I have often thought about Abraham Lincoln and the challenge to action. Once there was a preacher with very eloquent speech who had a sermon for the sophisticated in his community that had flowery wording and gave everyone goose bumps except President Lincoln. He was asked what he liked about the sermon and his reply was that he did not like it at all for the reason that it did not challenge him to action. He was in a civil war and he know that eloquence was not the answer for the changes he wanted to make but action and resolve as a nation to change relationally.
What I would like to point to here is that the gospel, when presented in a sacramental context, is more fully the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:17) though it could offend the mind with offensive, even scandalous wording.
Scandals can have many effects on a population. They are often talked about where someone has done something shameful. The central person or people in a scandal would rather they could undo what brought their odd thing out to the public. One reason is because they become socially radioactive and no ones wants to be around them. If they are a politician then no one wants to endorse them.
One of the shocking things about Jesus is that he points at himself in the gospels in a way that makes him socially radioactive. He speaks foolishly to confound the wise with a moment of tension. A common phrase used in the early centuries was the word scandalon. We could think of it as a stigma. Christians then and now see the cross of Christ as essential to expressing the selfless love of God even though it was the electric chair of the 1st century. With this irony the people who think they are wise in the things that matter and make sense are thrown by Jesus who keeps drawing them deeper. These are the tensions where “faith and reason are two wings by which man takes flight” (Fides Et Ratio, John Paul II, 1991). He lays out a scandalon to challenge those who would go from open inquirers or smart debaters to full disciples. Like an x-ray of their hearts using shocking language.
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats[s] my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52-58)
This is where Jesus sends the inquirers in Capernaum to the edge. The doubters get the scandal wanted. By reason only many walk away though with integrated faith and reason some remain.
How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?— This is a response by people that are closed off to mystery. The premise is that God’s ways would have to fit into the intellect of humanity.
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood— This is loaded with messianic expectation fulfilled in Jesus. The term “the Son of Man” is used in Daniel
“As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man.When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, He received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Jesus has a dominion that does not end but a relationship with the chosen of God that does not end and is kingly, communal, and universal.
eats my flesh— This time in the Greek text there is a transition. Up to this point Jesus has been using a more polite term that would be used for biting or chewing but now he uses the word for gnaw (trogo) like an animal. Jesus is upping the level of offensiveness to make his message even more scandalous for an important reason: if one gets Jesus only intellectually, then it is not a divine or transcendent encounter and would empty the cross of Christ of its power.
Jesus sees that the wise must be shown up for their lack of faith. Again, faith and reason are meant for each other. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning (1 Corinthians 1:17). What Jesus lays down in the gospel is a message that does not rest of eloquence because eloquence will not change lives but an inconvenient encounter with Christ does. What Jesus lays down about consuming him is meant to be the default understanding of Christianity of an encounter in all its fulness and was seen so since early Church history.
What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction (Augustine, Sermons, 272).
Nobody eats this flesh without previously adoring it (Augustine, Explanation of the Psalms 99).