“Jesus said to them... 'my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.'”
The most persistent enemies of true Christianity are the heresies we call gnosticism and docetism. Gnosticism holds that the natural world is composed of two elements, the physical and the spiritual. These are separate elements, and gnostics believe that they are at war with each other. The spiritual is good and the physical is bad. Docetism holds that, because the physical is bad then Jesus must be solely spiritual, his physical nature being merely an illusion. Not only have these two heresies been tenacious they have also been responsible for much discrimination and self-hatred.
Gnosticism has existed both outside the Church and within it, and this situation is still true today. Outside of the Church there were sects of Christian gnostics around at the time the Gospels were written. You can find passages in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, which were obviously written in response to gnostic heresy. Saint Iraneus wrote against the heresy in the Second Century, we still have many of his writings. In the third century the Manichaens became very powerful and their elaborate mythology very popular. Their religion was based on the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism that taught that there were two powers, the Lord of Light who represented the spiritual world and the Lord of Darkness who represented the material world. Mani, the founder of the religion, taught that we were prisoners of the material world from which we needed to escape. In the Middle Ages gnosticism reappeared in the form of the Cathars and Bogomils, two, probably related, groups who taught that material and physical pleasures were the distractions of the Devil.
However, the most dangerous forms of gnosticism are those found within the Church. Again these have been around since the beginning. Saint Paul has so many ideas that could be gnostic in his letters that the theologian, Elaine Pagels, was able to write an important book arguing that Paul was, in fact, a gnostic himself. I don’t think she is right, but we should be wary of some of the things he says especially when he is advocating a dualistic view of life and life after death. At the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo was to enthusiastically denounce the flesh and his ideas had a huge influence on the philosophy of the scholastic schools of the Middle Ages. This has meant that the Roman Catholic Church has embraced to this day certain dualistic doctrines, which can be found in their teachings on sex and celibacy for example. In other denominations of Christianity, gnosticism tends to hide at the extremes, for example in Anglo-Catholicism (where women are often regarded as being dirty, especially during times of menstruation and childbirth) and Evangelicalism (where gay sex is regarded as dirty and unnatural).
So, dualistic philosophies, the belief that the material and the spiritual are separate and opposed to each other, have been with us a long time. But why are such views so dangerous? They are dangerous because they are contrary to our orthodox Christian teaching (the teaching of Christ) about our own nature, the nature of Creation and the nature of the Word made flesh.
Human beings are bodily creatures and were created good as such. God delighted in our bodies and God has promised that our resurrection, like that of Christ, will be a bodily one, our spirits will not leave leave our bodies to become ghosts somewhere. The Kingdom of God will be realised on earth. It will not be in the sky somewhere or on a different plane, in a different dimension. The New Jerusalem will be built here. The earth as created by God was originally good and this intrinsic goodness will be restored. The earth will not be replaced. The divine and the earthly will be as one a state of being that was prefigured by Jesus Christ who was truly God and truly human with no gap between the two natures. God and human were one in Jesus, which, when you think about it logically, has to be the case if salvation for humankind was achieved on the cross. And Jesus did not despise his human nature, he embraced it, because it was good, not sordid or evil. The Father saw that it was good.
The material world and the spiritual world are so closely entwined that they can be understood as one entity. That is why God can talk to us through the sacraments. In the sacraments physical reality and spiritual reality are as one. We may be part of a physical ritual whilst understanding that a spiritual event is taking place. For example in a christening we wash the babies head with water, but this washing with water, although very much a reality in the physical sense is also an iconic action through which we glimpse the spiritual washing away of human sin achieved by Christ on the cross.
Today’s Gospel reading is about the greatest of all the sacraments, the sacrament of the Eucharist. The evangelist, John, does not have the story about the institution of the Eucharist in his gospel and, so, many commentators believe that the chapter from which our reading this morning is taken, is John’s equivalent to the Last Supper scene. Certainly, at the time that John was writing, the Church would already be celebrating a primitive Eucharist in their regular worship. John’s readers would have known he was talking about Holy Communion.
In the reading Jesus tells the Jews that they have to eat his body and drink his blood if they want to have eternal life. Now, this sounds grotesque to us, to the Jews it must have sounded completely vile. Bear in mind that they were not even allowed to consume the blood of an animal.
In Leviticus God tells the Israelites, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.”
Yet Jesus, who was a practicing Jew himself, commands his followers to ignore this injunction in the most extreme way.
Why did Jesus tell his followers to eat his body and drink his blood? Did he really mean us to become cannibals, eaters of human flesh?
Yes he did but, on the other hand, no he didn't.
Jesus is referring to the Eucharist and to understand the sacrament of the Eucharist we have to accept what I was talking about earlier, that the physical and the spiritual are one.
Jesus wants us to be one with him as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one within the Holy Trinity. Such a unity is a unity of natures which is a spiritual reality. In the Holy Trinity the three persons, the three natures, the three actions of the Godhead have been consumed into each other so that they are perfectly one whilst perfectly three. If we are to experience a similar unity with Christ then we must consume Christ's nature, Christ's spirit. But we cannot consume the ephemeral, as we are material we have to consume the material. However, as Christ’s spirit and his body are one, by consuming his body we consume his spirit. The Eucharist is a spiritual event but it is also a physical event with no distance between the spiritual and the physical. The bread and the wine are there to make the action palatable, but the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ as Christ himself insisted.
But why do we need the Spirit of Christ within us? Why should we not be like adherents of other faiths with their distant gods?
The theologian, William Barclay, came up with this image. Try to imagine a man surrounded by well-stocked bookcases. Much knowledge is available to him in those books, but as long as they remain on the shelves unread all this array of knowledge is outside him, beyond him. But when he takes a book from the shelves, opens it and reads it, it becomes part of him. It fills his mind and his imagination; some parts fire his heart; others lift his spirits. Thereafter, whether the book is in his hand or on the shelves he is able to feed on it, on its wisdom, knowledge, inspiration.
So it is with Jesus. When we take him into our hearts, when we consume him like an avid bookworm consumes the words in a book, then he becomes part of us forever. When Jesus died on the cross the Father grabbed hold of him and dragged him out of the jaws of death. He was taken beyond death, beyond the cross, to new life, a life where, as his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples prove, the body and the spirit are perfectly one. All who eat and drink of him share this life, this everlasting life. So eat up and drink up. Taste and see that the Lord is good.