“I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. “This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
Do people in heaven eat? Of course not—eating is only needed by physical bodies and we shall not have those in heaven. We shall be spiritual people rather than physical. As spirits we shall not have cells with energy needs. Even ‘time’ itself will not progress the way it does here on earth, punctuated by the regular enjoyment of meals.
What of the ‘banquet of heaven’, then? “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.” (Mt 22:2) and “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt 8:11)
And then there is the story of a man who went to heaven. “Welcome,” said St Peter. “If you look through these pearly gates you will see the banquet is all ready laid out on the tables and the crowds will be entering shortly.” “Thank you,” said the man, “But I have always wondered … might I have a quick peek at what hell is like?” “Highly irregular, but let me check … yes, it’s okay, but hurry back.” The lift took him all the way down to hell. Through the gates he saw long tables, laid out with beautiful food. In came the crowds, and, not waiting for grace, they took up their cutlery, only to discover they were one metre long! They could not get the food into their own mouths. Chaos ensued, and food fights. Back went the man to heaven. Through the gates he could see all manner of delicious food on the tables, enough for the whole world. After duly saying grace, they took up their cutlery, only to discover that they were a metre long. The arrival feared the worst, but need not have worried. They each fed each other.
But in heaven, as spirits, we shan’t have, teeth … There is the parable of the wedding guest who was discovered by the king to be not wearing a wedding garment. He tells the servants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” A fire and brimstone preacher repeated the last words for emphasis. An old man at the back called out through toothless gums, “What if you haven’t got any teeth?” Still full of righteous fury, the preacher announced, “Teeth will be provided!” (I know someone who tells that story well and sets us all laughing.)
If there is a banquet in heaven, would there not be eating?
What is eating but taking what nourishes us into ourselves? “Drink in the scenery,” we might say, looking out over a magnificent vista. Eat up the experience.
So Jesus, in telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood and thereby have eternal life in us.
Our spirits are not like our bodies: our spirits can take into them other people. Two people who love each take the other into themselves. That is not surprising. We look out onto the world and take the scenery into ourselves, mountains, clouds, the wide sky, the trees and the landscape. We can stand on a mountain and just look and listen, ‘taking it in’.
So is Jesus speaking spiritually? Is it “take me into yourselves” as in “take my message to heart”? So it is, but it is much more. We should be careful about reducing mysteries to what we already know. Yes, the spiritual part of ourselves is the best part. Better than our bodies are our minds, our sense of presence (of ‘being here’), our values, our loves, our memories and our relationships, our sense of being who we are (our identity). Though bodies are pretty good, too, because they house our eyes and ears and our senses by which we take in the world.
Is there any part of our inner selves that has not been built by our physical senses? From the time our eyes first opened and we looked into the face of our mother bending over our cradle to the time they close on this world, we are formed by what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and the other senses that tell us it is time to eat, or rest.
When Jesus says “eat my flesh and drink my blood” he is not saying “spiritually”. The word used for ‘flesh’ is not the nice word for ‘body’ but a very earthy word more like the ‘carne’ in ‘carnivore’, or the repulsive flesh of a cadaver. It is unmistakably repellent. It is ‘flesh’, not ‘body’. It is what made the Jews turn away. “Will you also turn away?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Will you also turn away, reducing my body and blood to a mere symbol? Jesus asks us. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” replied Peter. “You have the words of everlasting life.” (Jn 6:68)
We are told, “From that time on many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him.” (Jn 6:66)
Jesus knew it would be a test of their faith. He may have been asking, “Are you believing or disbelieving only my teaching, or are you believing Me? I shall give you a teaching that contains all of me. Accept or reject that.” Peter answers for us, “You…” As impossible as it sounds, this bread and wine is really and truly the flesh and blood of the Lord. Like Peter, we are not going anywhere. When you fully accept Jesus, anything he says comes second.
Yes, there are symbols. This bread is straight from God out of heaven like the manna that fed the Israelites. It is food for our journey through life to the Promised Land of heaven, too. That manna decayed by next morning. Jesus lives for ever and ever. No, this is no symbolic presence.
How can this be Jesus? How can this bread and wine be his body and blood? But your ‘body’ is where you are, surely? And “All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). All of creation exists in God the Son. It would be harder to answer the question of where Jesus is not.
If the bread and wine are only a symbol of Jesus, the eating would be only a picture or symbol of Jesus coming into and filling us, and we becoming part of him, of God. It has to be Jesus himself or it wouldn’t do anything.
Eating his body and drinking his blood is like a child wrapped in a mother’s arms, she saying, “I shall not let you go. You are surrounded by me.” Receiving holy communion is going up to be embraced by God on the inside.
The banquet of heaven will probably be a feast on all that is in the Son—all of creation, all people, all of time and space, all that God loves, and all that is in a spiritual world that we cannot for the moment see. The feast of heaven begins with Holy Communion.
So mysterious! So wonderful!