In two weeks I’m scheduled to deliver a presentation at Biola University in Los Angeles, hosted by their apologetics department, titled Confessions of a Former Catholic. You can read about the event from the school’s website. A Catholic professor living in the area who read the advertisement wrote asking me to answer some questions in advance for his students. It then occurred to me that perhaps others might be interested. So, here is the first one, my view of the Eucharist from John 6:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51).
“So Jesus said to them, "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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (v. 53-54)
“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (v. 55)
First, we must remember the context of John’s Gospel. Jesus has just fed the 5000, and despite their full stomachs, these folks are not satisfied. They want a sign to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Messiah of Israel. In response, Jesus explains his identity with the first so called “I am” statement, which appears in verse 35:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (v. 35)
Using the Old Testament metaphor of bread from heaven, as in the manna which God provided for Israel in the desert, Jesus presents himself as God’s provision for humanity, who, like righteousness itself, satisfies our deepest hunger and thirst (cf. vv. 49-51).
The Jews then argued among themselves asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat.” Because of their woodenly literal interpretation of Jesus’ words (‘this man is speaking of his real flesh’), the Jews completely missed the metaphorical meaning and thus the point of Jesus statement.
May I suggest, with the utmost respect and humility, that this is the flaw of the Catholic interpretation. It imposes a literal reading of vv. 51-58, when in fact the passage should be understood theologically. In other words, rather than feasting on his actual flesh, Jesus calls people to receive him as the source of eternal life, God’s appointed Savior who alone satisfies human appetites.
Okay Chris, if that’s the case, why does Jesus use such emphatic language in vv. 51-58? i.e., “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” I’m glad you asked.
This appears to be an example of what we see throughout the prophets, that when Israel’s heart is hardened and she refuses to receive God’s word, God’s messenger employs figurative language. In fact, I think the text bears this out precisely. Please notice what happens from the middle of the discourse moving toward its conclusion:
|6:40-in plain language
|6:54-in figurative language
Finally, for those of you who are perhaps still skittish about the word “figurative,” let’s remember that this is the nature of Jesus’ “I am” statements. He is the light of the world (John 8:12), he is the door (John 10:7), and he is the vine (John 15:1), for example. The Lord doesn’t swing on hinges or produce grape juice, but thankfully he is the real entranceway to the Father and, like a life-giving vine, the source of everlasting life. For this reason we receive him as we would bread and wine (or grape juice, if you prefer), with satiable hunger and true joy.