As I continue to ruminate in the Bread of Life discourse, I am relieved to have found a direction for this Sunday's sermon, and, although they might not know it yet, I bet the congregation is relieved, too. Like a passenger on an airplane that never lands, no one enjoys a preacher trying to figure out his/her sermon from the pulpit. This Sunday, I'm taking a risk and disagreeing with Jesus by declaring that his flesh isn't really food indeed.
Actually, it would be better to say that I'm disagreeing with a long line of Eucharistically minded theologians who read John 6:51-58 and Jesus' declaration that "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" as primarily a prefigurment of Holy Communion. So, take note that I'm not exactly saying that Jesus was wrong--just that most of us have interpreted him wrongly.
Here's the deal. After introducing his audience to the concept that his flesh is the bread of life--that he himself is the "living bread that came down from heaven," Jesus takes it a step further in the direction of the deranged and states (as the NRSV renders it) "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink." But what does he mean by that? True food? Real food? Indeed food? It kind of depends on which translation (or translator) you ask.
The NRSV, NIV, ISV, HCSB, and several others give us his flesh as "real food." Other translations like the NLT, ESV, NASB, NET, and others tell us it's "true food." Older versions like the KJV, ASV, and ERV tell us that his "flesh is meat indeed." Helpfully, you can compare all of those here. I looked at the Greek for that crucial word (it's "alethes") and also looked at some commentators who point out that that particular word means "real" but doesn't mean "only real" the way the Greek word "alethinos," which could have just as easily been used, means. (Thank you, Raymond Brown.) What's the point? Although I believe we should take Jesus seriously, I think we would be mistaken to take him literally.
His flesh is not really food. It's not. Yes, his body was given for the life of the world. Yes, we are his body. Yes, we eat his sacramentally present body in the Eucharist. But no one sinks his teeth into Jesus' body the way the word "real" implies. We don't. Let's not kid ourselves.
As Neil Patrick Harris has recently declared in a commercial, Heineken Light is the best light beer or you get your money back. To emphasize that claim, he states, "With this guarantee, we are literally putting our money where out mouth is." But then in the commercial he stops, ponders the meaning of those words, and changes his mind. "No, we're not literally. That would... I would not literally do that." Watch the video here:
Perhaps you've noticed, as the video demonstrates, that people like to use the word "literally" to mean "not literally." In fact, to the chagrin of many linguists and grammarists and just plain reasonable people, online articles show that Merriam-Webster now includes that antonym-like definition in the listing for literally. That doesn't make sense? Exactly. Sometimes words don't really mean what they seem to mean. Context is everything.
Yes, we must grapple with what Jesus means by his flesh is food indeed. But let's not take him literally. I literally would not sink my teeth into Jesus' forearm. (And I hope you wouldn't do that either. They kick you out of preschool for stunts like that.) In order for Jesus' provocative words to have any reasonable meaning in the 21st century, we need to abandon pseudo-cannibalism and rediscover a theology of the Body of Christ that isn't as narrow as most readings of John 6.