Monday, August 09, 2021

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

This is the second part of my podcast on St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist.

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

At the end of part one of this podcast, I said that there are two different questions that we need to answer as we think about chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, is Jesus really present in the Eucharist? I suggested that in looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and that only when we have answered it should we address the second and discuss the relevance, if any, of chapter 6 to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today. It is to these two questions, then, that I now turn in part two.

Too much that is written about the relationship of St John’s Gospel chapter 6 to the Eucharist is based on assumptions already made by the writer without any attempt to understand what St John intends by the way he has reported Jesus’ miracle and Jesus’ teaching after it. We need to try to understand the chapter on its own terms.

Firstly then, whatever we think the chapter’s relevance to the Eucharist may or may not be, we should all be able to agree that Jesus’ words, at the very least, are a call to people to believe in him and not simply to believe in him intellectually. The vivid language challenges us to depend on Jesus in the way we depend on food for our physical existence. In chapter 6, there is the first of Jesus’ famous ‘I am’ sayings. Jesus makes this first ‘I am’ saying the theme of his teaching in the synagogue. Jesus says:

‘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)

Bread represents the food we need to survive. Jesus is saying that for us to survive eternally, we need to be completely dependent on him for life. He explains that the life he gives us comes out of his death.

We need to be clear that Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, makes his sacrificial offering of himself the source of the life he offers to those who come to him. It is on the basis of his death that he gives life to those who believe in him. Without his death for us, there is no life for us; and unless we accept the saving significance of his death for us, we won’t receive his life. This is very important for us to understand as there are many, including many Church leaders and theologians, who want to downplay the importance of Jesus’ death. No matter how we interpret John chapter 6 in relation to the Eucharist, Jesus makes absolutely plain that his sacrificial death is central to what he came to do and to what he offers us now.

Secondly, though, does St John intend us to see in Jesus’ words, in chapter 6, a reference to the Eucharist, and, if he does, how are we to understand the relationship between Jesus’ words and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist?

Personally, I think St John would have to have been very naive if he didn’t realize that his readers would inevitably make a connection. If every time believers met, they ate bread and drank wine because of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper and if, as they did so, they recalled his words over the bread, ‘this is my body’, and over the cup, ‘this is my blood’, surely it would be impossible for them to hear Jesus’ words in chapter 6 and not relate them to the Eucharist?

No matter how much commentators may argue that Jesus’ words don’t have to be understood as referring to the Eucharist, it is hard to see how anyone in the early Church could fail to make such a connection. That being the case, the most likely understanding of chapter 6 is that St John intended for us to make the connection. Furthermore, the way St John portrays the feeding of the 5,000 as itself a Eucharist suggests that he means us to understand the teaching of Jesus that follows as applying in some way to the Eucharist.

Thirdly, the problem, then, is that having accepted that St John must have intended for people to make the connection, what exactly is the connection? Roman Catholics would argue that the plain way of understanding Jesus’ words is to see Jesus as saying that it is literally by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist that we receive eternal life.

This, though, raises the question of whether we can receive the life of Christ apart from the Eucharist. It is a similar question to asking whether we can experience salvation without being baptized. The answer given by most believers to the question about baptism is that, theoretically, we can be saved without it, but that the New Testament does not envisage any believer not being baptized. It is a question the New Testament writers would not understand because they would never separate the two. Baptism is the God appointed means by which we express our faith and receive forgiveness. It is the same with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the God appointed means by which we feed on Christ and receive his life. The Eucharist is, in this sense, as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church expresses it, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (CCC 1324).

Fourthly, however, even if we establish a connection between chapter 6 and the Eucharist, there are still many believers who simply cannot accept that Jesus’ words mean that in the Eucharist there is actually anything real and substantive taking place. For them, the Eucharist, although important, is important as a symbol. It is indeed a symbol that points us to Christ and to our need to depend on him. The language is vivid and the symbol a powerful one, but, they would argue, we are not to think that, in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, we are actually eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. Jesus’ language in St John’s Gospel chapter 6, they think, is metaphorical, even if it does connect with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and with the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.

It is impossible here to go into the detail needed to deal with this issue properly. However, it would be dodging the question not to ask whether St John intends us to see Jesus’ language as being purely metaphorical or whether there is more to it than that.

Roman Catholics certainly believe that Jesus is not just using a dramatic metaphor. In fact, their understanding is the very opposite. They believe that in the Eucharist there is a literal eating of the body of Christ and a drinking of his blood. It is an approach that has the advantage of being clear and plain. At least you know where you are with it. It is not, however, without its problems. Again, this is not the place to go into all the wider issues, but one issue that is relevant to our consideration of chapter 6 is the question of why eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood in a literal sense would make any difference to us.

This is where the metaphorical approach is at its strongest. The bread and the wine represent the body and blood of Christ given for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. It is not Christ’s flesh and blood in and of themselves that save us, but our Lord’s offering of himself as a sacrifice for our sin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). It is by participating in his death through faith that we receive his life.

Are, then, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist simply a visual aid to faith? While they may not put it as plainly as this, it is what many, if not most, believers of all church traditions really think. Bishop Robert Barron, who is a Church leader I greatly respect, refers to a survey in the United States that suggested that 69% of Roman Catholics think the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are just symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

So, should we too see the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as symbols and nothing more? In answering this question, the New Testament itself does not give us a lot to go on. However, St Paul is highly suggestive. He writes:

‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 11:27)

St Paul continues to tell the Corinthian believers that some of them have got sick and some have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30).

Now insulting symbols can itself be very serious. We have seen here in Hong Kong, for example, how seriously China takes the abuse of national symbols. Does St Paul understand the Corinthian believers’ behaviour in a similar way, that is, in terms of insulting the symbols of Christ’s death? Or is he speaking about something even more serious still?

Immediately before these words in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, St Paul warns the Corinthian believers against participation in idol worship. What is interesting is the way he dismisses it. He doesn’t say that participation in idol worship is incompatible with being a member of the Church and a follower of Jesus. St Paul instead writes:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they cannot ‘drink the cup of the Lord’ or ‘partake of the table of the Lord’ and also take part in ceremonies in a pagan temple (1 Corinthians 10:21). While by no means conclusive, St Paul’s language suggests to me at least that he sees the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper as more than symbols, no matter how important symbols can be, although I should say that many would not agree with me.

What I personally find interesting is how the first believers themselves understood these words and came to understand the Eucharist as a result. From the end of the first century, in the writings that have come down to us, there is a very realistic understanding of the Eucharist that goes way beyond seeing the bread and the wine in purely symbolic terms. St Ignatius, for example, writing at the very beginning of the second century describes the Eucharist as the ‘medicine of immortality’ (Ephesians 20).

If you had asked St John himself how he understood Jesus’ words, I doubt whether he would have had a fully developed theological explanation as to how Christ is present in the Eucharist. As with St Paul in 1 Corinthians though, the language St John uses strongly suggests that he understood Jesus’ words to be more than a metaphor. Certainly, from the very beginning, the Church understood them as being more than just a metaphor.

My own belief is that in the Eucharist, Christ is really and truly present in a special and unique way and that in it and through it we are offered the life of Christ, made possible by the sacrificial offering by Christ of his body and blood.

Again, asking whether this life is available outside the Eucharist is like asking whether you have to be baptized to enter the Church. The answer to the question about baptism is that baptism is the way God has chosen for us to enter the Church and to receive his forgiveness. In a similar way, what is offered to us in the Eucharist is not simply the flesh and blood of Christ in a literal sense, but all of Christ and all that he has made possible by his death for us. Quite simply, in the Eucharist, we receive Christ.

Understanding the relationship between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the elements of bread and wine is undoubtedly difficult, but as Calvin put it, 'I would rather experience it than understand it' (Institutes IV.17.32).

By describing the bread and the wine as symbols, we risk making them empty symbols, mere visual aids to faith that can be easily dispensed with if we don’t find them to our liking. Bishop Robert quotes the American writer, Flannery O’Connor, who responded to someone who said the Eucharist was a symbol with the words, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'

At first, we may find such a statement shocking. But, ironically, this is precisely what has been the attitude of many church members during the pandemic. They wouldn’t express it in these words, but, in practice, this this has been how they have thought. Many have not found it hard not receiving bread and wine in the Eucharist and have been able to switch to online services with little difficulty. We may have missed seeing each other, but the bread and the wine? Not so much.

This is in stark contrast with the constant complaints that we have heard about the restaurants being closed and how hard we have found it to be restricted in other ways. It is perfectly reasonable that people should have been worried about meeting together during a pandemic, but we have been selectively worried. Not being able to receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist has not been a major concern. After all, we think, it’s only a symbol. The supermarkets remained open and sold the bread that perishes. The churches remained shut and failed to offer the bread that endures to eternal life.

The last thing Jesus did before he was betrayed was to have a Meal with his disciples at which he told them that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. They were to do this, he said, in remembrance of him. It seems an awful lot of trouble to have gone to simply to give his disciples some symbols by which to remember him, however meaningful they may be. This mattered to our Lord; it is tragic that it doesn’t matter to us too.

The response to this may be to claim that we in the Church had no choice because it was a government decision to suspend church services. True, perhaps. But other government decisions during the pandemic, even when they have been accepted by people, have been accepted with pain and sadness, and often in protest. Where has been the sadness and pain at being denied the bread and wine of the Eucharist?

Here at Christ Church while services were suspended, the consecrated bread and wine were still offered every Sunday from the ‘reserved sacrament’. I would like to be able to report that we were overwhelmed by people seeking spiritual nourishment during such a worrying time. Sadly, many preferred instead to go shopping.

After Jesus had finished his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum many of his disciples were unhappy with what he had said. ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ was their response on hearing Jesus’ words (John 6:60). Many, St John tells us, stopped following Jesus as a result (John 6:66). Jesus asks the twelve apostles: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answers for them:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

At every Eucharist, Jesus’ words of life are spoken again to us; Jesus invites us to eat and drink in remembrance of him and to feed on him, for his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink (John 6:55). Jesus promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life and that he will raise them up on the last day. As often as we ‘eat the bread’ and ‘drink the cup’ together, we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’, because it is only by, through, and in Jesus’ death that we have life, and only by feeding on him that we can abide in him.

May we, then, accept his invitation to eat him and so to live because of him.


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