A common reaction
I am a lecturer at an evangelical liberal arts college. One of my main responsibilities is to teach the Christian doctrine course required for all undergraduates. In every class, the question of what is or isn’t happening at the Lord’s Table is always a source of fascination and debate.
“Wait a minute,” one student interjected as I was lecturing on the Eucharist. “You’re saying some people actually think they are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus? Like, the real flesh and blood of Jesus?” I responded in the affirmative. The student shook her head incredulously. “That just seems gross to me. Who would want to believe that? And then do it every week?”
An old controversy: John 6
This student was by no means the first—and certainly won’t be the last—to be put off at the thought of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. In fact, the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ teachings about his body and blood have been controversial since the very beginning. In his famous bread of life discourse, John records Jesus saying,
Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them (Jn 6:53-56).
Here, Jesus seems to be insisting on a bafflingly literal and physical meaning for both eating and drinking, flesh and blood. “[M]y flesh is real food and my blood is real drink,” he says. This leaves little room for spiritualizing, doesn’t it?
The straightforward (and yet not-so-straightforward when you think about it) reading is backed up by two elements in the text. First, rather than the ordinary Greek term for eating (phagein), John has Jesus using trogein, which means literally to crunch or gnaw. It is typically used to describe the way animals consume their food—an indelicate tearing and chewing of flesh. And Jesus uses this hyper-realistic verb four times in the course of his teaching (vv. 54, 56, 57, 58).
The response of Jesus’ disciples is instructive, too: “This teaching is hard!” they say. “Who can accept it?” (v. 60). It seems they understood very well what Jesus meant—and it disgusted them. Eating the flesh of a human being and drinking his blood were expressly forbidden in the Law and deeply repellant to first century Jews. In the end, they chose to leave rather than abide this abhorrent teaching (v. 66).
Interestingly, rather than stop his disillusioned disciples and attempt to explain himself, Jesus lets them go. He watches them leave and turns to the Twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter responds for the group: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
Why do we eat and drink Jesus?
If Peter is right and Jesus indeed has the words of eternal life, then we need to be able to articulate what it means that we are supposed to feed on Jesus and why. When people are confused and even disgusted by the notion of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, what do we say in response?
Eating and drinking are two of the most fundamental things human beings do.
They are absolutely necessary for survival. Food and drink are the essential means by which our cells are powered and our lives sustained. Also, eating and drinking are generally pleasurable and satisfying experiences because they arise from and fulfill bodily desires. As a result, they have become practices crucial to social connection.
Human beings love to enjoy their food and drink in groups. You’ll never see a pack of Dobermans swapping stories around their bowls of dog chow. But, human beings from all cultures, times, and places form relationships and cultivate intimacy while they eat and drink together. This is a crucial part of what it means to be human.
The link between bodies, food, life, and intimacy is seen quite vividly in the relationship of a mother and her nursing baby. In the mother-child bond, we see the goodness and life-giving nature of bodies, as well as the fundamental connection between desire, nourishment, and communion.
A baby does not need to be told that drinking is key to life, love, and intimacy! Through feeding at her mother’s breast, a baby learns that nourishment, life, and communion are intertwined. And when a mother coos to her adorable child, “Ooh I could just gobble you up!” she is unwittingly alluding to these linkages. Her love for her baby compels her to seek union with her baby; and her compulsion to union is expressed in the language of gobbling. It’s funny, but it’s also insightful theology.
If bodies, food, life, and union are linked in human experience, then it makes good sense that the Triune God would invite people into communion through eating and drinking.
We see this throughout the biblical narrative.
When our first parents were created, they were given Eden’s many delights for their daily nourishment—all save one tree. The Creator invited Adam and Eve to fellowship with him through the joy of eating and drinking in his presence. But they betrayed the intimacy of communion by choosing to eat and drink on their own terms. And human beings have been doing the same ever since.
The rest of the biblical narrative portrays the Triune God seeking through various means to restore the intimate communion between God and creation.
We see it in the Passover meal, which Yahweh instituted as a “memorial feast” (Exod. 12:14) by which the people of Israel would remember and re-enact their liberation from slavery by eating and drinking in the presence of their God.
We see it in the food Yahweh provided for Israel during their wilderness wanderings. Despite their rebellion, God sent manna, quail, and water from rocks, nourishing his people through food and drink even as he invited them to faithful fellowship with him.
We see it in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the future: all nations gathering at the mountain of the Lord where God hosts an extravagant banquet: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich foods and pure, choice wines” (Isa. 25:6). Isaiah dreams of the day when God will once again share life with his creatures in intimate, joy-filled feasting.
We see it in Jesus’ life and ministry. He demonstrated his kingship by providing food for thousands, multiplying fish and loaves and inviting the hungry to feast with him. He ate and drank with all kinds of people—the deserving and undeserving—inviting all people to communion with God around a shared table.
And we see it at the close of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He ended his time with his closest followers by giving them another memorial meal, one intentionally modeled on the Passover. But now, he says, the bread and wine represent his own person—body broken and blood spilled out for the restoration of communion between God and humanity.
“This is my body… This is my blood,” Jesus says (Mk 14:22, 24). He offers food—real food—that is also his very self. “Feed on me,” he says. “Commune with me. Draw life from me. Absorb me into you so that I may absorb you into God.”
This new Passover of the new covenant, which Jesus completes in his death and resurrection, initiates an intimate, bodily fellowship between God and humanity. And as we are drawn into communion with Christ through his body and blood, he will write the Law upon our hearts (Jer. 31:33).
In the Eucharistic meal, Jesus invites his people to be restored to the effortless fellowship of Eden and participate even now in Isaiah’s future banquet by partaking of his person, “the food and drink of new and unending life in him”.
The truth is, we become what we eat.
This is true scientifically, but it is also true spiritually. St. Augustine said, “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive” (Easter Sermon 227). We commune with Christ by consuming Christ. By receiving Christ, we become one with Christ, both as individuals and communities. As we partake of the body of Christ, we are made into the body of Christ. We become what we eat.
So, eating and drinking are necessary for fellowship with God because God has made eating and drinking necessary to what it means to be human. And God’s relationship with humankind has, over and over again, been enacted and celebrated through food and drink. As we eat and drink, we commune with the Triune God. That’s why the Eucharist is so crucial to Anglican liturgy, spirituality, and theology.
But why eat Jesus? Why not just eat with Jesus?
But, you might say, that still doesn’t explain why Anglicans (along with other Christian traditions) insist that we are eating and drinking the real body and blood of Christ. It’s one thing to eat and drink with Christ. It’s another thing to eat and drink Christ. This teaching is hard!
We must remember that Jesus is the one in the Gospels who declares the bread and wine are his body and blood. And, in John 6, Jesus is the one who insists that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.
It is Jesus who insists that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. If we are uncomfortable with this reality, then we have to take it up with Jesus!
Still, we must admit that Jesus’ insistently realistic language is also very mysterious, too. That the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ is beyond dispute. But how they are so—this most Anglicans choose not to delineate.
Jesus says this is my body; this is my blood. Jesus says we must feed on him and drink from him. How is that possible? Ultimately, it’s a mystery. It’s a work of the all-powerful Triune God through material means we cannot fully understand.
And so, as I tell my students, the Eucharist is a reality in which we participate, not a dogma we seek to define.
By eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, we nourish our lives, commune with the Trinity, fellowship with one another, and are being transformed from glory to glory.
Emily Hunter McGowin is a teacher and scholar of religious studies and a theologian in the Anglican tradition. She is also a priest and Canon Theologian in the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others. She specializes in the study of lived religion, which goes beyond the traditional focus on texts and historical figures to include the everyday practices and experiences of individuals and their communities. Fortress Press published her first book in May 2018: Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She has taught religious studies and theology for many years in university, high school, and local church settings. She is married to Ron and they have three children.