Jesus said “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” --John 6: 53, 54
In August I did a sermon series on “Our Spiritual Diet.” We have a fixation on food, on what we put into our bodies, but we may be neglecting our souls. We should pay more attention to what we put into our minds and our hearts. In this series I paired the gospel lectionary texts with some food-themed television programs to see what ingredients we need to add to our spiritual diets. Today our topic is “Bizarre Foods,” and we are going to think about adding the ingredient of discipleship to our lives.
On the TV show “Bizarre Foods,” Andrew Zimmern travels the globe in search of foods that we would consider beyond exotic to downright, yes, bizarre, and often distasteful. Zimmern has eaten everything from alligators to armadillos, organs of various animals, and even creepy crawly things like live termites.
This is a food show that I do NOT watch; I confess that I don’t have the stomach for it. But many viewers are fascinated by seeing Zimmern consume things that most of us would consign to the garbage can.
In this passage, it sounds like Jesus was telling his followers to eat some bizarre foods. When Jesus told the crowd that day that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, they were shocked! For us, reading this passage today, our minds automatically go to communion! We are very used to the symbolic language used during the Lord’s Supper: this is my body, broken for you. This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. So these words do not have the same effect on us as they did to those who heard it for the first time.
Those who heard Jesus’ words on that day took them literally. There was no precedent in the Jewish religion for those kinds of images. The Jewish dietary code forbade eating blood, and food was to be handled in a very particular way. So Jesus’ words were both incomprehensible and offensive. Although Jesus had hinted that he would give up his life, even his disciples still didn’t understand.
They thought, What bizarre idea is this? How can we eat his flesh and drink his blood? What does he mean?
Even today, we have to stop and ask ourselves that question. What did Jesus really mean? Jesus was foreshadowing his death. In the crowd that day were both his close disciples and all those greedy people who had been fed when he multiplied the loaves and fish, those people who chased after him wanting more. Remember, those people wanted to take him and make him king by force. He was letting them know that his end, his goal, his purpose, was very different than what they had in mind. Yes, he was a king, but his kingdom was not going to be what they expected. Being his follower did not mean unending feasts, miracles performed for their entertainment, it did not mean sitting on a throne, and power, and glory and might.
Being his follower meant going exactly where Jesus went, and that was to the cross. The way of Christ was the way of humility and service and sacrifice. “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asked. Again and again throughout the gospels he calls those who would be his followers to take up their cross and follow him.
Adding the ingredient of discipleship means choosing to follow Jesus in everything that we do. It means choosing to be not just a church member or a church goer—someone who comes to worship, who says the right things during the service and then leaves, walks out the door of the sanctuary, and doesn’t really think about Jesus again until next Sunday. No, being a disciple means that for every decision we make, every word we speak, every action we take, we ask the question, What would Jesus do? As his followers, his disciples, we pattern our lives after his.
Choosing to live as a disciple may cause us to do things the world thinks are crazy. In the program “Bizarre Foods,” many times the foods Zimmern eats are strange to us, but they are NOT bizarre to those in the countries and cultures that consume them. Something that we would not eat is a delicacy to someone in Africa or Central America; these foods are what set those people apart, part of their tradition, a mark that identifies them.
The same is true with us in our lives as disciples. What identifies us as disciples, what sets us apart, may seem bizarre to the rest of the world. Again and again in the gospels Jesus tells us to live differently, to live counter-culturally, to do things that seem upside down in the eyes of the world. Who in the world would choose to be meek or poor in spirit? Who would choose to turn the other cheek? When someone steals from you, is your instinct to give him something else? Wouldn’t we all rather be served, than to serve? And isn’t it human nature to want to protect our life, instead of laying it down for someone else? . . . Strange! Crazy! Bizarre!
But these are the things that set us apart as disciples, because these are the things Jesus did, and we are called to go wherever Jesus goes.
When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he claims our entire lives. We can have no greater allegiance to anyone than to him. When we follow Jesus, our lives should be radically different. All of our choices, our decisions, our lifestyle, should reflect that we are Christians, that we live by the rule of love and grace, that we are obedient to the call of Christ and loyal to his cause.
The person who most powerfully explained this was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples, who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call . . . only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 99).
If we truly eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ, we take into ourselves Christ’s sacrifice. If we eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ, we take into ourselves Christ’s death. In that, said Bonhoeffer, is the “re-creation of the whole [person]. The only right and proper way,” he said, “is to quite literally go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God” (ibid, p. 67).
Bonhoeffer’s entire life had been spent in following Jesus at cost to himself. When he was a young man, Bonhoeffer had been expected to follow his father into the career of psychiatry, but he shocked his parents by deciding to study theology. His older brother told him not to waste his life in such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty, bourgeois institution as the church” (Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today, p. 5). But Bonhoeffer was convinced that God was calling him, and he did not refuse God’s call.
When the Nazis came to power in his country, Germany, in January 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke out against them. They took over German churches and rigged elections of church leaders so that Nazi supporters were elected to positions of power within the church. Bonhoeffer became a leader in the confessing church movement, helping to draft the Barman Declaration (in our Book of Confessions), that said that Christ, not the fuhrer was head of the church.
Friends urged him to flee to America, where he would be safe, but Bonhoeffer believed that his place was with his countrymen, working for the good of the church. He was arrested on April 6, 1943, but he continued to work, speaking the truth and ministering to people in prison, fellow prisoners and guards alike. With the help of sympathetic guards, he smuggled his writing out of prison, and those documents became the book, Letters and Papers from Prison.
He had just finished leading a Sunday morning worship service in prison when he was led away to be executed. He was executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before Allied forces liberated the concentration camp where he was held.
Bonhoeffer’s words on discipleship are the more powerful because he lived his discipleship to the end; he truly understood the cost of discipleship.
And yet—and yet that cost is not without reward! Bonhoeffer also said, “To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul; it is the highest joy” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 103).
“If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command,” he said, “if we are afraid . . . all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before [us] step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he himself is the way, the narrow way and the straight gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end” (ibid, p. 212).
Keeping our eyes on Jesus and following the way in which he leads us, brings us great peace and joy. And in the end, the way that seems bizarre to the world is the way to a whole and healthy life in this world, and the way to eternal life in the next. The things we do as disciples of Christ may seem bizarre to the world, but in the end, they are the things transform the world, and that help the kingdom of Christ to come and God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. So let us accept the invitation of Christ to eat his flesh and drink his blood, to take into our lives, his life, his love, his sacrifice. Let us accept his call to be his disciples, and to follow him wherever he leads.