Of the four gospels, John is the most controversial. The sayings of Jesus that are the hardest to swallow are all found in John. Like John 3:3, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Or John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [in heaven] except through me.” Or the one that I want to focus on now, John 6:51 & 53 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… 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.”
John could have left the above out of his gospel. The other three did. Instead, the way John edits and arranges the Lord’s words seems to be to present Jesus in the most “in your face” way possible. Jesus is literally talking about cannibalism. He is asking people to eat his flesh. To drink his blood.
Because John is the last of the apostles to write his gospel, he is aware of how the church is being persecuted. Spies have listened in as these early Christians celebrate communion. They see the church leaders take something in their hands and tear it. Then the words are spoken to the effect that it is Jesus’s body and blood. Those practicing this new religion eat his flesh and drink his blood. By the end of the first century, the rumor has spread throughout the Roman world that these Christians practice cannibalism.
But, if we read Jesus’ words carefully, we see that his emphasis is not on the communion elements that we consume, but upon the opportunity Jesus is giving us to become incorporated into his body and for his body to be incorporated into our body. Jesus talks about incorporation, not consumption. The emphasis is not about eating – but about Jesus entering us as we enter God.
It’s holy incorporation. Jesus doesn’t just ask us to consider his teachings. He doesn’t want us to snack on a little dab of his philosophy. He wants us to be fully incorporated into him and he into us. “Incorporation” comes from the Latin word “corpus” which means body. In the business world, incorporation involves being so serious about the company that you no longer speak of individual workers, but of the body they form as they work together.
When we have communion, we break the bread and hear Jesus say, “this is my body.” With this, he speaks of our holy corporation. Jesus is one with this bread. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we incorporate Jesus into our body. Let me go one step further, when we share communion, we become incorporated into Jesus’ body. In Paul’s letter the Corinthians, he refers to the church as the body of Christ. We are incorporated into that body by the sacraments, both communion and baptism. Just as a group of people who work together get incorporated into a business, we become incorporated into the body of Christ as we work together as a church and specifically when we share communion.
Communion is sacred – not because the bread magically becomes his body, and we eat it. But because Jesus is present in the whole ritual. The whole meal is an invitation to incorporate Jesus more fully into our daily lives. The celebration of Communion is itself, holy. This doesn’t mean that the actual elements – the bread or the wine – differs from ordinary bread and wine. After the service, people are free to do whatever they want to with the leftover elements. What is holy, is the gathering of the church and the invisible presence of Jesus. It is an incorporation ritual and needs to be carried out with an awareness of the holy possibilities of our lives being fully incorporated into God.