The novelist Salman Rushdie has a line about storytelling, about crafting words, that goes like this. Rushdie says:
Good metaphors shock.
Good metaphors don’t merely surprise us or delight us or invite us into curiosity – although they certainly do most or all of those things. Good metaphors make us gasp. They are startling, almost vulgar, offensive. You listen to them and you say: what are those words, those ideas doing together?
Here’s the problem for those of us who like telling stories: much like a joke tends be a lot less funny on the second telling, metaphors tend to lose their capacity to shock through repetition. They get worn out, they die, they no longer evoke shock or, for that matter, much of anything else. Think of the popular metaphor for betraying someone, for making someone into a patsy or a fall guy when something goes wrong. What’s the metaphor for that?
They threw him under the bus.
In its beginnings, that was a shocking metaphor. Throwing someone under the bus is a metaphor about committing murder in the most gruesome and hands-on way available. Through repetition, however, we now hear it and we don’t really even blink, let alone imagine someone disappearing beneath the wheels of a public transportation device.
Those of us who read and honour the stories of Jesus and by Jesus have the same problem. Jesus uses some seriously shocking metaphors. Sometimes they are comical, sometimes earthy, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes just weird.
You are the salt of the earth.
The Kingdom of God.
You brood of vipers!
Take the log out of your eye before complaining about the speck in your neighbour’s eye.
Or what about the metaphor that we hear in the Gospel reading today?
I am the living bread that came down from heaven: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.
Imagine the people standing in the crowd when Jesus first speaks those words, when his words are brand new and raw, when no one has heard them a thousand times. The people look at one another and they say:
Did Jesus just use a cannibalism metaphor?
And the answer is: Yeah, he kind of did.
Jesus is upping the ante from his already shocking words Take, eat: This is my body. In case there is any ambiguity, Jesus adds the gruesome additional words: eat my flesh, drink my blood. Those who read Biblical Greek tell us that there are at least a couple of Greek verbs that mean “to eat,” and the word that Jesus uses for eating in this passage has the connotation of gnawing on bones. This is a super carnal image.
What do we do with a saying like this? If we dust off the years of repetition, if we permit Jesus’ metaphor to strike us with its full, original shocking weight, how do we respond to a Messiah who says that faith looks like a scenario in which he is our dinner?
Now, before I go any further, I want to stop for a second and do something like inserting a footnote into this sermon. (Imagine a big floating number one appearing in the air beside the word bubble coming out of my mouth, imagine it referring you to a paragraph of text down by my feet.) What I want to be clear about in this footnote is that, when I use the word “metaphor,” I don’t mean, “as opposed to something that is true or real.” Sometimes we speak of metaphors in that binary and dismissive way, sometimes we say, “That’s just a metaphor,” and what we mean by that is, “That’s just a made-up story. It’s not true.”
I don’t mean that at all. What I mean when I speak of the metaphors of Jesus is something harder to quantify. I mean that there are certain kinds of truth that are at or beyond the limits of human understanding, that are so deep into mystery that the only way that we can talk about them is by employing image and poetry and paradox. When we get super literal with these mysteries, we end up in a place that is unintentionally ridiculous. (Speaking of eating Jesus’ flesh, I know folks who were told as kids not to chew when they received communion, lest Jesus start bleeding in their mouths.)
For the purposes of our conversation this morning, what I mean by a metaphor is a symbol that points us to the truth.
Okay, that’s the end of the footnote. Back up to the word bubble.
When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” when we hear him say, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” many of us think of the Eucharist. And we are right to do so – this is absolutely Eucharistic imagery. But the shocking violence of Jesus’ metaphor invites us to at least one other place as well.
That place is the cross.
It is at the foot of the cross that we encounter Jesus’ flesh and his blood most directly. He goes to the cross innocent, he is sacrificed there by empire and by the religious and economic systems that collaborate with empire. And by going to the cross innocent, he does no fewer than two things. (He assuredly does way more than two things, but these are the two that I am going to concentrate on this morning.)
The first thing that Jesus does on the cross is to reveal the total moral failure of the system that put him on the cross and that puts other people on the cross. He declares that any system which sacrifices some of its members so that others may be comfortable is engaging in evil, whether that means high priests saying “Better for one man to die”; whether it be our culture declaring that people living in tents under overpasses is an okay prince of admission for our economic structure; whether it be children being taken from their mothers at our border because we are afraid of how migrants might change us; whether it be, and think of this week’s news, Bishops covering up years and years of sexual violence by priests so as to preserve patriarchy and power.
The second thing that Jesus does on the cross is to declare his absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer. On the cross he embodies what he says elsewhere: Just as you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. When we turn violence on the least of these –economic violence, the violence of racism, the violence of nationalism, the violence of gun-worship, the violence of patriarchy, the list goes on – we are turning that violence on Jesus. On the cross we learn that it is Jesus who is living in the tent under the overpass, Jesus who is the child taken out of his mother’s arms, Jesus who is the victim of years of sexual violence from a priest.
Now, a minute ago I said that we often think of Eucharist when we hear Jesus say, Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and that we were right to do so. Yes, this is Eucharistic language. But it is Eucharistic imagery that must be understood in light of the cross.
There is a moment at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer – after we say amen, after we say the Lord’s Prayer – when the priest (today, that will be me) holds up the bread and then breaks it. One of my mentors taught me the practice of pausing in that moment, of letting the bread rest there for a beat, intact. His reading of the symbol of waiting is this: in that moment of waiting, we declare our longing that the Body of Christ could be unbroken, that Jesus’ flesh could be unbroken. But then we do break it, we accept that the wounds of Jesus are inescapable part of his story, that the breaking of the Body of Christ is an inescapable part of our story.
Once the bread is broken, we take it into our bodies.
As the old saying has it, you are what you eat. On Sunday mornings we eat the brokenness and the suffering of Jesus, we eat his radical and non-violent resistance of empire, we eat his absolute loving solidarity with the poor. May we indeed, with God’s help, become what we eat. May we come to communion, not as an intellectual concept that we must agree to, but as an encounter that might transform us.
Good metaphors shock. May the bread of life, the flesh and blood of Jesus, give us a holy shock. And may that holy shock invite us to share God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s love. May the flesh and blood of Jesus invite us to share the bread of life across the world.