He said, “Who are you, sir?. The reply came, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
Acts: 9: 4-5
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who eats me will live because of me.
John 6: 56-7
As we move toward the conclusion of the discourse of Jesus that constitutes the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ description of our relationship to him change from that of “belief” in him to that of “eating” him. For the true disciple, Jesus is to be nourishment and the source of life. “ As the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who eats me will live because of me.. The life of the Father, which is Jesus’ life, is offered to us, but to receive that life means we eat the flesh of the life of Jesus and drink of the self-emptying passion and death of his blood.
As we read of Saul’s encounter with Jesus and of his conversion, we see something of what it means for Jesus to become our food and drink. It means to leave everything else behind, to accept the reality of our blindness, and wait in the darkness to be “told what . . . [we] must do.”
The life of discipleship often resembles the life of the Hebrews in the desert. We have set out on the way to liberation through the love and grace of God. Yet, we often find ourselves still hungry and often longing for the immediate, albeit ultimately disappointing, bread that the world offers. We have touched our longing for God in the pervasive restlessness of our hearts, but the darkness and loneliness of the solitary journey leave us clinging to the satisfactions of comfort, success, status, recognition, and emotional and physical gratification of life as we have known it. As Francis Thompson puts it in his familiar poem The Hound of Heaven: “For, though I knew His love Who followèd,/ Yet was I sore adread /Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.”
The Hebrews were taught by the gift of the manna in the desert that God would provide, would give them nourishment on the way. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that the bread that God gives in him is the gift of God’s very life. Beyond the gift of the manna, Jesus is not merely the nourishment to give us the life of the body and of this world, which will ultimately die. Rather, if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we shall share the very life that he shares with the Father. What this requires of us, however, is the purity of heart that leaves behind all else and, as Paul, goes and waits to be told what we must do.
In his teaching of the “cost of discipleship” Jesus has now gone far beyond the sense of relationship as some kind of cognitive or even ethical belief. If we would receive the life that Jesus offers, he must become our sole (soul?) nourishment. Daily life in faith is often a “negotiation” between the summons to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5) and the desire to have the many varieties of our hungers satisfied. There is always in our following of Jesus the dread of which Thompson speaks. Although I know God’s love, I fear that to allow him to catch me, to refuse to keep my own life as well as my life in Jesus, will leave me with “naught beside.”
There are hagiographic stories of certain saints who for long periods lived on nothing but the eucharist. It would, of course, require a miraculous intervention of God to do so. Yet, the stories contain within a profound understanding of Jesus’ teaching. The Xaverian Fundamental Principles articulate the teaching in this way:
Gradually, you will realize
that the cost of your discipleship
is your very life,
freely consecrated to God
and offered to the world
as a sign of God’s love and care.
Jesus is the source of life. To know that life, however, requires our willingness to abandon the life we have created that depends on so many things and persons and social structures for its nourishment. The claim of Jesus is absolute. We are, as created by God, a capacity for the eternal life of the Father and the Son. But, as with Paul, that life is hidden as long as we live by our own lights. It is not necessary, of course, to stop eating food and drinking water. It is necessary, however, to come to realize, as Saul become Paul does, that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2: 20).
By the miracle of Redemption Saul of Tarsus was turned in one second from a strong-willed, intense Pharisee into a humble, devoted slave of the Lord Jesus.
There is nothing miraculous about the things we can explain. We command what we are able to explain, consequently it is natural to seek to explain. It is not natural to obey; nor is it necessarily sinful to disobey. There is no moral virtue in obedience unless there is a recognition of a higher authority in the one who dictates. It is possibly an emancipation to the other person if he does not obey. If someone says to another—“You must,” and—“You shall,” that person breaks the human spirit and unfits it for God. One is a slave for obeying unless behind obedience there is a recognition of a holy God. Many a soul begins to come to God when that person flings off being religious, because there is only one Master of the human heart, and that is not religion but Jesus Christ. But woe be to me if when I see Him I say—I will not. He will never insist that I do, but I have begun to sign the death warrant of the Son of God in my soul. When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ and say—I will not, He will never insist, but I am backing away from the recreating power of His Redemption. It is a matter of indifference to God’s grace how abominable I am if I come to the light; but woe be to me if I refuse the light.
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, July 18