I had a friend in high school who was extraordinarily smart; she earned top grades and went on to receive a full scholarship at a great university. I tried sharing my faith with her once, and I still remember the argument that she used to shoot down my attempt at witnessing. She said that Christians are no better than cannibals, because through communion, we symbolically eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood.
I didn’t know how to respond to her rebuttal, and that conversation flop has been on my heart for all these years. I knew deep down that Jesus wasn’t condoning cannibalism, but I didn’t have the words to explain it to her. Well, I recently heard a fresh perspective about communion that helped me better understand how to interpret this important symbolism.
It’s important to note that my friend’s question was not unique; some of the people listening to Jesus’ teaching had the same confusion! John 6:47-58 tells the story about Jesus describing himself as the bread of life, and that those who eat of that bread will live forever. In verse 52, John records the arguments that arose among the Jews in attendance about eating a man’s flesh. What kind of weirdo rabbi was this Jesus person, talking about eating his body and drinking his blood?!?
Let’s start with this question: What is the purpose of eating food? Food is fuel for our bodies, and when we eat, our digestive system consumes the nutrients we need. Consider this: when we “consume” Jesus through faith – his teachings, his miracles, his prophetic fulfillment – we ingest that truth, and it becomes part of us. Our faith then fuels us, spiritually.
Jesus used the illustration of Old Testament sacrifice to explain the new covenant that he was establishing through his own sacrifice on the cross. Of course he wasn’t advocating cannibalism; he was using himself as a symbol of faith for us to recognize our need. We need the nutrition from food, just as we need spiritual nutrition. We need our sins to be cleansed, like the Old Testament story of the Passover lamb.
Bible scholars much more knowledgeable than me will surely have more to say on the matter, but what it boils down to for me is this: Eat the bread of life! Consume God’s word, and in turn, let the Holy Spirit nourish your spiritual life as you grow in faith.