Flesh and Blood Communion
John 6:51-58 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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.”
I recently saw a bumper sticker that referenced John 6:54. It said something about choosing life. At first I thought it might be an anti-abortion reference, but checking things out on my smart phone I realized that it referenced Jesus’ claim that eating his flesh and drinking his blood would lead to eternal life. I don’t know who produced the sticker but it seemed to be a Roman Catholic version of the distinctive evangelical text—John 3:16. Is it believing or eating? Theology seems to offer choices, and there’s no better place to reflect on such things than the Gospel of John.
This is the fourth of five readings from John 6. Jesus has fed the 5000 and now faces questions about whether he will continue feeding the masses. He offers instead his flesh and blood as true food and true drink. The bread he shared with them in the first encounter would last for a day at most, but eating and drinking his flesh and blood would lead to eternal life. It’s not surprising that not everyone found this appetizing. It serves as a reminder why many contemporaries of early Christians thought they were cannibals.
As I’ve noted in previous reflections, this chapter has taken on a distinctively Eucharistic interpretation. Since John lacks an institution narrative (Jesus washes feet instead in John 13), this is seen as a theological foundation for the Eucharist. Bread and wine serve as symbols of body and blood, so that be ingesting them one partakes of Jesus’ spiritual body and blood, and thus are made ready for eternal life. In Roman Catholic thought this passage provided a biblical foundation for the doctrine of transubstantiation. So consider the words of Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on John:
972 There is great usefulness in eating this sacrament, for it gives eternal life; thus he says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. For this spiritual food is similar to material food in the fact that without it there can be no spiritual life, just as there cannot be bodily life without bodily food, as was said above. But this food has more than the other, because it produces in the one who receives it an unending life, which material food does not do: for not all who eat material food continue to live. For, as Augustine says, it can happen that many who do take it die because of old age or sickness, or some other reason. But one who takes this food and drink of the body and blood of our Lord has eternal life. For this reason it is compared to the tree of life: “She is the tree of life for those who take her” (Prv 3:18); and so it is called the bread of life: “He fed him with the bread of life and understanding” (Sir 15:3). Accordingly, he says, eternal life, because one who eats this bread has within himself Christ, who is “the true God and eternal life,” as John says (1 Jn 5:20). [Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Lecture 7 -- http://dhspriory.org/thomas/John6.htm]
One needn’t, in my mind, embrace the doctrine of transubstantiation to affirm the life-giving properties of the Eucharist, as promoted here in John 6.
The message of John 6 is that material bread, while important to the sustenance of human life, is insufficient. There is more to life than the physical realm. There is also the spiritual realm. We are both creatures of the earth and creatures of heaven. The Eucharist seems to connect the two. Bread and Wine are products of the earth. The Eucharistic Bread and Eucharistic Cup take those earthy elements and turn them into something spiritually nourishing. They are the means of salvation—in that they connect us to Christ.
John Calvin was clear in his rejection of transubstantiation, but he affirmed the presence of Christ in the sacrament. It was, for him, no mere memorial as it was with Ulrich Zwingli. Of the message of John 6, he writes:
Such is the presence of the body (I say) that the nature of the Sacrament requires a presence which we say manifests itself here with a power and effectiveness so great that it not only brings an undoubted assurance of eternal life to our minds, but also assures us of the immortality of our flesh. Indeed, it is now quickened by his immortal flesh, and in a sense partakes of his immortality. [Institutes of Christian Religion, IV:17:32]
So what do we make of these words from the Gospel of John, which speak so boldly of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking of his blood? What do they convey to us about the Eucharist? In what sense does communion provide sustenance to our spiritual lives, even as bread provides sustenance to our physical lives? We can even push this a bit further—what does John’s account say to us about how we observe the sacrament? If it is spiritually a means of communing with Jesus in a way that is transformational then how does heaven impact earth? In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul speaks of partaking worthily and discerning the body. It seems clear to me that Paul is speaking of the horizontal dimension of the supper. That leads to a further question—how do the vertical (divine-human) relationships intersect with the horizontal (human-human) relationships?