I love zombies. And if a zombie apocalypse of any kind actually does happen, you should know that I’m the guy you want to stick by when the dead rise from their graves to end civilization as we know it. I’m gonna be one of the ones who makes it. I’ve read the comic books, I’ve watched the movies and the TV shows, I’ve played the video games, I’ve done all the research. But more than all that I believe I have discovered the secret zombie antidote that no one else is talking about. It’s like the Hydroxychloroquine of the zombie plague, only I think it might actually work.
Now, sure, there are a lot of more likely contenders than zombies for the cause of the end of the world: nuclear war, climate change, asteroid strike, deadly pandemic. But for whatever reason, if I had to choose, I’d choose zombies—hands down. There’s just something about them that’s captured the dark side of my imagination. And I’m not alone in that. We have a zombie-saturated pop culture. In the 100 years since the first zombie tales were imported from Haiti, the zombie has risen to become the ubiquitous titan of both the horror genre and of our fantasies of the apocalypse. Why are we so fascinated by zombies?
Well, in the zombie masses—so mindless, so restless, so violent, so endlessly, ravenously hungry—we recognize something of ourselves, over and over again. There’s a moment in most of the great zombie stories where the audience recognizes that zombies aren’t all that different from us, or there’s a moment where a character realizes that the small pockets of humanity that have escaped being eaten by the zombie horde do not really behave all that much better than the monsters do themselves. The zombies don’t just scare us, they resemble us at our worst, and that’s really frightening.
But I think there’s something even deeper—something deeper that we’re subconsciously contemplating when our imagination is drawn into a zombie story. Which, obviously, brings me to our scripture reading for this morning. At the heart of the Christian worldview is this wacky idea—eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. It’s a little disturbing. During the second century when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, one of the charges that was leveled against us was that we were cannibals. It wasn’t true, but a reading like today’s reading helps you to understand a little bit where the confusion might have arisen from.
I mean, eat your flesh and drink your blood? Gross, Jesus. Also, read the room. People are not taking this well. As the story continues, many of Jesus’ followers, unable to understand the acceptability of such a strange teaching, stop following Jesus.
It’s a mystery of faith, I guess. And it’s hard to say anything about a mystery, right? That’s the thing about mysteries—they’re beyond us. But sometimes it can be helpful to look at the shadow that a mystery casts. When we see the shape of that shadow, we learn something more about whatever is casting that shadow. And I think the shadow manifestation of this mystery in our time is something we’re all too familiar with—ZOMBIES.
Zombies destroy the world. Christ, the logos, created the world. Zombies rise from their graves, killing the world and making a mockery of life with their gross, decayed bodies and their peculiar appetites. Jesus promises to raise us from the grave on the last day, giving us new life on a renewed earth. In zombie stories, hell overflows, and the damned walk the earth where all they want to do is to eat your flesh and drink your blood. And if they bite you, you become an undead zombie yourself. In the gospel, God chooses to come from heaven to walk among us in the form of Jesus asking us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and if we do, then we have eternal life—the biggest kind of life, which is the antithesis of turning into a zombie.
Zombies represent the very worst of our carnal natures. They are decaying. They are mindless. They run together in mobs. They are relentless. They don’t feel anything. They devour everything. They’re never full. They’re contagious. They are the rotten embodiment of the very worst aspects of all flesh. A zombie appears to be able to “live” it’s undead existence forever, but zombies are the exact opposite of eternal life—of the biggest kind of life. They are the horrific inversion of the idea of a loving God offering true food and true drink to us. If you want to understand the mystery of the flesh and the blood, don’t think of cannibalism, maybe don’t even think of communion, think of the opposite of the zombie apocalypse.
I tend to agree with Martin Luther who didn’t believe that this passage was about communion (either literally or symbolically) at all. That’s one way of sort of dismissing it (Ah, he’s just talking about communion), but we can do better than explaining it away. If it was that simple, why did Jesus let all of those disciples walk away from him not understanding? I think that Jesus goes so far as to command us to eat his flesh and drink his blood because in Jesus’ incarnation the full goodness of the human body, the full goodness of the world, the full goodness of creation, and of flesh and blood and resurrection itself is realized.
If zombies represent the very worst of our carnal natures, Jesus wants us to know that there is also a very best. That’s something we don’t always realize. Sometimes, we think it's all gradations of bad sloping steeply down to the zombie apocalypse. But it’s not. God made this world and made it good. God made the human form and made it good. God formed your body in your mother’s womb. And God even took on the form of a human body for herself through Jesus. A religion that believes that God came to us in the flesh is a religion of believers who are, in some way, immune to becoming zombies. Flesh is too good, too holy, to go so wrong.
When Jesus offers us his flesh and blood, he’s reveling in the goodness of all creation for us and in the goodness of our bodies for us and in the goodness of intimacy between us. We carry so much shame around bodies. We’re so judgmental about the bodies of others and our own bodies too. How often do we label as GROSS that which God simply called good! So, Jesus reminds us: To the horror of grossed-out Christians through the centuries, Jesus comes to us as with the goodness of a living, breathing, laughing, crying, chewing, swallowing, digesting, walking, running, jumping, stumbling, gendered, sexual, sneezing, sensuous, fleshy, human body. Believe that—believe it with the shocking passion of eating it and abiding with it as closely as flesh in flesh—and you might just be able to believe that the body God gave to you is holy as well.
And it doesn’t have to be gross. Cannibalism is gross, but that’s not what this is. As long as we can trust that this is really not cannibalism, we can let ourselves explore this divine cuisine. Instead of being gross, could it be intimately delightful? The poet Li-young Lee gets at this, I think, with his poem From Blossoms:
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
“O to take what we love inside!” Eating is the one thing that all people must do to stay alive and the one thing we all do to take what we love inside of us. So, Jesus offers himself up as food—first as spiritual food, but then he makes sure to remind us that he is a spiritual food wrapped in real good flesh, full of life’s blood. He is alive, truly alive, incarnate and embodied—and, praise God, so are we! “from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom to sweet impossible blossom.”
Eating Jesus is not like sipping on air. It’s like sitting down to dinner in a steak house. There will be meat to chew on, jus to savor—life is a delight and God made it good: “to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.”
Zombies drain all the jus from the world. They bite delight. A world that can produce such monsters can’t be trusted or loved. But Jesus offers us the opposite vision—not a dead world devouring all flesh, but the living God feeding all the world, getting close to all the world, with the goodness of body and blood. A closeness so overwhelming, so intimate, so good, so delightful that we want to sing to God, in the words of John Denver:
You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations