Saturday, August 07, 2021

St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist (Part One)

We are in Year B of the Lectionary that gives us the readings for our services. During the Summer in Year B, the Gospel readings for five consecutive weeks all come from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. Rather than do separate podcasts on each of the Gospel readings, I have decided to record one on the whole chapter!  The podcast is in two parts.  This is the transcript of the first part.  I will post the second early next week.

The Eighth to Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: John 6:1-21

One of the most amazing passages in the New Testament is from St Paul’s first letter to Corinthians. In chapter 11, verses 23-26, St Paul writes:

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We are so familiar with these words that we rarely pay much attention to them. They are, however, really quite remarkable. They were written by St Paul to a Church he founded in Greece around AD51. The reason why he wrote them was because at the regular meeting of the Church, which centred on a Meal, believers were eating their fill of food and getting drunk with wine without waiting for the poorer members of the Church who could not get there on time.

There are a number of incredible things about what St Paul writes.

First, from this passage, we learn that just twenty years after Jesus held the Last Supper with the apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem and told his disciples they were to do this ‘in remembrance’ of him, pagans who had become believers were obeying his command in a Greek city many miles from Jerusalem.

Secondly, we learn that the Meal itself, which St Paul calls the ‘Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:20), was the central focus of the church gathering and provided the context for everything else that took place. To put it another way: the worship of believers in Corinth centred on a Meal modelled on the Last Supper and celebrated in obedience to Jesus’ command.

Thirdly, St Paul writes that Jesus’ words and instruction at the Last Supper, which St Paul had handed on to the Corinthian believers and upon which they based their meeting, had also been given to him. This means that the practice of holding the Meal and the explanation of it was widespread amongst the churches. Jesus’ institution of what we now know as the Eucharist had become an essential part of what people were taught when they became believers.

Fourthly, we only know today how important the Eucharist had become in the early Church because of the way some believers were abusing it. In fact, St Paul only wrote this passage in first Corinthians about the Eucharist in response to the abuse of it that was taking place at Corinth. References to the Eucharist are missing from the rest of St Paul’s letters, despite St Paul telling us how important the Eucharist was both to him and to Church.

So how do we explain this silence in the New Testament about something that was clearly so important? The explanation seems to be that the Eucharist was so well-known and was universally so highly regarded that there was no need to mention it. The need only arose when there was a problem.

Why am I discussing a passage in St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth when our Gospel reading is from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel? It is because what we learn about the Eucharist from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth helps to explain a puzzle in St John’s Gospel.

Each of the other Gospel writers record what are known as the ‘Words of Institution’. These are Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup and his command to do this in remembrance of him. St John, however, does not record these words in his account of the Last Supper. He records the Last Supper taking place. He describes Jesus’ action in washing the disciples’ feet as they arrived for it and Jesus’ teaching at it in what is now known as the Farewell Discourse. St John does not, however, relate the actual ‘Words of Institution’ themself.

Given how important these words of Jesus were in the early Church, this seems a strange omission by St John. They were so important that St Paul was taught them when he became a believer and was himself so convinced of their importance that he passed them on to his own converts. Why, then, did St John leave them out of his Gospel? It is inconceivable that St John didn’t know of them. After all, even pagans far from Jerusalem knew of them. St John himself, even if we don’t think he was one of those who were physically present at the Last Supper, was clearly familiar with the Gospel traditions contained in the other Gospels. What, then, is the explanation for St John leaving these words of Jesus out of his account of the Last Supper?

Firstly, St John may have felt that given how well-known Jesus’ words were, there was no need to repeat them. St John also clearly knows of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, but he doesn’t directly describe Jesus’ baptism either. St John refers to Jesus’ baptism, but seems to assume that his readers know all about it without him having to go into all the details. St Paul seems to make a similar assumption about the Eucharist when writing to his own churches.

Secondly, however, many commentators feel that St John doesn’t so much leave out Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as report them a different way. Rather than repeating what everyone knew already, St John instead reflects on their meaning, and he does this, many believe, in his account of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum after it.

The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all four Gospels, but each of the Gospel writers have their own approach to it. St John’s approach is particularly distinctive.

Firstly, St John closes chapter 5 by talking about Moses (John 5:45-47). He begins his account of the feeding of the 5,000 by telling us that Jesus went up ‘the mountain’ (John 6:3). Moses, of course, famously went up the mountain to receive the Law. St John also tells us that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). This was the time of the year when the Jewish people celebrated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and remembered their time in the wilderness. St John is inviting us to understand what he is about to tell us in the light of the story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness. There are references to this story throughout chapter 6.

After Jesus has fed the people with the loaves and fish, St John writes that the people began to say:

‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6:14)

The people see Jesus as the prophet that Moses had said God would one day raise up who would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Jesus has to withdraw from them to prevent them making him King and starting a rebellion.

Secondly, because of the way St John relates the feeding of the 5,000, it also takes on the character of a Eucharist. St John makes a point of writing that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). It was at Passover that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Interestingly, in describing what takes place, St John doesn’t say that the people ‘sat’ on the grass; he writes that they ‘reclined’ on the grass (John 6:10). (The different Bible versions don’t always reflect this in their translation.) St John uses the same Greek word here that he uses to describe the disciples’ posture when eating the Last Supper (John 13:23, 25). St John also tells us that Jesus ‘gave thanks’ over the bread (John 6:11). The word he uses is the same word as that used by St Luke and St Paul to describe Jesus giving thanks over the bread at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

Having established both the links with story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness and also the character of the feeding of the 5,000 as a Eucharist, St John relates Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

In his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus refers to God’s provision of manna for his people during their time in the wilderness and he speaks of the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:33). Many of those in the synagogue were part of the 5,000 who had been fed with the loaves and fish and, not surprisingly, have come seeking Jesus. They ask him to give them this bread always (John 6:34). Jesus then makes a startling claim. He says to them:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35)

Jesus explains how he is the living bread come down from heaven. Those who ate manna in the wilderness still died (John 6:49). The bread that Jesus will give is his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51). Whoever eats this bread will not die (John 6:50, 58). Understandably, those present don’t understand and ask how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat. Jesus replies in the following words:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.’ (John 6:53-58)

These words have divided commentators, especially commentators since the time of the European Reformation in the 16th century.

Firstly, there are those who think that these words are to be understood as a vivid metaphor for believing in Jesus. What Jesus is teaching, they argue, is the importance of believing in him and depending on him if we are to receive eternal life.

Secondly, others, such as those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, argue that these words refer directly to what we now know as the Eucharist. They see these words as St John’s version of the ‘Words of Institution’. This means, they believe, that Christ is really and truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This is how, they think, we eat his body and drink his blood. On this understanding of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ. What Roman Catholics call ‘transubstantiation’ is a miracle that they believe happens at every celebration of the Mass.

While it is clearly possible to hold both of these views together, many who follow the first interpretation reject out of hand the idea that Jesus is talking in any way about the Meal he commanded his followers to observe.

To complicate the picture, there are those who don’t think Jesus is talking about the Eucharist here in chapter 6, but who, nevertheless, think that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist.

There are, then, two different questions that we need to answer: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, what relevance, if any, does chapter 6 have for understanding the Eucharist? In looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and only when we have answered it should we go on to talk about its relevance, if any, to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today.

It is to these two questions that we will turn in part two.

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