|Early Christian depiction of the Eucharist from the C|
A couple of my Evangelical friends were recently talking with me about John 6 and the Eucharist. If you haven’t read it recently, you should. In it, Jesus states repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, that He is the Bread of Life, that our eternal salvation is tied to eating His Body and drinking His Blood, that His Flesh really is true Food and His Blood really is true Drink. The question that I asked when we were going through the passage was, “If Jesus was trying to say that the Eucharist is really His Body and Blood, what more could He have said?”
Even more striking, the Jewish audience listening to Him doesn’t initially take Him literally. Their initial reaction to His claim, “I am the Bread come down from Heaven” is to be shocked that He claimed to come from Heaven (John 6:41-42). At this point, Jesus clarifies how literally He means the “Bread” part: “I am the living Bread that came down out of Heaven; if anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever; and the Bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My Flesh.” (John 6:51). It’s only at this point that the crowd becomes shocked by the Bread imagery (Jn. 6:52).
In other words, it’s not as if we have Jesus using a metaphor, and the crowd naively assuming that He means it to be literal. It’s something nearer the opposite: we have the crowd initially assuming Jesus is speaking metaphorically, and Jesus going out of His way to make sure that they don’t think that. And after the crowd protests, “how can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Jesus answers (Jn. 6:53-58), by explaining six different times that He means this literally in the span of six verses:
- “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 yourselves.” (Jn. 6:53)
- “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:54)
- “For My Flesh is True Food, and My Blood is True Drink.” (Jn. 6:55)
- “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me, and I in Him.” (Jn. 6:56)
- “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.” (Jn. 6:57)
- “This is the Bread which came down out of Heaven; not as the fathers and died; he who eats this Bread will live forever.” (Jn. 6:58).
And to top all of this off, this discourse occurs at Passover time (John 6:4), one year prior to the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mt. 26:20-29).
My friends acknowledged how Eucharistic the passage appears to be, but wanted to know what to make of John 6:63. Because after Jesus says all of this, and the crowd is outraged (Jn. 6:60), He says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” One of my friends said, “I agree that if you read the prior verses 53-58 literally, it seems to support the idea of Real Presence. But doesn’t verse 63 prove that He’s speaking figuratively?”
|Anton Raphael Mengs, Christ on the Cross (1768)|
It’s a very good question. But the typical Protestant understanding of the passage is dangerously wrong: taking John 6:63 literally like that would discredit not only (a) the Eucharist, but (b) everything Christ just said about the necessity of eating His Flesh, (c) the Incarnation, and (d) the Passion of Christ. Because if Christ’s Flesh is worthless, then His taking on Flesh is worthless, and His sacrificing His Flesh on the Cross is worthless.
But these conclusions can’t be right (as any Christian would recognize). Instead, Christ means that the flesh profits nothing in isolation, that it needs to be quickened by the Spirit. Here are Augustine’s own words:
What is it, then, that He adds? It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing. Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, while You have said, Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him? Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Your flesh? Then what means the flesh profits nothing? It profits nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit.Wherefore it is said that the flesh profits nothing, in the same manner as it is said that knowledge puffs up. Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means Knowledge puffs up? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, but charity edifies. [1 Corinthians 8:1] Therefore add to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, the flesh profits nothing, only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profits very much. For if the flesh profited nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profited us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profited us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore it is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing, as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.
If enemies of Christ had overwhelmed Him against His will, killing Him and cutting His Body to pieces, would that have saved anyone? No. The Passion works only because Christ voluntarily lays down His Life (John 10:11). That is, for the Passion (and the Eucharist) to work, Jesus must be both the High Priest (Heb. 4:14) and the Sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). Or put another way, the Spirit and Flesh must be operating in union.
This distinction is an incredibly important one. It’s both what separates the Eucharist from cannibalism, and what separately Christianity from something like human-sacrificing pagan cults.
So in summary, I’d say a few things:
- “Spirit” doesn’t mean “metaphor.”
- If Christ wanted to describe His words as metaphoric in John 6, He could easily have done so. He seems to have gone to great lengths to do the opposite (see esp. John 6:55). I’d be incredibly cautious of (a) overlooking all of John 6:25-60, for the sake of v. 63; or (b) reading v. 63 as somehow negating the rest of this Chapter.
- If Jesus literally means that His Flesh is worthless, this would destroy all of Christianity, not just Catholicism.
- Compare this passage with Romans 8, talking about living according to the Spirit, not the Flesh. That’s not a denial of the Incarnation, or a condemnation of the flesh, but of our sinful natures, or living like animals. (I think most Protestants agree with this point, since the alternative is dualism).
- Catholics don’t think that the Eucharist works apart from the operation of the Spirit (which is why we call upon the Spirit at every Mass, and consider this a necessary part of the Eucharistic Rite).