Day 39: Union with Christ
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Therefore with all confidence we receive this as the Body and Blood of Christ. For in the type of bread the Body is given to you and in the type of wine the Blood is given to you, so that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, you may become one Body and one Blood with Christ. And so we become Christ-bearers when his Body and his Blood have been diffused in our members. Thus, according to the Blessed Peter, we become ‘partakers of the Divine Nature.’[i]
Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Mystagogical Catechesis
Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples and be known to us in the breaking of bread; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
After pleading with the people to no avail, Jeremiah issues a word of condemnation against the religious establishment, the intelligentsia and certain prophets. His call for judgment might strike us as harsh, but he is simply echoing the threatened curses that will come upon those who have forsaken their covenant relationship with God. For those who identify closely with God, the rejection of God is a horrifying sight.[iii] These threatened curses largely come to pass when the Babylonians invade and transport the Judean leadership into exile in Babylon. In the midst of this stormy tempest, however, notice Jeremiah’s serene confidence in his relationship with God. People all around might be ignoring God and trampling upon the covenant, but Jeremiah, persecuted, arrested and spat upon, rests secure in being “known” intimately by God.
18Then they said, “Come, let’s figure out how to deal with Jeremiah since the instruction won’t perish from the priest nor counsel from the wise nor the word from the prophet. Come, let’s strike him with the tongue so that we don’t have to pay attention to his words.”
19Then Jeremiah said to the LORD, “Lord draw near to me; hear the voice of my adversaries. 20Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they are hollowing out a pit for my life! Remember when I stood before you and spoke well of them to get you to turn away from your fierce anger toward them. 21Therefore, hand their sons over to famine and let them be poured out at the hilt of the sword. Let their wives be as widows robbed of offspring and let their older men die of plague. Let their younger men be struck by the battle sword. 22Let cries be heard in their houses as you send a detachment to devour them suddenly. For they have dug a pit to seize me. They have hidden traps for my feet.
23But you, O LORD, know all their plots against me. Don’t forgive their iniquities. As for their sins, don’t wipe them away from your sight. No, let them stagger before you. Deal with them at the time of your anger.”
New Testament Lesson
This text is one of the most important passages in the NT for the development of the Church’s sacramental theology. In it, Jesus states that the path to eternal life is through an intimate relationship with Him, nourished by the Eucharist. I have deliberately translated the Greek word “trogon” which usually gets rendered “eat,” as “chew,” since this is the literal nuance that accompanies it in this context. Unless we regularly “chew,” “gnaw” or “munch” on the body of the Christ, we have no real relationship with Him and thus no life.[iv] It is very difficult to believe that John (or Jesus) intended us to take this text in a merely symbolic way. We are physically to eat His flesh, commune with Him, and thus receive life. But this teaching is deeply offensive to many disciples who had been taught from birth that cannibalism was a grave evil. Many walk away in disgust. Thus eternal life is not just about believing in Jesus, but about abiding in him, which means eating his flesh and drinking his blood. As in Jesus’ day, so in ours, this text proves to be bewildering unless received in faith.
53Then 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 you. 54The one who gnaws on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. 55For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 45The one who chews my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I also in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me, I also live because of the Father and the one who chews on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that has come down from heaven, not like that which the fathers ate and died. The one who chews on this bread will live forever.” 59These things He said in the Synagogue while He was teaching in Capernaum.
60So many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying. Who is able to understand it?” 61And Jesus, knowing within Himself that His disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Now, what if you saw the Son of Man ascending to where He was at first? 63The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit-giving and life-producing. 64But there are some of you who don’t believe.” (For he knew from the start who they were who would not believe and who it was who would betray Him.) 65And He said, “This is why I have told you that no one can come to me unless it has been given to him from the Father.”
66After this, many of His disciples left and no longer walked with Him. 67So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, where would we go since you are the Holy One of God”? 70Jesus answered and said to them, “Have I not chosen you twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71(Now He was speaking about Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, one of the twelve, since Judas was about to betray Him.)
Questions for Reflection
- Some are very uncomfortable with the more hard-edged language of the Old Testament. How do you make sense of this? Is it OK to pray like Jeremiah does, even as Jesus tells us to love our enemies?
- The basic argument of Jeremiah’s opponents is that nothing is going to change – the religious and intellectual establishments will still be there. From our vantage point, we know this isn’t true. What things (political, economic, geopolitical) do you assume have permanence but are actually temporal?
- Jesus seems to make a big deal out of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” Does this offend you? Why does he do this?
- What traditional Christian teachings give you pause and make you want to be like the disciples who walked away? Why haven’t you walked away?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Our lessons today summarize the dilemma we have been facing all through Lent. There is a natural tension between our status as sinners, which makes us worthy of condemnation, and our status as the people of God which makes us open to redemption. Although many treatments of the Gospel want to make these two ideas fit seamlessly together, they are uneasy partners.
First, let’s consider condemnation. We stand condemned, dead to rights, as sinners. There is no hope and no spiritual life in us. The consequences of our sin are dire both for us as individuals and for the creation as a whole. The most obvious implication is death. Because we have all sinned, we all die (Rom 5.12). On the spiritual level, our sin separates us from God (Isa 59.2).
This is where Jeremiah is. He has preached, cajoled and harangued the people but no one wants to listen. They want to keep going their own way and living their lives like they’ve always done. They like their creature comforts, their syncretistic worship and their lives. Jeremiah is a disruptive force so they lock him up, beat him and mistreat him, anything to make the noisy prophet shut up.
All that’s left to do is to call down the so-called covenant curses on the people. In the ancient Near East, a covenant would almost always come with a threatened set of calamities that would happen to the people if they did not keep the terms of the covenant. These were dire warnings of the consequences in the event of an explicit or implicit breach of the agreement.
But let’s also consider the promised blessings. In our OT lesson, there are none. Unfortunately Jeremiah sees no blessings in store, only ominous storm clouds on the horizon. The people have ruptured the relationship with God and there would be a price to pay for that.
All too often this is where Christians are left in Lent. We’re left to ponder the mystery of sin and told to repent (over and over again). But, of course, this is not the end of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the grave on Good Friday. He is raised on Easter. Thus we must not stop with the analysis Jeremiah presents, but move on to the Good News – the Gospel – that, as N.T. Wright puts it, “Jesus has been raised from the dead and now everything is different.”[v] Everything is different because Jesus, even after He ascends into heaven, will be permanently present with us.[vi]
But how can Jesus, who has ascended to be with the Father, be personally present with us if He is not here? Jesus is personally present in the Eucharist and thus the central aspect of our relationship is not a pietistic warm set of feelings we get when the music is soft and the lights are turned down low, but an objective sharing in the Divine life because Jesus is physically present in the Sacrament. We become united to the Divine Nature. This is really good news.
Thus the Gospel is not primarily a set of instructions on how to get to heaven — a get out of jail free card. It’s an invitation to a relationship, nurtured in service, prayer and the Sacraments of the Church. The whole point of the Lenten season has not been to make us feel really, really guilty that we can never seem to measure up to the standard Christ sets for us. It’s to invite us to slow down long enough to receive the incomparable gift that Jesus is offering us.
Yet notice in our NT lesson that there are many would-be disciples that don’t like this at all. At the first sign of trouble, they take off and leave, offended by the hard teachings of Jesus. It seems perfectly obvious that Peter and the other disciples don’t really understand what Jesus is talking about. Who would want to eat his flesh and drink his blood? They simply know that Jesus is the key to eternal life and they’re going to have to keep following Him even if they don’t understand it all or even like it all.
This is the point. We’re not supposed to understand it all. Jesus doesn’t leave us with a neat and tidy blueprint on how to get to heaven, a facile “just sign here on the dotted line” set of promises, allowing us to live however we want or by the unwritten rules of an ideologically-driven subculture. Jesus is not looking for converts. He is looking for disciples. He is not looking for great erudite expositors who can explain all the hidden mysteries of the Christian faith. He is looking for those who will approach Him with the same sense of wonder and delight with which a young child approaches her father.
So, in the end, Jesus leaves us with a choice. Do we want to keep going our own way, living our own lives and doing our own thing? Or will we choose Him, amend our lives and never be the same again? We simply cannot do this on our own. No amount of cajoling, self-help books (or devotionals!) will do the trick. The only thing that will is a relationship with Christ, nurtured by the Sacraments, lived out in service and characterized by humility. The thing that will change our lives is becoming a participant in the Divine life of God. The only thing that can ultimately change us is Christ Himself.
As next week is Holy Week, make plans, in preparation for Easter, to attend Morning Prayer as often as possible. Make a commitment to receive the Eucharist as often as you can.
[i] James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 27.
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, 834.
[iii] Thompson, A Book of Jeremiah, 442.
[iv] Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 283.
[v] N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 12.
[vi] Ibid., 31.