Cannibals and Vampires
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Cannibals and Vampires”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.
2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:
14 "Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;
17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;
18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"
61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
65 And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
“Cannibalism is never just about eating.”
So says anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday of the New York Times.
For some, cannibalism is a ritual meant to pass on the life power or positive qualities of the person who is eaten. For others, it is a means of survival that carries with it so strong a determination to live that one can overcome the nauseating notion of eating another person.
Now, some of us can see how the topic of cannibals and vampires flows quite naturally from this scripture passage, while others might fail to see the relevance. These are, I’ll admit, somewhat taboo subjects in the context of Christian worship.
But - they are not out of line with the historical interpretation of this selection of God’s holy Word. As early as the second century, Christians were accused by their opponents of being cannibals. Now, understand that this was not an unusual charge for political or philosophical foes in that time period. However, in this case, it might not have been completely unwarranted.
Jesus claims in this text that the eating of his flesh is life-giving. Not unlike the beliefs of cannibalistic tribes who eat the remains of ancestors or enemies to incorporate their vital qualities.
Now the charge of vampirism is slightly more contemporary, but might be just as accurate. Jesus actually says that drinking his blood will lead to eternal life.
Again, not unlike the vampire who drinks blood to maintain an eternal state of being undead.
Jesus also talks about the relationship involved in eating his flesh and drinking his blood.
He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” In both cannibalism and vampirism, relationship is part of the equation – remember, “Cannibalism is never just about eating.” And for a vampire, part of the point of biting and blood-sucking is to turn their victims into one of them, creating for themselves more fiendish companions.
So, we can see that there may be some basis in this text for the charge that Christians are indeed vampires and cannibals.
At this point, many of you, I hope, might be thinking – “hey, wait a minute, Amy. We don’t take this flesh and blood thing literally!”
And you might have a point.
But chew on this:
One of the great theological divisions of the Reformation was over how Jesus is present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Through complex philosophical arguments, the Roman Catholic Church had been able to understand this text in the literal sense. The elements of bread and wine, through the right words intoned by the right people, actually transformed in their very substance into the actual factual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Reformers took issue with this, but they were largely divided about how to solve this theological conundrum. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their contemporary Ulrich Zwingli all had different views on exactly how Christ is present in the elements of bread and wine. They wrestled with this matter because they knew it was of ultimate importance. It was more than a matter of life and death. It was a matter of eternal life.
Jesus says we must eat his flesh (and the word for “eat” here is really graphic – something along the lines of gnawing and crunching). He says we must drink his blood. There’s no mention of wine, no palatable metaphoric substitute in a golden chalice. Eat flesh and drink blood, become cannibals and vampires - this is what we must to do abide in Christ, to have life now and life eternal. This is super gross stuff, and even his own disciples are offended. Many of them walk off the team. They didn’t sign up to be cannibals and vampires, no sir.
Now, this is a very common scenario in the Gospel of John. Jesus says something outlandish and offensive. People take him literally and get totally confused or turned off. Jesus shrugs, turns to his buddies and says, “What did I say? I just said you have to be born again. Or eat my flesh and drink my blood. What’s wrong with that?”
We need to understand that John’s Gospel was written for insiders, a group of Christians who had been persecuted and thrown out of synagogues and cities and even their own homes. They had formed a tight-knit Christian community with code words and symbols all their own. They saw Jesus as the one with special, hidden knowledge that not everyone could understand. So they loved remembering how Jesus would speak in ways that confounded and even offended those who weren’t on the inside of his select group.
So it’s rather probable that Jesus wasn’t insisting we become cannibals and vampires, that we literally eat his flesh and drink his blood. I’m sure most of you have figured that out already.
But what he is saying may be even more offensive, even more difficult to hear, even more difficult to follow.
As we heard in the passage from Joshua this morning, God is rather exclusive. God demands the people of Israel serve only Yahweh. They must forget about the gods of Egypt and not be tempted by the gods of the Amorites. They must serve Yahweh and Yahweh alone.
This was a VERY unusual demand in the ancient near-east. Most other cultures in that time and place worshipped multiple gods. If someone else’s gods seemed to be doing a better job than yours, you could go over and worship them, no problem.
But Yahweh is different. Yahweh is exclusive. The very first commandment God gives to the Israelites is “you shall have no other gods before me.” And at the end of Joshua’s life, as the Israelites are preparing for new leadership in a new land, the renewal of the covenant between God and the Israelites is “choose this day whom you will serve” – Yahweh, or some other gods. Because you can’t do both.
In our pluralistic society, in our globalized culture, this exclusivity is at best uncomfortable and at worst totally unacceptable. Buddhist meditation and philosophy have great merits. Earth-centered spiritual traditions express meaningful truths about our connection to nature. Hindu stories and concepts resonate with our life experiences, too. And none of those gods are bothered in the least if folks pick and choose which gods to worship. They can worship as many as they like without judgment or condemnation.
Then there are those who, whatever their espoused religious tradition, worship the gods of power and wealth, the gods of appearance, accumulation, and acceptance. This veiled polytheism permeates our culture.
The exclusivism of Yahweh’s tribe, and of the Christ-followers who are grafted onto it, is a difficult teaching. It is hard to accept.
That is, unless you have eaten Christ’s flesh and drank his blood.
Theologians have argued for centuries about this passage’s relationship to the Lord’s Supper. John’s gospel doesn’t contain a Passover feast like the other gospels, but the references to bread as Jesus’ flesh and drinking the blood of Christ all seem to allude to the Eucharist. Martin Luther, however, insisted that this passage “cannon be applied to the Sacrament,” saying this is not “the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made.” This is not about cannibalism. We are not required to become vampires.
Instead, New Testament professor Douglas Hare insists that “For John eating the bread and drinking the wine are metaphors for taking into one’s body, mind, and soul the climax of the incarnation in the death of Jesus.”
This wholesale consumption, involving not just the digestive system but all of the body, and the mind, and the soul – this is what Jesus invites us to do. He tells us It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. In the secret club of Johannine Christians, the grotesque idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus signaled a single-hearted, full-fledged, all-consuming commitment to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.
And once you have tasted of this commitment, you realize that you will not survive without it. Jesus turns to the dozen disciples who were not so offended or confused or grossed out that they had to turn back from following him. And he asks if they are going to take off on him, too. Peter answers, Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
For Peter and the other 11, there wasn’t a choice between beef, chicken, or fish. They can’t explore Hinduism or worship the gods of power alongside Jesus. Not because of God’s exclusivity or Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God. In the disciples’ experience, without Jesus they will starve to death. His words are spirit and life. He is the Holy One of God. There is no other food that will satisfy their hunger for truth, no other drink that will quench their thirst for righteousness. Only an all-consuming commitment to Jesus can do that.
When Jesus says he is the only way to God, that we have to consume him completely to have eternal life, he’s making descriptive, not prescriptive statements. There is no doctrine, dogma, or creed, no special prayer or even sacrament that can convey this truth completely. We try to explain it, with our broken, human terms and concepts. We try to experience it, through music and meditation, worship and relationship. We try to practice it, through the sacrament of Communion. We try to encase this experience to the point where we turn it into a religion.
But no religion is God. No religion can fully realize the mystery, wonder, power, and purpose of God. Not Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, not Buddhism, or Hinduism, not the religions of the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Amorites.
“Choose this day whom you will serve” is an invitation to serve God, not religion, not doctrine, not practices. We are called to serve the God whom our experience teaches us is truly God.
The segment we skipped in the reading from Joshua reviews the Israelites’ experience with God. God gave Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age; God called and equipped Moses and Aaron to confront the powers of Egypt; God brought the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt; God gave them a land on which they had not labored, and towns that they had not built, and they live in them; they ate the fruit of vineyards and olive-yards that they did not plant.
The Israelites are then called to re-commit themselves to a God whom they know in their bodies, minds, and souls is truly God. They can’t serve any other, because, for them, there is no other.
We don’t follow Jesus, abide in him, and serve God because it’s the best choice among many options. We do it because we know there is no other option. It isn’t like we could choose to eat beef, chicken, or fish. It’s like we could choose to eat or starve to death. When you experience Jesus in that way, you abide in him, you feast on him, and you are nourished unto eternal life.
This is an offensive idea. And it turns a LOT of people off to Christianity. It’s embarrassing. We don’t get to be like everybody else, worshipping whatever god feels good at the time.
Our will to follow Jesus has to be as strong as our will to live. That will to live, now and forever, has turned people into cannibals, and, at least in fiction, into vampires. But in eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, we are transformed into living, breathing disciples of Jesus Christ.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.