Do Christians consume Christ?

…where I seek to provide some food for thought from Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in John 6.

bread2Are 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