Reflections on the Eucharistic dialogue of John 6

Editor’s note: This semester, as last, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are thought canonical, excerpts will appear here under the TH225 tag after submission and grading. For last semester, see the TH200 tag.

In this assignment, we are asked to discuss the single story from the New Testament that we would tell if asked our “favorite” story from it, with particular attention to “meaning [that we] … draw from it” and the “impact [that it] … has had” on us. For me, that is the Eucharistic dialogue of John 6, the prototypical “hard saying,” and the meaning that I took from it had a significant impact on my path.

I.

After the conclusion of the so-called “feeding of the five thousand,”at the pinnacle of His popularity, 1 Jesus seeks solitude on a hillside until evening, whereafter He and the Twelve sailed to Capharnaum overnight. 2 The next morning, the crowds followed Him—perhaps, says Haydock’s Commentary, hoping for another food-related miracle. 3 The lead-in to the Eucharistic dialogue which follows is complex, interweaving two distinct themes. First, Jesus tells the crowd that they are have been fed with perishable food, and should instead seek the imperishable bread of heaven that the Son of Man will give them. 4 Second, Jesus tells them to focus not on earning the perishable food of the world but to earn the imperishable food just mentioned by “believ[ing] in the man whom He has sent.” 5 The crowd then asks Jesus for a miracle to authenticate His testimony. What happens next, in which these two themes come together in what is said by the crowd and by Jesus, bears extended quotation.

They said to him, …. our fathers had manna to eat in the desert…. Jesus said to them, Believe me when I tell you this; the bread that comes from heaven is not what Moses gave you. The real bread from heaven is given only by my Father. God’s gift of bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the whole world. Then, Lord, they said, give us this bread all the while.

But Jesus told them, It is I who am the bread of life; he who comes to me will never be hungry, he who has faith in me will never know thirst … The Jews were by now complaining of his saying, I am myself the bread which has come down from heaven. Is not this Jesus, they said, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother are well known to us? What does he mean by saying, I have come down from heaven?

Jesus answered them, … Believe me when I tell you this; the man who has faith in me enjoys eternal life. It is I who am the bread of life. Your fathers, who ate manna in the desert, died none the less; the bread which comes down from heaven is such that he who eats of it never dies. I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world.

Then the crowd fell to disputing with one another, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Whereupon Jesus said to them, Believe me when I tell you this; you can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood. The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, lives continually in me, and I in him. As I live because of the Father, the living Father who has sent me, so he who eats me will live, in his turn, because of me. Such is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not as it was with your fathers, who ate manna and died none the less; the man who eats this bread will live eternally.

It is hard to overstate just how offensive must have seemed to his audience: Not only perhaps blasphemous in Jesus’ claimed relationship with God, but moreover repugnant in its cannibalistic-sounding particulars. (Recall, as much as anything, that for His Jewish audience, consumption of any meat with its blood still within it was forbidden by Genesis 9:4, and here is this man insisting that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood!) Small wonder that many left. 6

So: At the height of His popularity, Jesus told a multitude something that sounded spectacularly offensive to their sensibilities. But perhaps the first time he raises the point, in verse 35, He spoke but figuratively? That interpretation is, in my view, foreclosed by Jesus’ reaction to the crowd’s ruffled feathers. Seeing His audience bristle, He does not say anything to encourage a figurative or metaphorical interpretation, but rather, He digs in, insisting upon, intensifying, and underscoring the teaching all the more. 7 Twice. He twice escalates in response to their doubts, and the more his followers bridle, the more forceful, visceral, and (to the audience) repulsive his language becomes. At first, He merely identifies himself as the bread of life in verse 35, before escalating by insisting that his flesh must be “eaten”in verse 52, where the Greek verb is phagein, to eat, simpliciter, and when He at last insists that “he who eats on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” in verse 55, the Greek verb is trogein, which carries the connotation of knawing, munching, or crunching with teeth. 8 (The Vulgate renders this not with the more common edo, to eat, or comedo, to consume or devour, but rather manduco, to chew upon or knaw.) Raymond Brown suggests, plausibly, that St. John is using the word precisely in order “to emphasize the realism of the eucharistic flesh and blood.” 9

Can this passage possibly be taken literally? After I became a Christian, I converted to the Catholic Church in significant part because I concluded that it must be. Like Brown, I think that the teaching of the Eucharistic dialogue of John 6 “cannot possibly be a metaphor for accepting his revelation,” and I concluded that the text will not bear a figurative understanding. 10 Certainly, Jesus spoke figuratively at times, but whereas He promised the Samaritan woman living water that would bring eternal life, He did not say “I am the living water,” nor repeat it with such force as here. It is, moreover, abundantly clear that Jesus could mean what he says literally, in the sense that He certainly has the power to feed to a multitude His body and blood while that body and blood remain undivided: The miraculous multiplication of the undivided loaves and fish (which, recall, immediately precedes this dialogue) precludes our saying otherwise.

Still, it’s a fair question that the crowd asks: “How can this man give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink?” 11

That the dialogue under discussion prefigures the Eucharist is not uncontested. 12 Nevertheless, my own view is that the dialogue’s meaning snaps into sharp focus and its meaning becomes inescapable when taken in connection with the events of the last supper. Let us turn now, briefly, to that narrative.

By way of context, we know that Jesus has been identified as the lamb of God, and we know what that meant to people of that time. 13 We know that the day after the last supper, Jesus—our high-priest after the order of Melchizedek who had offered bread and wine rather than animal sacrifices—would offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind. 14 We know that the passover sacrifice was eaten. 15 We also know, from the dialogue under discussion, that Jesus has said that we (1) must eat His flesh and drink His blood, or (2) we shall have no life in us. Even if the first clause is not to be taken literally, if the second clause must be taken literally, then it must follow that is some means by which believers in every age can do so, otherwise His promises of salvation are empty. Furthermore, the promise of John 6 is given in the future tense: Jesus promises that at some then-later point, “Jesus will provide never-failing food and drink.” 16 So things stood as the cross hove horrifyingly into view.

And “then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.” 17 Jesus and the twelve retire to the upper room to celebrate the passover. At that meal, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, saying: “This is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”And in the same way, he took the cup, saying: “This is the new covenant in my blood, which is to be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” 18

You must eat my flesh; this is my flesh. You must drink my blood; this is my blood. I suppose that it is possible that both John 6 and the words of institution are figurative, but my own conclusion during my conversion process was that each text is most plausibly understood separately in the literal sense, and that when they are taken together, especially in view of the economy of salvation as we understood it, the literal interpretation has inescapable force. 19 Perhaps the literal sense can be avoided, but it would involve working terribly hard for no particularly good reason.

II.

This passage’s impact on me is straightforward to describe: It supplied a threshold criterion by which I could determine, having become a Christian, to which of the various Christian churches I should belong. If one takes the Lord at his word, it seemed to me, it is therefore necessary to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and this necessarily implies some means by which this can be done. As I tried to figure out to which Church I should belong, my conclusion that the discourse of John 6 must be taken literally winnowed my options: Only the the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and to some extent the Lutheran Church seemed to say that one can, and, at communion, in fact eat His flesh and drink His blood.

The Council of Trent’s exposition of the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist was hammered out at the Council’s thirteenth session:

[In the] Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of those sensible things … And because Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod now declares it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation. 20

The Eastern Orthodox churches believe likewise; the 1850 Catechism of St. Philaret helpfully summarizes: “The Communion is a Sacrament, in which the believer, under the forms of bread and wine, partakes of the very Body and Blood of Christ, to everlasting life.” 21 This is possible because by the sacramental action of the celebrant of the Eucharistic liturgy,

the bread and wine are changed, or transubstantiated, into the very Body of Christ, and into the very Blood of Christ. In the exposition of the faith by the Eastern Patriarchs, it is said that the word transubstantiation is not to be taken to define the manner in which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord; … but only … that the bread truly, really, and substantially becomes the very true Body of the Lord, and the wine the very Blood of the Lord. 22

The Lutheran Augsburg Confession takes a different tack. It insists only that the Lutheran Churches “teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present,” 23 and in Melanchthon’s Apologia Confessionis Augustanae, a contemporaneous exposition and defense thereof, 24 we read:

The Tenth Article has been approved, in which we confess that we believe, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered, with those things which are seen, bread and wine, to those who receive the Sacrament. This belief we constantly defend, as the subject has been carefully examined and considered. For since Paul says, 1 Cor. 10:16, that the bread is the communion of the Lord’s body, etc., it would follow, if the Lord’s body were not truly present, that the bread is not a communion of the body, but only of the spirit of Christ. And we have ascertained that not only the Roman Church affirms the bodily presence of Christ, but the Greek Church also both now believes, and formerly believed, the same. For the canon of the Mass among them testifies to this, in which the priest clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ. And Vulgarius, who seems to us to be not a silly writer, says distinctly that bread is not a mere figure, but is truly changed into flesh. And there is a long exposition of Cyril on John 15, in which he teaches that Christ is corporeally offered us in the Supper. For he says thus: Nevertheless, we do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But that we have no mode of connection with Him, according to the flesh, this indeed we entirely deny. And this, we say, is altogether foreign to the divine Scriptures. For who has doubted that Christ is in this manner a vine, and we the branches, deriving thence life for ourselves? Hear Paul saying 1 Cor. 10:17; Rom. 12:5; Gal. 3:28: We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are, nevertheless, one in Him; for we are, all partakers of that one bread. Does he perhaps think that the virtue of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily? And a little after: Whence we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the habit, which we call love, but also by natural participation, etc. We have cited these testimonies, not to undertake a discussion here concerning this subject, for His Imperial Majesty does not disapprove of this article, but in order that all who may read them may the more clearly perceive that we defend the doctrine received in the entire Church, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered with those things which are seen, bread and wine. And we speak of the presence of the living Christ [living body]; for we know that death hath no more dominion over Him, Rom. 6:9.

By contrast, the Westminister Confession insists that although transsubstantiation, “[t]hat doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood … by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason,” and gives rise to superstition and error, nevertheless,

[w]orthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. 25

And the Articles of Religion advance a materially-identical charge about Transubstantiation, before insisting that, nevertheless, “[t]he Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.” 26 There are subtle differences between these two positions, but where they differ fatally from the received tradition acknowledged by the Catholic, Orthodox, and (so far as we have said thusfar, but more on this anon) Lutheran churches is their common denial of the possibility of a literal, real bodily presence of Christ. That proposition is at war with my interpretation of the the Eucharist, which is grounded primarily in the Eucharistic dialogue of John 6, which therefore exclude from my consideration those churches which proceed from those confessions.

Not so subtle are the differences between the clarity of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, on the one hand, and what would appear to be the jumbled incoherence into which Lutheranism rapidly lapsed. In due course, the seemingly-favorable 1530 Augsburg Confession quoted above lapsed into a hostile hodgepodge of doctrine reflected in the 1536 Wittenberg Concord, 1537 Smalcald Articles, and 1577 Formula of Concord. The doctrine seemingly-reflected in the Augsburg Confession, sometimes termed “consubstantiation,” “according to which there are two factors, viz., the material bread and wine, and the immaterial or spiritual body of Christ, united or consubstantiated in the consecrated sacramental symbols,” was attacked by reformed theologians as “not differ[ing] in kind from the Papist doctrine of Transubstantiation, according to which there is indeed but one element in the consecrated symbol, but that is the very body and blood of Christ into which the bread and wine have been transmuted.” 27 Lutheran Apologists were swift to throw the doctrine under the bus. They insisted that the Lutheran Church had “uniformly … denied” consubstantiation and “rejected the … imput[ation of the doctrine] to her,” 28 pointing out that the Formula of Concord “reject[ed] and condemn[ed] … [t]he papistic transubstantiation, when it is taught in the Papacy that in the Holy Supper the bread and wine lose their substance and natural essence, and are thus … changed into the body of Christ,” and insisted that although “the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally; yet not in a Capernaitic, but in a supernatural, heavenly mode.” 29 Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, it says, “is not [physical or] earthly, nor Capernaitic; nevertheless it is true and substantial…..”

At the same time, however, and in almost the same breath, the Formula rejected the Calvinist, Anabaptist, and Anglican positions that “in the Holy Supper the body of Christ is not received orally with the bread; but that with the mouth only bread and wine are received, the body of Christ, however, only spiritually by faith,” that “the bread and wine are only figures, similitudes, and representations of the far absent body and blood of Christ,” that “the bread and wine are no more than a memorial, seal, and pledge, through which we are assured that when faith elevates itself to heaven, it there becomes partaker of the body and blood of Christ as truly as we eat bread and drink wine in the Supper,” and most vitally of all, “[t]hat unbelieving, impenitent Christians do not receive the true body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, but only bread and wine.” The Formula “utterly [rejected and] condemn[ed] the Capernaitic eating of the body of Christ, as though His flesh were rent with the teeth, and digested like other food,” and then, in the same sentence, insisted that

according to the simple words of the testament of Christ, the true, yet supernatural eating of the body of Christ, as also the drinking of His blood, which human senses and reason do not comprehend, but as in all other articles of faith our reason is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and this mystery is not apprehended otherwise than by faith alone, and revealed in the Word alone.

This is a dense thicket of words to uncertain effect. Perhaps it can be resolved and accounted for; it is beyond our scope to definitively resolve. Suffice to say that when I evaluated lutheranism, these muddled explanations struck me as an awfully busy, strained attempt to evade of what seemed to me to be the clear import of the relevant scriptural texts. I therefore rejected it and moved on. 30

* * *

The Eucharistic Dialogue of John 6 provides vital contextualization that helps explain the Last Supper—which, in turn, provides a vital contextualization to John 6, asking the pregnant question posed by Jesus’ critics: “How can this man give us his flesh and blood to eat and drink?” As it turns out, with God, all things are possible. 31

 

Notes:

  1. See, e.g., John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Matthew 8-15 426 (1987).
  2. See Jn 6:15 et seq.
  3. Available at http://haydock1859.tripod.com/id99.html (all web resources herein cited as last visited Jan. 14, 2015).
  4. Jn 6:26-27.
  5. Jn 6:27, 29.
  6. Jn 6:67.
  7. Francis Moloney, The Gospel of John 219 (1998).
  8. See id., at 221.
  9. Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel Acccording to John I-XII 283 (1966).
  10. See id., at 284. Brown adduces what we would now regard as an originalist analysis to show that any metaphorical sense of the phrasing would have a completely different ring antithetical to the “ring” of the passage. Cf. Frank H. Easterbrook, The Role of Original Intent in Statutory Construction, 11 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 59, 61 (1988) (situating the meaning of a text in “the ring the words would have had to a skilled user of words at the time”).
  11. Jn 6:52; see Moloney, supra note 7, at 219.
  12. See, e.g., Brown, at 272.
  13. See Jn 1:29; Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper 16 ff. (1999).
  14. See Heb 7:9; Nikolaus Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass 121 (1902).
  15. See, e.g., Hahn, supra, at 20 ff.
  16. Moloney, supra note 7, at 214.
  17. Lk 22:7.
  18. Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:19-20.
  19. To take only a few examples from the Church Fathers: St. Cyril of Jerusalem remarks that Jesus had, “by his own will, once changed water into wine at Cana in Galilee. So why should we not believe that he can change wine into blood?” Quoted in Alistair McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader 520 (2d ed, 2001).  St. John Chrysostom remarks that “His word cannot deceive, but our senses are easily beguiled … Since then the word says, ‘This is my body,’ let us both be persuaded and believe, and look at it with the eyes of the mind … How many now say, I would wish to see His form, the mark, His clothes, His shoes. Lo! You see Him, Thou touchest Him, you eat Him. And thou indeed desirest to see His clothes, but He gives Himself to you not to see only, but also to touch and eat and receive within you.” Homily 82 on Matthew c.4, available at http://newadvent.org/fathers/200182.htm. St. Hilary of Poitiers remarks that Jesus Himself says: “My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As to the verity of the flesh and blood, then, there is no room left for doubt. For now both from the declaration of the Lord Himself and our own faith, it is truly flesh and truly blood.” On the Trinity 8:14, available at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/330208.htm. Accord, e.g., 2 Faith of the Early Fathers 58-59 (Jurgens, ed.. 1979) (“The bread again is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ” (St. Gregory of Nyssa)); id., vol. 3, at 30-31 (“not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body” (St. Augustine of Hippo)).
  20. Available at https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct13.html.
  21. Available at http://www.pravoslavieto.com/docs/eng/Orthodox_Catechism_of_Philaret.htm
  22. Id.
  23. Available at http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php#article10.
  24. Available at http://bookofconcord.org/defense_8_holysupper.php#article10.
  25. Available at http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs.
  26. Available at http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html.
  27. 2 William Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine 451 (3d ed. 1868).
  28. G. Diehl, The Lord’s Supper, in Lectures on the Augsburg Confession 348-49 (1888); accord, e.g., Charles Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and its Theology 130 (1872).
  29. Available at http://bookofconcord.org/fc-ep.php.
  30. Here we shall leave off a story that is picked up in The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA __ (2012), available at http://simondodd.org/docs/Simon%20Dodd,%20The%20Catholic%20Proposition%20-%20final.pdf, and Authoritative teaching, 3 MPA __ (2013)
  31.  Mt 19:26.