. I must go back to Leviticus. If we really want to understand what’s going on in John 6, we need to take a look at Leviticus. So hang with me, and I promise you will learn something interesting.
Let’s go back to Leviticus, chapter 17. Leviticus 17 is all about blood. In particular, it’s about the sacredness of blood. Let’s take a look at a few verses of Leviticus: Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement. That is why I have told the Israelites: No one among you, not even a resident alien, may partake of blood…You shall not partake of the blood of meat. Since the life of every living body is its blood, anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off (Lev. 17:11-14).
Okay, let’s see if we can make some sense of this. The Jews believed that the life of every animal resided in its blood. They also believed that life belongs to God. Thus, no one could drink the blood of an animal, because the blood contained its life, and belonged to God, not man. They believed that if you drank the blood of a cow or a pig, for example, that the life of that cow or pig would live within you, and having the life of another living animal living within you would make you profane. Blood is sacred, and drinking blood is a violation of its sacredness.
If you think about it, this explains a lot. It explains why having descendants is such an important theme in the Old Testament. If life is transferred through blood, then a person could live on forever through their ancestors (through their bloodline). That’s why “descendants as numerous as the stars” was a deal clincher for Abraham. If he had descendants as numerous as the stars, his life would continue on in his family bloodline.
With this in mind, let’s now flash forward and take another look at John, chapter 6. In this chapter, Jesus is telling his followers that His blood is true drink. He tells them that unless they drink His blood, they will have no life within them. Of course this statement upset them. Of course they quarreled among themselves. Why wouldn’t they? Jesus is asking them to break Levitical law. He is asking them to consume the “life-force” of another human being. That’s blasphemous! That’s profane! And when they quarreled among themselves and stated that this teaching of Jesus was hard to accept, Jesus didn’t jump in and say, “Hey! Hold on a second! Time-out! I’m not speaking literally, only symbolically. It’s not really my body and blood.” When they argued and doubted, Jesus simply repeated his claim: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (v. 53). Jesus’ words in John 6 are very clear and direct. He means what he says.
So what does this mean for us? Why should I care about the Jewish theological notion of the sacredness of blood? It’s simple. God wants to give us his very own divine life. He knows that the life that we have only leads to death and that we need his divine blood running through our veins if we are going to experience everlasting life. That’s why he gives us the Eucharist. For the past 2000 years, people have challenged the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. It is a constant hot button issue for apologetics. Yet, the Church continues to teach the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist unwaveringly. People have called us “bread worshippers,” “death cookie lovers,” “cannibals,” “idolaters,” and all kinds of awful things. Yet the Church’s teaching has not changed and will never change.
Bottom line: God wants to live in you. Whatever holds you back, whatever doubts you may have, whatever fears separate you from Christ’s in the Eucharist, let them go. Confess your sins and then come and receive Jesus. Why? Well, because it’s like he said: Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you