Do Christians consume Christ?
…where I seek to provide some food for thought from Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in John 6.
Are Christians cannibals? Some curious first-century onlookers thought so. The word was going around that when they met together they ate the flesh and drank the blood of their Lord. Eeww. This perception arose because of the Christians’ regular practice of sharing bread and wine as part of the communion ritual given by Jesus to commemorate his sacrificial death on the cross. “This is my body…this is my blood” were the words he used to initiate the ordinance, and his followers were to do the same, “in remembrance” of him. Without some crucial background information, it’s easy to see why they might have been labeled savages.
I don’t know that anyone today so grossly (pun intended) misunderstands the Christian rite of communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, but there is still real disagreement between Christians ourselves about its meaning and very essence. The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine (or juice) are actually transformed into the “real presence” of Jesus when consecrated by a priest, in what is known as transubstantiation, so that they actually do consume Christ’s body and blood. Lutherans take a similar but subtly different view, and most other Christians believe communion to be a commemorative ritual only.
The Catholic Church relies heavily on Jesus’ bread of life discourse in John Chapter 6 for its interpretation, where he appears to be promoting cannibalism in no uncertain terms. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”1 Oh, that Jesus. He’s such a kidder. Let’s look carefully at what he said…in context.
Before we do that, however, let’s first consider that as the Son of God, one would rightly expect that Jesus’ speech would be anything but bland or textbook. As the one through whom all things were created2, there is none more creative than he. And that occasionally the profundity and mystery of his chosen words and patterns of speech would be designed to draw the listener up to greater heights of knowledge and understanding. He is, after all, wisdom itself.3 And he is the Word, the Logos4..Reason and Truth. He is also the Judge of all the earth, whose Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit,… and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) So his words may be a weapon of judgment.
A cursory examination of the words of Jesus is enough to establish that he used metaphor liberally. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.” (Matthew 15:13) “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1) And, of course, he made frequent use of illustrative parables…metaphorical word pictures, not to be understood literally but designed to convey a truth by means of comparison.
It would also be helpful to notice that Jesus’ words were sometimes anything but straightforward. In the account of the rich, young ruler who asked him how to inherit eternal life, addressing him as “good” teacher, Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) What appears at first to be a denial of his goodness is clearly seen to be otherwise in light of numerous other passages where he asserts his equality with the Father or accepts worship as God. Jesus was provocatively deflecting the young man’s compliment so as to entice him to really think about what he was saying, and to recognize who he was talking to.
And in Matthew 22 we have Jesus asking the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is and they answer, correctly, the son of David. But then he confounds them by quoting David’s own words where he says, “The Lord said to my Lord…” and asks, “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt. 22:44-45) Here again Jesus is speaking obliquely in order to provoke his hearers to think, and perhaps consider that their Messiah and Lord is right in front of them.
So now, coming to John 6, we have a crowd from the 5,000 plus who had just witnessed and experienced the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, chasing after Jesus hoping for another supernatural feeding. He wastes no time in exposing their earth-bound, stomach-centered nature and charges them not “to work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” (John 6:27) So after giving them an object lesson in God’s provision for their physical bodies, Jesus uses that to call attention to their need for spiritual food. But though he repeatedly emphasizes the spiritual as represented by the physical – as in, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”- they just don’t get it. Until at last their obstinacy is judged when Jesus gives them over to their refusal to get their focus off their bellies, by getting even more graphic with the analogy. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…” (John 6:54)
It’s at this point that I believe Jesus is saying, in effect, “You are hearing but not listening. If you were, you would understand and believe. Your completely carnal minds are conjuring up concepts of cannibalism. [I’m quite sure Jesus was fond of alliteration, as am I.] Yet I have been speaking to you not about flesh, but about spirit and life. So because of your stubborn and willful blindness, I will make my teaching even more unpalatable.”
Many of his disciples, the chapter goes on to say, couldn’t stomach this teaching and quit. They no longer followed him, because they never really believed in him. Those who did affirmed it when Jesus asked them if they wanted to leave as well. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)
Disagreements among Christians regarding the nature of the Eucharist need not divide us. Except that in the Catholic Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation is the impetus and locus of the Mass, when Jesus is said to be actually sacrificed each time it is observed, but in an “unbloody” manner. This takes the interpretation to a whole other level, which would require a whole other post.
The analogy of ingesting something representative of Christ is meant, like baptism, to symbolize our complete identification and union with him. It’s a visual reminder of the invisible reality of Christ in us, “the hope of glory.”5
What an awesome, wonderful, loving God we serve who would want that for us.1 John 6:55 2 Colossians 1:16 3 1 Corinthians 1:24 4 John 1:1 5 Colossians 1:27
“What an awesome, wonderful, loving God we serve who would want that for us.”
“The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and wine (or juice) are actually transformed into the ‘real presence’ of Jesus when consecrated by a priest, in what is known as transubstantiation, so that they actually do consume Christ’s body and blood. Lutherans take a similar but subtly different view . . . .”
Well put. I confess that this argument has always struck me as a little strange—if we agree that the Eucharist really is a means of grace (a physical means through which God gives us supernatural help), and we agree that it retains all the physical properties of bread and wine after as well as before it is consecrated, is there really anything left that we disagree on, really?
Of course, as you point out, some Christians do suggest that the Eucharist is merely symbolic, not “effective” in any supernatural sense, but I think that is difficult to square with a plain reading of John 6: As you point out, Jesus keeps saying things like “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”.
As the Catholics sometimes point out, when people walk off, He doesn’t say, “Hold up, you don’t understand, it was a metaphor!” On other occasions, when people don’t understand His metaphors, He doesn’t hesitate to explain His metaphors (to Nicodemus in John 3, interpreting his parables to the Apostles, etc.).
For whatever it’s worth, I’m an Anglican (which I guess means I’m both Catholic and Protestant, sort of), but you might say that’s because I believe these things, not why I believe these things (I didn’t grow up Christian or in the church).
Thanks for reading and commenting, Chillingworth. As a former Catholic, now “unaffiliated” (read…nondenominational) Christian, I see Communion in a radically different way from what I was taught. So…yes, I do believe there are real points of disagreement. I do not believe it is a means of grace but a symbolic commemoration only. And I don’t find that difficult to square with John 6 for the reasons I gave.
I too have heard or read that reasoning from Catholics, that Jesus would have clarified his meaning to them. But Jesus did not go chasing after people to do whatever it took for them to understand. On the contrary, in Matthew 13 when his disciples ask why he speaks to the people in parables he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Their lack of understanding resulting from a lack of real interest in the things of God (what they “have not”) brought on them the judgment of an end to any attempt by Jesus to persuade them. The reason he did give further explanation to Nicodemus and his disciples was because they came to him for enlightenment or had committed themselves to following him. “To the one who has (a real interest in seeking and knowing God), more will be given (clarity, knowledge, and understanding).” That’s the way I read it anyway.
And I really appreciate your input.
“…where I seek to provide some food for thought . . . .”
I see what you did there.
This is one of the better explanations I have read of this subject matter – thank you! I particularly like your argument on a potential reason for why He retreated into the topic of cannibalism – to get their attention. I might add that when His disciples did not start munching away on Him, Jesus did not rebuke them for not adhering to His command. Nor did He depart from them. Furthermore, as this event took place about a year prior to the Lord’s Supper (apparently), it does not seem to have Eucharistic value. Finally, when Jesus DID hold up a piece of bread and say “This is My Body,” there is no evidence that He had actually removed some of His Body and turned it into bread.
I realize that these arguments are based on absence of evidence, but if one is to believe the rather incredible claim that the bread and water literally become His Body and Blood, as in a miracle, then it seems that at least SOME evidence is in order. Like at least a few disciples started biting into Him or something.
[FWIW, I say all of this as a non-denominational disciple of Jesus who attends his wife’s Catholic church and enjoys the high view of worship, the solid liturgy, and the generally superior orthopraxy (when it comes to the Sanctity of Life and Marriage anyway), so I am not at all anti-Catholic. Plus, in the church I attend, a good deal of Protestantism has broken out in expository preaching, salvation and orthopraxy questioning, Bible study as a requirement, evangelism, and missions, etc. When the congregation says or does something un-Scriptural, I just do not partake.]
Thank you for reading and commenting, sir. I’m so glad you found my explanation helpful. A related argument against transubstantiation is that after he initiates the ordinance, Jesus says, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) He affirms that it remains wine after he proclaimed it to be his blood.
I have a number of dear family members and friends who are Catholic, and my parents, now both deceased, were very devout. I believe they are with the Lord, despite being so devoted to a church which has misled so many with a considerable amount of false teaching. They bought into all that, but they loved and trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord. The description of the church you attend is interesting and demonstrates that Catholics can really have differing beliefs, including those who are preaching to them from the pulpit. Nevertheless, what some priests are teaching may not line up with official Catholic doctrine, and I don’t see the actual doctrines ever changing.
I used to wonder if you could even be saved as a Catholic, with their adherence to salvation by faith plus works. But then I realized…salvation is by faith alone, NOT faith IN salvation by faith alone.
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