When I was at university some friends of mine signed up for VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas, to head off for Papua New Guinea. With the ghoulish interest of a 21 year old I thought to myself ‘mmm, cannibals! head-hunters!’ and hit the library, intent on scaring the life out of my buddies. I discovered that though dying out, the practice still existed but that it wasn’t a straightforwardly bloodthirsty activity but a deeply religious one. It was about bringing the tribe together around a sacred table where you literally made a meal of outsiders. You ate them—daintily I’m sure—to ensure that you all knew who you were and who you were not. It was a meal that formed and reformed you as a people. A meal to make your gods dwell among you, within you. A rite of communion and community.
Now doesn’t that sound just like what Jesus is talking about here? ‘Eat my flesh’, ‘drink my blood’. Notice there’s no talk of bread and wine here: this is stronger meat for stronger stomachs. Flesh that is real food, real meat; blood that is real drink, thick as soup.
The gospel rubs it in by the choice of words. John’s been using an ordinary word for eating but when he gets to point, ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’, he switches to a rather nasty word usually reserved for animals gnawing and chewing on their carcasses. ‘He who gnaws and chews my flesh lives in me.’ No wonder his hearers are arguing with him.
Cannibals and head-hunters only make explicit and literal what all human communities do implicitly and metaphorically. They—we—build our communion by making a meal of our enemies—the ones we will not tolerate among us. We cast them out to make ourselves whole. We might not know who we are but we sure as hell know who we are not: Us not Them.
It’s a very unholy communion: consuming the bread of death and division to find life and security.
Is this what we are doing here this afternoon? Is that what our communion is like? If it is we have betrayed Jesus who shows us another way—a holy communion. Instead of building a new community on the sacrifices of others he offers himself as a willing gift, a bloody meal without sacrifice, to make us whole. No more sacrifices. No more victims. No one is outcast from this table of his flesh and blood.
But to eat this flesh and drink this blood means more than opening our mouths and swallowing. It means saying ‘Amen’, ‘so be it’, with our lives. To eat this meal is to consent to be eaten too, to agree be flesh and blood for the life of the world.