Preached 8/19/12 at Head of Christiana PC
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been something of a renaissance lately in the genre of zombie films. I started trying to count how many zombie movies have been released since 1980, but I gave up after 100—and that barely got me through the Cs. Obviously, there have been a lot. Especially in recent years, the idea of a dead body being reanimated and stumbling awkwardly after the living and trying to eat their flesh—or ideally their brains—has become almost a fixture in popular culture. There was a young couple a few years ago whose engagement pictures started circulating around the internet; the first few photos in the series showed them having a lovely picnic outside in a field, and then all of a sudden their picnic is interrupted by a shambling, bloody zombie. Of course, bride and groom sprang into action and fought it off with a trowel and shovel, and then the last few photos show them looking triumphant and in love.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has managed to capitalize on this zombie apocalypse fascination with their graphic novel, released last year, called “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic.” Their related blog post featured useful tips like, “Plan your evacuation route. When zombies are hungry they won’t stop until they get food (i.e., brains), which means you need to get out of town fast! Plan where you would go and multiple routes you would take ahead of time so that the flesh eaters don’t have a chance! This is also helpful when natural disasters strike and you have to take shelter fast.”
Vampires, on the other hand, seem to have been a fixture in our cultural mythology ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published in 1897. This is still true lately, with True Blood, Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries, as well as countless other novels and book series, joining a long line of vampire stories from Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way back through silent films and pre-industrial mythologies from cultures around the world.
Even today, when we have a fairly good scientific grasp of how human bodies work, and what happens to those bodies when we die, these mythologies and superstitions and apocalyptic scenarios have touched on something that is not entirely rational. There is a kind of mystical fascination with blood, in particular, and the way it more than anything else is central to the life and functioning of the human body. Even as we learn more about transfusions and blood types and red and white blood cells, it seems to only increase the cultural fascination.
Particularly in US culture, I think, this is compounded by our ambivalent feelings about human bodies in general. Bodies are messy, smelly things, and many times we would just prefer to keep them covered up, showered, and perfumed. Even sweating, it seems, is only appropriate in certain contexts like the gym—which makes this 100 degree weather a bit of a challenge.
All of this makes today’s gospel text… uncomfortable, to say the least. “Jesus said to them, ‘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.” Even aside from the blood imagery, for the moment, this is an incredibly intimate statement. The 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, spoke of what this image says about Christ’s love for us: the reality of the incarnation makes it possible for us to do more than just “look upon” or “observe” Christ, but rather it is for God’s people to “fix their teeth in His flesh and to be commingled with Him,” that is, “to fulfill all their love.”
When it comes down to it, our god is a god who has flesh. This is not just an intellectual exercise, an assent to a list of beliefs about some supernatural force; this is a question of flesh and blood, of skin and bone. Our God is both a God who is huge and mysterious and powerful and kind of intimidating, and also a God who was born into a very real, tangible, human body. At first it was the body of an infant, needing to be cared for, and then a child, and finally an adult—but still, always, an adult human, who can hunger and thirst, can bleed, can hurt, can die.
And that is a scandalous idea. It was a scandal then, and it is a scandal today. As soon as people started to claim that Jesus of Nazareth was also, somehow, a divine being, there were others there to argue that Jesus must not have been fully human. Because how is this possible?? So many of the heresies and theological arguments in our history as Christians have centered around trying to resolve this paradox. If we call Jesus “Lord,” if we affirm that Jesus truly was and is of one being with God the Creator, then, the arguments have gone, the human body of Jesus of Nazareth must have been some sort of illusion. Jesus must not have truly felt pain in the way that we feel pain. Or perhaps all of this earthly realm, all flesh, is actually a delusion, preventing us from knowing our truly divine selves (that is, disembodied selves)—or so the Gnostic argument goes.
For all that Christianity has had (and still has) a very conflicted relationship with what it means to have a human body, and particularly, what it means to have desires “of the flesh,” it is to our credit that these arguments that attempt to diminish Christ’s true humanity have been branded heretical. This is a paradox, and not always an easy one to accept, but it is this very paradox that is at the center of the Christian faith. From the first moment that someone made the audacious claim that this small-town carpenter was Lord, our faith has been built on audacity: the first shall be last, the poor shall be blessed, the lowly shall be looked upon with favor.
This very tension, this very audacity, is affirmed over and over in the teachings and the stories of Jesus that have been passed down to us. Jesus is both explicit and uncomfortably graphic in this passage from John’s gospel. And this message, he says, is not just important, but our very lives depend on it. As the theologian Christopher Morse puts it in his commentary on this passage, “to preach on matters of less than life and death is not to preach the gospel as John presents it.”
But what is it on which our lives depend? We must “eat the flesh and drink the blood” of Jesus—seriously?? No wonder some of the disciples responded, “this teaching is difficult.” Yeah, yeah it is. And even today commentators try to play down this difficult teaching, to say, of course, Jesus is not speaking of his literal flesh or blood, he’s just speaking metaphorically about the bread and wine of Communion. But when we try to flatten the richness of this image, even when it makes us more comfortable, we lose out on the depths of what Jesus is saying here.
Sure, he is talking about what we know as Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist; but he is also talking about bodies; and he is also talking about the intimate, fleshy ways in which God offers the divine self to us; and he is talking about what does it mean, as Chrysostom said, to be commingled with Christ; and he is talking about the life-giving transfusion that is poured out for us when our own blood has been spilled and we do not have the strength to stand on our own.
Taste and see, says the psalmist! Taste and see that the Lord is good. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. God keeps all their bones, and not one of them will be broken.
Even while we can affirm that this earthly, human life is not all there is, that our deaths will not be the end of the story, let us not forget that these bodies were shaped by God’s own hands from the dust of the ground, and these creations were called “good.” This part of the story can only be read through the lens of the bodies we live in. God knows we have a hard time loving something we can’t see or hear, taste, or touch, or smell, and God reached out to us with the human hand of Jesus. God reaches out through a body that sweat, and bled, and cried, just like ours do, because God loves us enough to speak our language. This flesh that Jesus offers up to us, this flesh gives life because our God has so humbled Godself to come down to our level and to greet us face to face, because our God loves us.
Our bodies need blood to live, and so it is blood that God offers us. In the words of the vampire Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Hunter, “It’s always got to be blood. Blood is life. Why do you think we eat it? It’s what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead. Of course it’s blood.”
And so on this Sunday when we are not celebrating Communion, let us remember that this bread of life Jesus offers us is about more than just bread. We are offered, through the whole incarnation of Jesus our Christ, a God who is at once tangible and ineffable; who walked the dusty roads of this world and yet soars, mystical and transcendent, through dimensions of which we can barely conceive; a God who grandly orchestrates the past, present, and future of the multiverse, and yet takes the time to kneel to earth beside us and hold out a hand to a child. The food we are offered is true food, and it points to so much more.
Thanks be to God.