“Five Sundays in John 6 is a lot to take if you’re gluten intolerant,” said the mom of a child with celiac disease. “Jesus spends sixty verses calling himself the Bread of Life but in our house bread is bad!”
If you too are celiac, or carb-free, or otherwise intolerant to sweet sweet gluten,you too may feel anxious or even angry when Christ says “unless you eat this bread you will have no life in you!”
The good news for the literally gluten intolerant is that Jesus isn’t talking about that kind of bread, not ultimately. The bad news is that instead of bread, Jesus is actually talking about eating his flesh, and drinking his blood! In fact, not just eating. In this week’s reading Jesus changes the verb in Greek from eating to chewing.
“Unless you chew my flesh and drink my blood,” he says, “you have no life in you.”
Thanks Jesus, but I find that a little hard to swallow, let alone chew! If that’s what you mean calling yourself the “Bread of Life,” then count me among the gluten intolerant too.
In the first couple centuries of the church, Christians weren’t very well tolerated in part because of this teaching. The Romans slandered early Christians, calling them atheist, incestuous, infanticidal, cannibals. You heard that right, atheist, incestuous, infanticidal canibals. I’m thinking about making that the title of my next sermon series.
Christians were labeled atheist because we didn’t worship the gods of Rome. We refused to. Instead we worshiped a crucified man. Clearly, to the Romans, this meant we had no god.
We Christians also called one another brother and sister, even if we were married, and we all greeted one another with a kiss. We called this the kiss of peace, but Romans propaganda called it incest.
We can blame the infanticide charge on baby Jesus and Christmas when, to Roman eyes, Christians worshiped a baby who had “come for to die” as the old carol says.
Fed up with the bad press, a learned early Christian named Justin Martyr started writing letters to the emperor in defense of his faith.
As to whether or not his letters were effective, I’ll point out that at the time of his writing, Justin Martyr just went by Justin.
In his first big defense of the faith he addressed the atheism charge, the incest charge, and the infanticide charge, but he conspicuously doesn’t really deny the charge of cannibalism.
He explains that what Christians actually eat in worship is the Eucharist, a thanksgiving meal. It is a meal of bread and wine, but not just bread and wine. For Justin and his brothers and sisters in Christ, it is flesh and blood that they are eating and drinking.
“In the manner of Jesus Christ our Savior,” Justin writes, “who was made flesh by the Word of God, and who had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so we have been taught that the food which is consecrated by the prayer of his Word, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was himself made flesh.”
Notice how he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs so the emperor can follow the logic. The Word was made flesh in Christ for our salvation, and so the bread and wine of Eucharist also, by the prayer of that same Word, become the flesh of the risen Christ for us our salvation.
Elsewhere another early Christian writes, “you see, for it to really be cannibalism, it would have to be the flesh of a dead person, and that’s not what this is because Christ, the word made flesh, is alive.”
Justin was not the only martyr, you know? He’s one of thousands.
But, especially early on, the amazing thing was that almost none of the martyrs were born or raised Christian.
Justin was raised on pagan philosophy. Peter and Paul were raised as Jews. Others were slaves, soldiers, Samaritans, and Barbarians. Somehow they came to believe the gospel, to take and eat and chew the Bread of Life to the point that they were ready and willing to die for it.
Just a couple weeks ago a rather scathing piece was written by two of my favorite Christian authors complaining about how so much of today’s preaching and church ministry is better designed to make us feel good than to make us ready to die.
I have one explanation. If you haven’t noticed, fewer and fewer people are being born or raised Christian, so fewer and fewer people are coming to church, and in America, fewer people means fewer offerings. In our modern age, we preachers are incentivized therefore to preach a word that goes down easy and keeps you and your generosity coming back for more.
But that’s not what Jesus does here.
Instead he lays down an unsavory ultimatum: unless you chew my flesh and drink my blood, you will not have life. It’s off putting and offensive, unless, of course, it’s true.
For Justin, he was obsessed with Greek philosophy and philology, the study and love of the Logos, the Wisdom of God. He tried out every philosophical structure he could get his hands, dismissing Christianity as fanciful, until an old man found him in the desert and broke down each of his arguments, and then handed him a Bible and told him, “Go chew on this.”
For Justin, along with scores more of the martyrs and saints, faith in Christ took some convincing. None of them, by nature, could stomach a God who would become flesh and die a shameful death on a cross. That was offensive and intolerable.
For each of them, it wasn’t until the Word of God in Christ came to them in the flesh that they came to believe, not until he revealed to them that they were the ones who were offensive, and loss, and intolerant, and he was the one who promised them eternal life anyway.
The truth is we are all by nature gluten intolerant.
We take some convincing. The church calls it conversion. Thanks be to God, we’ve been given these bread crumbs laid out by the martyrs and saints before us, testifying that though the way is dark and filled with shadow, there is bread for the journey, even for us. There is truth. There is light. There is mercy, and forgiveness, and hope. There is flesh that, though broken and bloodied, gives life to the world. But it happens to come through the flesh of a crucified man.
It is through hearing and chewing on this truth, over and over, eating the promise of the one who died for the intolerant, that we come to tolerate his flesh; and not just tolerate it but desire it. Not just to desire it but to need it. Not just to need it but to claim it to the point that we believe, with Justin and the other saints, that the empires of Sin and Death shall not have the last word. That there is a different Word that has been made flesh which forgives sin, and promises to defeat Death and raise the dead.
This Word speaks again today to you and me, through the scriptures, through the church, through the saints, and through bread and wine consecrated by the Word of God made flesh in Christ. Through this crucified and living Word, this whispered promise comes to us, daring us to “Eat this… Chew on it. It is the Truth. I am the Bread of Life. Eat of me and you shall live.
I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.