For many years, our family shared Christmas lunch with friends and strangers. We’d put the word out, and eat with whoever wanted. One year, it was huge. Friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, all turned up at our door. Some of them I knew and loved; others, I hadn’t met before. But gradually I came to realise: almost everyone there was gay. And almost everyone came from a religious family, which had rejected them because of their sexuality.
Our world eats people alive. It’s how we try to build community. Only this week, during his maiden speech in Parliament, Senator Fraser Anning showed us how. He described an Australia in which “us” is white, theoretically Christian, probably male, and certainly straight; and suggested that everyone else—that is, everyone who is not-white, not-Christian, probably not-male and certainly not-straight—is a threat to be excluded or dealt with. It was a pathetic attempt to create not just a furore but a sense of social cohesion by uniting straight white “Australians” against everybody else.
What Senator Anning did was disgusting, and shows absolute contempt for the Judaeo-Christian values he claims to espouse; but it is nothing new. It is simply the latest example of an ancient technique called scapegoating. Human societies have a tendency to identify someone in their midst as “other”: and this person or people group becomes the scapegoat. They are portrayed as different, sinful, evil, somehow capable of undermining or bringing threat, even disaster, upon the society. Without a circuit breaker, the society whips itself into a frenzy of fear and hatred; and the scapegoat is eventually rejected or even killed. This gives the society a powerful shared emotional experience called catharsis, which binds the remaining members together … for a little while. And then the cycle begins again.
People have been doing this for thousands of years. Jews scapegoated Canaanites; Romans scapegoated Jewish rebels; Nazis scapegoated people who were Jewish, or Romany, or LGBTI+, or who had disabilities. Jesus was a scapegoat: Better that one man die for the sake of the mob, said the high priest, and so they killed him. Here in Australia, white people scapegoat people of colour. Indigenous Australians are portrayed as shiftless layabouts; Muslims are portrayed as terrorists; young Sudanese people are portrayed as members of violent gangs; and people seeking asylum are portrayed as a threat to our sovereignty. All are scapegoats, all so people can pretend our country is homogenous and safe; just as my Christmas friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, were scapegoated by their families and churches on the basis of their sexuality or gender.
Our world eats people alive: it always has. It’s how we try to build community. But it never works. Catharsis offers only temporary relief, which is why the cycles of hatred and exclusion keep recurring. For anything to change, we need a circuit-breaker: and that circuit-breaker is Jesus. He offered himself as the perfect scapegoat for our violence; and through that offering, exposed the scapegoating mechanism in all its ugliness and sin. And his death and resurrection, which exploded his spirit into the world, make possible a new community, a true community, based on love, and justice, and mercy, and peace.
Because of him, we no longer need to devour vulnerable people; we no longer need scapegoats. For Jesus turns our violence away from others, and invites us to devour him, instead. And he does so using incredibly visceral language, saying, “Those who munch my flesh and slurp my blood live in me, and I in them.”
His words are shocking: munch flesh, slurp blood! So why is he saying this? To understand, we need to enter his worldview. Jewish law bans anyone from eating blood, and the reason is this, according to Leviticus: “The life of the flesh is in the blood” (17:11a). Many cultures believe that the blood contains the spirit or the life-force of an animal; if we eat the blood, we consume the spirit and that spirit affects ours. In this way of thinking, if we eat steaks rare, we become slow and a bit like a cow. If we drink chicken blood, we become birdbrained and scatty and … and … and frightened by everything! If we cannibalise a warrior, the warrior’s spirit makes our spirit stronger. And if we consume Jesus Christ, his flesh and his blood, then his spirit will live in us and shape our spirits, gradually forming us into his own image.
So Jesus reckons that consuming him and being consumed by him will make us more like him; and so I reckon those of us who eat his flesh and drink his blood will become more compassionate, more hospitable, more just, and more extravagantly loving. Like Jesus, our guts will wrench when we see people being scapegoated and, like Jesus, we will reach out to those people.
During his life, Jesus was harshly criticised for eating and drinking with scapegoats. He ate with all the wrong people: sinners and sex workers and government collaborators. His guts wrenched with compassion for poor people, sick people, and people who suffered from mental illness, and he healed them. He listened to and loved foreigners and women and children.
As we consume him and are consumed by him, our Christ-consumed-hearts will also turn to such people, and to all who are sidelined and rejected today. As we befriend and come to love all sorts of people, and as they befriend and come to love us, we form a new and inclusive and quirky community of beautiful humans, who are united by the spirit of Christ. This community has no need for scapegoats, no need for violence, no thoughts of “them” and “us.” For in Christ’s community, there are no distinctions: everyone is human; and all are one in Christ.
This new way of living certainly has its challenges: but, in my experience, it is also deeply life-giving: just as Jesus promised. He said, “Those who munch my flesh and slurp my blood have life without limit,” and those who let Jesus’ hospitable and inclusive spirit shape their own will indeed know life in all its fullness.
So munch his flesh, slurp his blood: and become fully alive. Alive in love, alive in Christ, alive in each other; and alive to the possibilities of his glorious and blessed table, and all who take, and eat. Amen. Ω
A reflection on John 6:51-58, given to Sanctuary on 19 August 2018 (BP15; Year B Proper 15) © Alison Sampson, 2018.