In November 2001, I traveled with my brother in Chile. I was a pastor in New York City at the time, and the cumulative weight of responding to the September 11 attacks was weighing heavily on our pastoral staff, so we each swapped out a week’s vacation to recover.
I seized on a ridiculously cheap last-minute airfare special to go to Chile. It was the perfect choice, as it turned out: the country is gorgeous, getting around is easy, and and the Chilean people are extremely friendly and gracious. We only had one real challenge: my brother was a vegetarian at the time. The concept of not eating meat was a source of constant bewilderment to the Chileans, who seem to eat steak at least three times a day. My brother was a good sport about it and subsisted mainly on salads and side dishes during his time there.
However, not everyone was so accommodating. We were staying in a rustic camp in Patagonia one night and went to the camp restaurant for dinner. We were welcomed warmly by the staff and shown to a seat, but the only meal on the chalkboard menu was beef stew. “Yo soy vegeterianos,” my brother told the waiter.
A woman sitting next to us at the family-style table nodded and said, “yes, me, too.” The waiter smiled, “Ah, vegetarianos, no problem,” which we thought was a good sign. A little bit later, the waiter returned with four bowls of stew: two with large chunks of beef, two without. We all began to dig in.
After one or two bites, though, the woman next to us slammed down her spoon. “This has meat in it,” she declared, outraged, and waved the waiter over. “I TOLD you I was a vegetarian,” she barked (in English, of course). “Si, vegetarianos,” the waiter said, smiling broadly. “But this stew has meat in it!” she exclaimed. The waiter shook his head: “No, no meat. We take out.” She sighed dramatically, as if the man’s stupidity was more than she could contemplate. “Yes, but that doesn’t matter,” she said, “you cooked it with meat. I can’t eat this; take it away!” The waiter shrugged and picked up the plate. “I bring you something else, okay?” She nodded curtly.
“Okay, no problem,” he said. “You eat chicken?” She literally banged her fist on the table: “No, I’m vegetarian; I don’t eat meat! Get it?” The waiter nodded, still smiling. “Okay, no problem,” he said. “You eat fish?” “NO!” the woman screamed; “I will not eat any kind of flesh! What’s wrong with you?!?” “Okay, no problem,” he said, still doing a masterful job of maintaining his smile. “I get you salad.”
He walked away. She rolled her eyes and looked at us. “Can you believe these people?” she said; “Don’t they understand how offensive this is to me?” At that point, we were getting a bit offended by her ourselves, and pretended not to hear her. A few minutes later he reappeared with a lovely salad of fresh tomatoes, onions, lettuce, cucumbers, and cheese, with oil and vinegar for dressing. The woman ate two or three bites and got the waiter’s attention. “I don’t want this anymore,” she said to him. He looked at her with confusion.
“You don’t want? Is vegetarianos.” She waved her hand at the special salad they had made just for her to accommodate her needs despite her attitude, and then said with cold disdain: “you can have it,” then walked away. We were horrified by her rudeness, especially the bit at the end about giving him her leftovers. I leaned over to my brother. “Could you tell there had been meat in the stew?” I asked. He smiled. “Oh, yeah,” he said; “but he was being gracious trying to accommodate us, and I thought respecting that was the most important thing. I wasn’t about to say anything except ‘thank you’.”
Grace, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder at least as much as beauty: it seems to depend greatly on what you want, what you’re looking for. It’s easy to judge the rude woman in the restaurant…and I do. But I also have to admit that she wasn’t in an easy position. When people offer us something we want, it’s easy to call them gracious.
But when people offer us something that isn’t what we want, maybe even something that offends us, much less over and over again, we tend to get frustrated, maybe even angry. There are lots of things we might call them, but “gracious” is not usually one of them. It is hard to see that someone can be gracious even when they’re trying to give you something that’s undesired or even offensive to you. That kind of grace is pretty hard to take.
Grace, of course, is one of our favorite theological words, but we don’t normally associate grace with something offensive. In fact, just the opposite; we generally talk about grace as the very definition of good news. But here in this Gospel lesson, Jesus is definitely talking about grace, and people are definitely getting offended. Why? Well, for one reason, because his language is offensive. Cannibalism is arguably the most universal and fundamental taboo of human existence, and that’s exactly the language Jesus is employing here.
“Eat my flesh, drink my blood” still sounds a bit distasteful to us, and we’ve got two thousand years of metaphorical padding to soften these words. Jesus’ audience had no such background to draw upon; they are hearing these teachings with no comfortable reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. And Jewish people, of course, would be particularly offended at the graphic mention of consuming blood, which is at the very heart of the Jewish dietary prohibitions. To consume blood is to consume life itself, and faithful Jews will not do that with animals, much less human beings created in God’s own image.
This cannibalistic command is an appalling concept to many in the crowd, including people who have identified themselves as Jesus’ disciples. As he’s talking you can hear them recoiling with the same protestation as that woman at the table: “I will not eat any flesh! What’s wrong with you?” The Gospel quotes them as saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” but that’s pretty close to the same thing. The teaching is not difficult in the sense of hard to understand; it’s difficult in the sense of being harsh, severe, and impossible to get through. They don’t think he’s being gracious; they think he’s being offensive. And when Jesus keeps pressing the point, going on to talk about ascending back to heaven where he came from, many people, even those who have been following him as disciples, stand up and leave the table rather than put up with any more of this; they’ve had enough.
But, aside from the revolting imagery Jesus is employing, what he’s saying about himself is also pretty offensive. He’s not simply interpreting the Law or giving them words of wisdom to live by; he’s telling them that their very lives depend upon their relationship with him specifically, that life only comes by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, which means that he will abide in them and they in him. And that problem is much easier for us to relate to. Even if our reaction to the imagery of “eat my flesh, drink my blood” has been dulled by many years of worshipful familiarity, the emphasis on Jesus himself can still be pretty hard to take, today no less than two thousand years ago.
Many people are quite comfortable with the concept of a God on high who created the earth and still watches over it and cares for it. Many are comfortable with the concept of a God who is near in spirit; who guides us, inspires us, binds us together, and maybe even heals us. But a God who came to us as a flesh-and-blood human being who walked around a backwater of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, who got hungry, who got thirsty, who got tired, who got angry, who got tortured, who got executed, who got raised from the dead, who did it all “for us and for our salvation” and who invites us to know him, commune with him, and follow him in response; well, that’s something else.
The only way to have life, Jesus says, is through my flesh and blood. And that can be pretty offensive, when you think about it. It’s not just the cannibalistic imagery, it’s what’s behind it. Christian faith is not about doing good things or being a good person. Christian faith is not about our acceptance of a set of ethical teachings, or spiritual exercises, or a philosophical system, or even the contents of Holy Scripture.
All of those things become important ways of shaping and understanding and nurturing and practicing our faith, but they are not the source of faith; they are not the object of faith. But, in a lot of ways, it would be so much easier if they were. Then it would simply be a matter of deciding whether those things worked for you or not, of evaluating whether they seemed appealing or effective, reasonable or wise. Then it would simply be a matter of applying yourself to those teachings and disciplines, and evaluating how well you do in following them.
But Jesus is saying that the only way to have life in us is through him, through accepting his grace by eating the meal that he has prepared: himself. The grace of God is not abstract or intellectual or spiritual; it is offensively specific, coming to us in the flesh-and-blood, life and death of Jesus Christ. That grace is the very sustenance of true life: it cannot simply be emulated or admired; it must be ingested, digested, made a part of us, not just once, but every day. And those are hard words to swallow, because we want to take care of ourselves. We don’t want to admit that all of us, all of us, are starving for that grace.
The question isn’t whether we need the food that Jesus offers us; the only question is whether we will stay at the table, whether we can accept that Jesus truly has the words of eternal life, that Jesus truly provides real sustenance that we cannot get for ourselves. If we do, when we do, we realize not only how hungry we have been and how filled we are becoming, but also how much room there is left at the table: enough for everyone, enough for the whole world, enough even for those who have refused so far to sit down.
And that can be hard to swallow, too, if we want things to be first-come, first serve. But grace, in every respect, requires humility. There is nothing we can do to earn it; there is nothing we can do to get it; there is nothing to do but accept it, and then offer it ourselves to others in turn. Because the best news about grace is that, like love and hope and faith and everything that truly matters, God always offers more than enough for us, and the more we give it away, the more we have left.
 The Greek word, skleros, has the sense of a hard object that is impervious to force; literally, this teaching is like running into a brick wall.