A Living Eucharist: John 6

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In her novel The River Flannery O’Connor intriguingly observes:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Can this be a possible explanation for Jesus’ teaching in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel?

Over previous weeks my focus has been on the Deuteronomic historical chronicle contained in I and II Samuel concerning the tensions of government in ancient Israel and to explore its resonances with our own current political climate. This focus on the O.T. lessons has necessitated ignoring Jesus’s growing controversy with the crowd as reported by John in the sixth chapter of his gospel.

Previously in John

Growing numbers of people have begun to follow Jesus into the countryside to listen to his teaching – culminating in an event where his concern for the hunger and thirst of the crowds exposed in the open countryside as evening approaches leads to an event we know as the feeding of the five thousand. It remains a universal truth that if you want to hold people’s attention then feed them; all the more so when people are generally hungry. Having experienced a free and bountiful supper, the crowds begin to realize that Jesus is the man to stick close to.

Spurred by their questions about food, Jesus begins to point out that they have the wrong end of the stick. He tells them plainly, that what he’s offering is not a free meal, but the food of eternal life. He tells them not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for everlasting life. They then ask, Rabbi, how can we get this food?

To cut a long story short, having crossed the lake at night walking on the water Jesus makes a surprise appearance in the synagogue at Capernaum. How did you get here, they ask? We didn’t see you in any of the boats.  Jesus ignores the question and proceeds to make a series of what are known in John’s gospel as I am statements.

Chapter 6 contains three I am statements, each statement more controversial than the last:

  1. I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry.
  2. I am the bread of life, come down from heaven.
  3. I am the living bread, and this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Just when the disciples must have been signaling to Jesus to dial it back a bit, he declares:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Teaching that offends

Noticing a growing restiveness, Jesus asks the congregation if what he says offends them? They show that they are more than offended, they are scandalized. They fall over themselves in an attempt to get out of the synagogue and away from this crazy, blasphemous preacher.

His disciples also complain that this teaching is too hard to follow – it is too difficult to accept, they protest. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks them if they too will leave him? There now follows one of those magic moments when Peter breaks through the limits of imagination to tell Jesus:

Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! 

***

Familiarity with the Eucharist deafens us to the shock value of Jesus teaching in John 6. Being good Episcopalians, well-schooled in the use of metaphor when talking about the spiritual life, we dismiss the cannibalistic overtones in Jesus’ language, understanding them as hyperbole – excessive overstatement for the purposes of argument. 

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

Anglican-Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Orthodox believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is really present. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, the significance of Eucharistic elements are changed from mere bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. Roman Catholic’s have a complicated theory to explain how this happens while Anglicans cherish the words of Elizabeth I who when asked about it simply said:

I know Christ is truly present though I know not how.

Contrastingly, Protestants believe that the Eucharist is only a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper in which nothing happens to the bread and wine. In this act of remembrance, the connection between the worshiper and Jesus is spiritual, not material.

A middle way

Anglican eucharistic teaching emphasizes the centrality of the real presence. However, it also places emphasis on the process of spiritual connection – the real presence becomes real only when received in faith by the worshiper.

At the invitation to Holy Communion, the celebrant invites us with these words:

Draw near with faith and receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his Blood which he shed for you …. feed on him in your hearts, with thanksgiving.

As we receive the host and partake from the cup the priest or eucharistic minister says:

the body of Christ – the bread of heaven, the blood of Christ – the cup of salvation.

Note how statements indicating the real presence – the body and blood of Christ are coupled with spiritual metaphors – the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation. Anglican tolerance allows for a range of belief that makes room for both a material and spiritual interpretation, according to the theology of the worshiper. What is a fudge for some is for others, an expression of genius.

The term holy communion points to an action of joining together two separate entities. Literally, com-munion means into a new combined entity which Jesus describes thus:

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink and whoever eats and drinks them will remain in me and I in them.

This remaining in one another is a comingling of identities that only happens within the context of a larger communal action of the Eucharist; another Greek word which means thanksgiving?

To hear Jesus’ words only as a hyperbolic metaphor, as in O’Connor’s really big caricatures is, however, to seriously miss his point. When Jesus says: I am the light of the world, we have little difficulty in hearing this as a metaphor of association. When Jesus says: I am the bread of heaven, again we hear the metaphorical association and his original hearers understood metaphor well enough. But he then deliberately labors the statement in ways that take it beyond mere metaphorical association.

The bread of eternal life is my flesh which I give [to be consumed] for the life of the world.

This is what his hearers found a hard teaching because they realized that Jesus was no longer speaking in metaphors.

***

To truly appreciate the significance of coming to the Lord’s Table in the Eucharist I want to draw out two emphases in Jesus’ teaching in John 6. The first is his emphasis on the action of eating and drinking. The second is contained in his words: I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven.

Eating and drinking

In John 6, Jesus alienates many who want to follow him because he speaks not of the comfortable distance of spiritualized metaphor but of the immediacy of physical action. In John’s Greek, the word he uses for eating is better translated as chewing with open mouths. Eating and drinking are both actions that emphasize an intimate and raw physicality of the action. We become present to Christ and he to us, not through our spiritual imaginations but in the physical actions of eating and drinking in real time. The result of eating and drinking is ingestion – taking in. As food is ingested through eating and drinking, Christ is ingested into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

Come down from heaven

Jesus’ teaching emphasizes a public and communal physicality of being present in preference to a more distanced and individual spiritualized distance. Communion –comingling – happens physically in real time. When we spiritualize it we distance its raw physical immediacy. To follow Jesus is to engage fully with this world, not pine for the next.

There is a popular distortion of Christian teaching, all the more regrettable because it is so widespread; a distortion that places salvation as a future post-death event, the promise of everlasting life with God in heaven; pie in the sky when we die. Jesus does not speak of heaven as the future goal of our lives on earth. Christ-centered faith is thus concerned with this life, not the next, and this is exactly how the N.T understands Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus teaches that the realization of heaven – or of hell – happens in this world.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven 

communicates the urgency of the kingdom’s arrival. The kingdom is not imminent, it is not coming someday soon, or at some distant time, it is coming right now in this very moment!

Give us today our daily bread

emphasizes this. Our daily bread is to be eaten now, not sometime in the future.

***

If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus as John and the other N.T. writers present him, our first and foremost priority is to labor for the making good- the repair – of the material world of creation – in real time! It is not to prepare our souls for an eventual escape into the spiritual ether.

Therefore, Christianity is primarily concerned with the physical not the spiritual dimension of life. Participation in the Eucharist is vital for our Christian flourishing as food and water are essential for our physical wellbeing.  Our ultimate hope is not eternal rest but eternal life; life physically remade as part of a world that is in the process of being put to rights by God. Until this process finds its completion in the resurrection of the dead, it moves apace in real time with our participation and collaboration as God’s agents in real time, compelled to live by the expectations of the kingdom.

In the meantime, our focus must be on the real-time seeding, tending, and reaping of the kingdom’s harvest. As agents of the kingdom, we are engaged in an existential struggle with cosmic dimensions – against the systemic forces of evil as St. Paul warns us – that desecrate and corrupt the goodness of God’s creation. We are strengthened for this task by the physical incorporation of Christ, not into our metaphysical souls, but into the very fibers and cells of our bodies.

The Eucharist is where we feed on the food that lasts. The great 20th-century Anglican theologian and mystic, Evelyn Underhill, in her poem Corpus Christi pens this truth with an eloquence that I am incapable of. The full poem can be found at the link above and so I content myself with a more selective citation:

Come dear heart! The fields are white to harvest: come and see, as in a glass the timeless mystery of love, whereby we feed on God, our bread indeed. …Yea, I have understood how all things are one great oblation made: He on our altars, we on the world’s rood. Even as this corn, earth-born, we are snatched from the sod, reaped, ground to grist, crushed and tormented in the Mills of God, and offered at Life’s hands, a living Eucharist. 

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