Wineskins Archive

December 10, 2013

Serving John 6 at the Table (March 2012)

Filed under: — @ 4:19 pm and

By Keith Brenton

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. … 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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” ~ John 6:51:53-56

John 6:51ff as reference to the yet-to-be-instituted Lord’s Supper goes back a long time.

His words have been quoted to defend a doctrine of transubstantiation — that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ in the one who partakes — for almost a thousand years. And others, for almost as long, have quoted the larger context of these words to refute this doctrine’s literality with a more symbolic meaning, maintaining that Jesus did not mean literally that He was made of bread when He said He was the bread of life. Writers in the early decades of the church struggled with whether this wording and/or this memorial feast expressed the Lord’s intention to be taken symbolically or literally.

Writers for this edition of New Wineskins have thoughtfully approached these words, carefully keeping them in context, and have brought illumination to them from many different angles. To me, this is a valuable approach because scripture — especially scripture that is phrased in mysterious language — can sometimes have more than one-and-only-one meaning. Prophetic scripture can be rich and deep with double and even multiple meanings, and great quantity of them point to Jesus.

Let me add this possible layer of meaning for your consideration: That Jesus spoke these words prophetically with the intention of reinforcing them later, reminding believers of them, through the tangible elements of the bread and the wine and the frequent celebration of their deep meaning.

“It is not coincidence that we say bread is the staff of life.” ~ Lionel Poilane

John doesn’t begin his gospel by calling Jesus “Jesus.” He begins by calling Him “The Word,” the logos, the meaning of all things, meaning from God.

John emphasizes that this pre-existent Word became flesh and lived among people of this world.

Twice in scripture, prophets are instructed to eat a scroll containing the word of God and then to share that message. One was Ezekiel before Jesus’ time (Ezekiel 3); the other was the elder John after Jesus’ resurrection (Revelation 10).

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

The meaning of the metaphor is clear: the Word of God is meant to be taken internally. It is medicine for sick people, created to heal the infection of sin. It is nourishment and sustenance for the hungry and weak. It is wine for the ill stomach. It is daily bread for the starving.

And Jesus is that Word.

We should, as the Psalmist recommends, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” ~ Psalm 34:8

“You are what you eat.” ~ Victor Lindlahr

Now let me propose another possible layer of meaning. Transubstantiation notwithstanding, there is some merit to the idea that the bread and contents of the cup become the body and blood of Christ; become flesh and blood.

We take them internally. They become part of us. They are digested and changed into energy and matter. The matter is the flesh, which must be powered by the life-energy of the blood; oxygenating and enabling the function and growth of every system in the body. Your body. My body. Your flesh; my flesh. Your blood … my blood.

We are in Christ; He is in us. That was what He prayed for at that last Passover with His closest followers in John 14-17. The meal where He said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” That means our bodies are His; temples of His Holy Spirit. We do not live to ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.

We no longer live at all; Christ lives in us. So what is symbolic at the Table becomes literal thereafter. Eating His flesh and drinking His blood at the Table are symbolic of both our faith in Him and His faith in us, and we are saved by grace through faith.

I believe it’s possible for something to be both literally and symbolically salvific. Like baptism.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

“If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” ~ Harry S Truman

There is a larger context to Jesus’ words here than even John 6. Parallel passages in Matthew 14, Mark 6, and even (to a lesser extent) Luke 9 tell us that the events of John 6 take place after the execution of Jesus’ cousin and harbinger, John the Baptist. He was grieving this loss while receiving the reports of the returning twelve. He wanted to take them to a less public place to do so, but crowds followed and He fed them.

Sending His disciples on ahead of him to cross the lake, He met them during a storm in the middle of the night. Peter’s lack of faith gave him a “baptism” from which his Master raised him. But landing at Gennesaret in the morning, the picture was still the same: crowds had quickly gathered from everywhere, bringing the sick for Him to heal.

They may have hounded Him all the way to Capernaum. That may be the point at which John 6 picks up the story in verse 25, and may explain why Jesus was so terse with them; there was no getting away from them — and their yearnings were only for physical healing and satisfaction:

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”<br><br>Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” ~ John 6:25-27

Many of them found the words that follow to be harsh and unacceptable, and they left (verse 66). And that may have been Jesus’ intention: to thin out the crowds and retain those whose yearnings were for the spiritual and not just the physical. This is the key distinction He drew throughout the discourse, and Jesus asked his closest followers if they will go, too. The response of Peter — perhaps still wet-behind-the-ears from the previous night’s dunking — indicates that he understood: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

It is the precursor to Peter’s good confession in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. Jesus has whom He needs around Himself to complete His work, and is free to do so without the draining distraction of those who are following for the wrong reason (see Mark 1:32-38).

“All sorrows are less with bread.” ~ Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

Flesh and blood — that of the sacrificial lamb before the first Passover — became the beginning of Israel’s deliverance, first from the angel of death and then their Egyptian overlords. It is at Passover when Jesus returns to Jerusalem, hailed by crowds, only to see them turn on Him in the space of a few days. He becomes their sacrificial Lamb, delivering from sin and death by His unspotted life and ability to take it up again when brutally murdered.

Is it completely out of the realm of possibility that Jesus sees these events unfolding even as His eyes are wet with tears over Jerusalem? Or even before, where He fed the crowds, still grieving His cousin?

As He anticipates the great Passover which only His blood can purchase — spread not on a doorpost and lintel but on the beams of a cross that will become heaven’s gate — would it not make sense to speak bold, prophetic, memorable words that the discerning would recall at every celebration of His Table thereafter?

I’m not too certain that we do the Prophet Jesus any favors by divorcing the John 6 passage from the Table.

We accept that He prophesies verbally and by His actions His betrayal, His death, the resurrection from death and the promise of eternal life, His ascension, the role of baptism and the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God, final judgment and His return. Is the Table too small a thing to be included His prophecy as well?

So, we may have to accept that there are multiple meanings to this challenging Capernaum discourse, and that by it — with divine economy of words — the Word Himself accomplished a sweeping set of immediate and long-term goals, from thinning out crowds … to communicating His identity as God’s Word … to revealing God’s very nature and desire to be in us and to have us in Him.

It is certainly worth munching … uh, meditating upon.

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