He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
As it happens, I was just there at Capernaum a couple weeks ago. We brothers, you may know, serve as chaplains for courses at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Our band of pilgrims visited the site of ancient Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee as part of the College’s “Palestine of Jesus” course. There are ruins of the first century village as well as a later synagogue and a Byzantine period church built over the house said to have been Peter’s.
One of the effects of going to the Holy Land is to move things out of the realm of the abstract and imaginary and make them concrete. You see what Jesus saw: the fertile hills of Galilee, the harsh beauty of the Judean Desert, the snow capped peak of Mt. Hermon. I vividly remember the first time I saw Mt. Hermon. In 1991 I was on a dig in the Negev Desert; on weekends we toured the country. We arrived at a kibbutz on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee one dark January night. In the morning I walked out onto the beach and there it was, across the lake to the north: a magnificent snow capped mountain. Something clicked: Jesus would have seen this, the disciples would have seen the breathtaking beauty of Mt. Hermon covered in snow.
To see what Jesus saw, to walk where he walked, to ride a boat where he rode a boat, helps move things out of the abstract into the concrete, out of the intellectual or imaginary into the physical.
Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John move us in the same direction. “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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day…” This passage surely refers to the Christian sacred meal instituted at the Last Supper. Curiously, although John’s Gospel has numerous references to the sacred meal, it does not include the institution of the eucharist in the account of the Last Supper; we get this from the other Gospels. But the community out of which emerged the Gospel of John was clearly sharing the sacred meal.
Getting back to Jesus’ words: first he uses an ordinary word for “eat” (phagein). Then, for emphasis, it seems, he changes to another stronger, more vivid word: ( trOgO). Which can mean to gnaw, or nibble or munch. It’s an earthier word. The intention seems to be to insist on the actual eating of something. Actual eating, as opposed to merely thinking about it. The Christian sacred meal was to be an actual meal, with people gathered to actually eat it. Not abstract or intellectual or imaginary, but physical. Real mouths, real teeth, real stomachs, etc., etc. etc.
Although John’s Gospel certainly can be highly poetic, highly theological, highly intellectual, this passage brings things back down to the concrete and physical. Christianity is to be something done in real time, real space, involving real human beings. In other words, incarnational—in flesh. Jesus makes God known in flesh: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We make God known in the flesh, by what we embody, what we incarnate. As St. Francis famously told his followers: preach the Gospel at all times—if necessary, use words. The Gospel is best preached by embodying it, by incarnating it.
Much ink has been spilled, much blood has been spilled over what we are to believe, how we are to understand the things of God, what words we should use to explain God. But when it comes right down to it, the Christian religion is grounded in what we embody, what we actually do in this world, what we incarnate. What we believe is important. John says he is writing so that we may believe, and in believing have life [John 20:31]. But John insists on believing as more than words we give assent to. It’s what we do in the three dimensional world we inhabit. Real people, gathered in a real place to eat real bread, drink real wine. Real people washing real people’s feet. John’s account of the Last Supper focuses on the washing of feet.
Theology—great. Scholarship—great. Bible study—great. Personal devotion—great. All these good things can be strategies of evasion, however, if we are not grounded in actual practice in an actual community. If we are not grounded in an embodying way of being.
A new threat to this embodied way of being today is “virtual reality”. A new form of escapism may have emerged in this age of technology and electronic communication. There is much to be said about the benefits of information technology and social networking capabilities. It has changed the way politics is being done—in this country, in Iran, as we’ve seen. The transparency and speed and suppleness of electronic communication is a great boon to the human enterprise.
And yet …. If I can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, if I can add and delete them at will, if I can engage or not completely on my own terms, I may come to have unrealistic expectations about what real flesh-and-blood community looks like. Having the virtual world at my fingertips under my complete control may actually be disabling in terms of real human interaction, which can never be completely under my control. I saw a family not too long ago gathered around a table in a nice restaurant. And every one of them was using a cell phone. We can control our cell phones; but families can be wonderfully and dangerously real and uncontrollable.
The Gospel of John, the gospel of incarnation, brings us back to the flesh-and-blood nature of human community. Community which, for all its challenges and frustrations, is the only real one we have. The beauty of John’s Gospel is that it does scale the poetic heights, it does scale the theological mountaintops—and it is grounded in real life, flesh-and-blood human community. A beloved community, a loving community, washing real feet with real water. A beloved community, a loving community, eating the bread and drinking the wine—munching, gnawing, chewing. A beloved community, gathered around the Divine Fire, risking the wonder and danger of actually being with one another. Risking the wonder and danger of the uncontrollable Fire who dwells in our midst—the unpredictable and uncontrollable Fire who dwells in our midst.
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