Hard to swallow: John 6

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Today’s reading: John 5-6.

“Jesus said I had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Was he being literal?”

Fresh off the miracle of feeding the five thousand, Jesus runs from a crowd of followers who want to make him king. They pursue him around the Sea of Galilee in search, Jesus says, of their next meal. They are looking for a Messiah who will fulfill their idea of a miracle worker granting their wishes for sensual pleasures. Jesus challenges them to believe in him for who he is, the one from heaven, sent by God to give them eternal life. They turn him down and instead challenge him to produce another miracle. They have no faith in him. They think he is only a man, and they will only follow him if he can reproduce Moses’ miracle of bringing down bread from heaven. Jesus declares that he is the bread of life, the first of seven “I am” statements in the book of John.

“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:48-54

It is a hard saying, hard to swallow, and Jesus means it to be hard. There is truth in it, in the center of it, but like a day-old french baguette there is a very tough crust around it. Only the really hungry will make the effort to eat this meal, and that is just what Jesus wants. Most of the crowd find the bread too tough and turn away. How can Jesus expect them to eat him? How can he expect them to believe he is God?

Now you need to ask yourself what Jesus means by requiring this hard-to-swallow meal.  Is he literally saying that each one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life? This opinion underlies the Catholic view that the sacrament of communion conveys God’s grace and provides salvation. In this interpretation, Christ’s followers literally eat and drink Christ at communion by eating bread and drinking wine that are miraculously transformed into his body and blood.

Or is Jesus speaking in a parable, hiding a heavenly secret in an earthly picture, meaning to winnow the crowd of pleasure seekers down to the faithful few? Jesus hints at this when he says, “the Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” The divide separating Jesus and the crowd was faith. The work to which he called them was the task of believing. Specifically, he called them to believe that laying down his life would save their lives, that his broken and spilled out body and blood would make them whole. The meat of the meal was faith in Jesus. This fits most with the “whole counsel of God.” Salvation comes by faith in Jesus rather than by the practice of a sacrament. The sacraments are memorials that remind us of spiritual truths. As Jesus said, “do this to remember me.”

As a man in eating takes the morsels to himself and says, “This is bread which I believe nourishes the body, and it shall now nourish me, I take it to be my bread,” so must we do with Christ. Dear Brothers and Sisters, we must say, “Jesus Christ is set forth as a Propitiation for sin, I accept Him as the Propitiation for my sin. God gives Him to be the foundation upon which sinners’ hopes are to be built; I take Him to be the Foundation of my hopes. He has opened a fountain for sin and for uncleanness; I come to Him and desire to wash away my sin and my uncleanness in the fountain of His blood.” – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Dave King on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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4 thoughts on “Hard to swallow: John 6

  1. While Protestants and Catholics share much common ground, it would seem little is shared about the interpretation of John 6. Allow me to present the Catholic position through a series of questions.

    1) How could Jesus’ body and blood be truly present in the bread and wine? That just sounds impossible.

    One might as well ask how Jesus could be raised from the dead. Much that seems impossible to us is possible with God.

    2) Jesus is just speaking symbolically. He did not intend this to be taken literally did he?

    Catholics believe he did mean this in a literal sense, and his language supports this. Even the choice of the word for “eat” (trogo) stands out. Trogo is akin to gnawing, and as such connotes a very physical or tangible act such as stripping flesh off a bone. Not what one would expect with a symbolic action.

    Almost anticipating that this teaching will provoke controversy, Jesus chooses extremely unambiguous language: “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”

    Proving to be a hard saying (“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”), nearly the entire crowd departs. If they misunderstood the literal sense that offended them, would not Jesus have corrected their mistake? He would not allow them to turn away from the truth based on a mishearing of his word would he? No, he lets them go because he knows they cannot believe the truth.

    Further, he doubles down: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” Do we take the idea of Jesus ascending to heaven as a symbolic gesture? Or course not. Both ideas are literal.

    3) Why does Jesus not explain this to his disciples better, like he does for most of his parables?

    For the very reason that this is not a parable, he is speaking plain truth. However, he does reveal a deeper context of his teaching one year and one week later when breaking bread in the upper room he proclaims, “This is my body.” Flashback to the feeding of the five thousand and you begin to see the plan he has revealed to the Twelve about how he intends this sacrament to be distributed throughout the world, repeated over and over again as faith communities began to arise, and through all time until he comes again.

    4) Does the Bible support this literal interpretation anywhere else?

    Yes, in fact Paul himself supports this interpretation. He underscores this realism by referring to the Eucharistic “cup of blessing” as “participation in the Blood of Christ” and the bread as “participation in the Body of Christ.” He claims that anyone partaking of Holy Communion “in an unworthy manner” is “guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord”, noting that for this reason some have become sick and others have even died. Would a symbol have the power to kill someone?

    5) Haven’t the Reformers found the true meaning of this passage?

    The true meaning of this passage has always and consistently been held by the Church as representing the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Beginning with Paul, continuing with St. Ignatius of Antioch who in the year 107 wrote to the church at Smyrna about the “Real Presence”, through St. Aquinas, down to the present time. The Church has never wavered in Her interpretation. Ignatius was a disciple of John himself. He likely knew something about the Bread of Life discourse.

    First to consider an alternative interpretation were the Gnostics, famous for compromising truth to support their own interests. Not exactly a resounding endorsement for the opposing point of view. While most Reformers chose a non-literal meaning, even Martin Luther held close to the Catholic view. Here he is in his unmistakable tongue:

    “Who, but the devil, has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that is is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as the Sacramentarians: not one of them ever said, It is only bread and wine; or, the body and blood of Christ is not there present.”
    –Luther’s Collected Works, Wittenburg Edition, no. 7 p, 391

    6) In the end, does it really make a difference? Isn’t believing in Jesus all that matters?

    Of course believing in Jesus matters, but to Catholics this is the very Jesus we are talking about, the one who gives himself to us in the Eucharist. None of us seek to believe something about Jesus, we want to believe everything about Jesus, and Jesus’ words seem to say something about this teaching is crucial for salvation:

    ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

    7) But I just can’t get my head around it. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s . . . . it’s . . .

    It’s a hard saying? Yes, and more than that, it’s scandalous. Does a symbolic interpretation feel easy to you? It shouldn’t. The theology of the Eucharist should feel disorienting and supernatural, because it is. The Eastern Church calls the sacraments “mysteries”, and so they are, visible signs of God’s invisible grace. They are difficult to impossible for our poorly informed minds to grasp.

    8) I’m still not convinced. I don’t know if I ever will be.

    And I cannot convince you. Only God can do that. If you pray for understanding, then the truth will probably come to you. But you have to be fully open to it. It has taken some brilliant minds decades to accept Jesus’ words about his body.

    St. Anselm discovered that belief precedes understanding:

    “I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe, I shall not understand.”

    Shocking isn’t it that Jesus wonders if even the Twelve will leave him at this teaching? He knows how scandalous this is. Some think it was this very teaching that turned Judas away. Peter, as is so often the case, gets it. While not fully comprehending the context, he pledges to stay by seeing the core truth: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    • Do Catholics believe this is a way of salvation, or the only way of salvation?
      If not the only way, why does Jesus insist on it in this passage?
      If the only way, what about the case of the thief on the cross who Jesus said would be with him in Paradise? Or the person who takes communion in an unworthy way? Or is perhaps prevented by persecution? Or Protestants who take communion outside the Catholic Church?
      Is it a sine qua non for salvation?

  2. It would be enlightening to study the Church’s teaching on salvation. It is amazingly open and inclusive. As a blogger I know is quick to say, “God, when studied under very tightly controlled laboratory conditions, will behave exactly as He chooses to behave.” He sets the terms; we do not. I do not doubt He has many roads to salvation, though Jesus seems to intimate the entry is narrow (Matthew 7:14). But for those who have never heard this teaching, or who were misled in understanding it, I can’t see God judging them for that. But because I have heard His words, and believe them to be true, yes, I think I will be judged on my discernment of the body and blood.

    The thief on the cross was never blessed to hear Jesus’ words recorded in John 6, as far as we know. But I have heard them. They are indeed hard to hear. I do not pretend to understand them. But because they are Jesus’ words, I believe them, even though they defy my ability to comprehend. I don’t get the sense the disciples understood it either. They just believed.

    I suspect Jesus means to point us in the right direction in this teaching. Perhaps only a mind like that of St. Aquinas can grasp the full depth of Eucharistic theology and what degree of intimacy Christ desires with us. A desire for us to seemingly internalize Him.

    -Truth, though absolute, can still be elusive.
    -When choosing between two ideas, with Christ it is usually more, not less.
    -When looking through time, look closest to Christ. Doctrine can indeed be developed rightly through time, but time is also the ally of heresy. This is why John Henry Cardinal Newman observed, “to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant.” When you study the very early Church, it looks very Catholic indeed.
    These are just a few precepts that helped me as I struggled to accept the Church.

    The other precept that helped me was to remember that scripture was always meant to be read within the Church. Study it in private of course, but always come back to understanding it within the Church, just as the early Christians read it and learned it. Otherwise, we are each left to come up with our own interpretation. In short, each man becomes his own pope. I think we see the fruits of that as Christian sects self-destruct around us with clearly anti-Biblical teachings.

    I love the hymnody of the Protestant church, and I love the uplifting of literal Biblical interpretation (not excluding other forms of interpretation). But I cannot escape the irony that they abandon that interpretation in John 6, where perspicuity seems to declare itself at home.
    It is a hard teaching, and it should feel hard. The consolation for me, was coming to understand this is how Jesus meant to stay with us, apart from the Paraclete, just as He promised, until the end of the age.

  3. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Hard to swallow: John 6 | ChristianBlessings

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