John chapter 6 verse 63 is a verse commonly cited by many Protestants to contradict the view of Eastern Orthodox Christians that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are literally, albeit mystically, the body and blood of Christ. Jesus says to his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are Spirit, and they are life.”
Those who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist contend that, in this, Jesus denies any importance to his flesh; rather it is his words and the spiritual understanding they bring which form the heart of his ministry to humanity. For these critics this verse is enough to dispel the notion that Christ would put his actual flesh and blood into the Communion Chalice. Thus, for them, it is a spiritual error to hold a sacramental devotion to the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ. This use of the verse, however, suffers from the same problem as many proof texts. To prove the point that it is supposed to make, the passage must be interpreted outside the context of the chapter, the book, and the New Testament as a whole. What is more, it must be read without any regard to the historical beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church. For there is no question, you see, that from the days of the first believers until the 16th century, the Body of Christ in its entirety, before the Great Schism and afterward, held to the truth that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the actual body and blood of the Lord Jesus.
For instance, St. Ignatius, who became Bishop of Antioch in A.D. 69, warned first century Christians about one of the first major heretical groups in the Church, a Gnostic group known as the Docitists. What made them a heresy? St. Ignatius advises, “They confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of Our Savior Jesus Christ.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 7.)
About 50 years later, St. Justin Martyr, in defending the Christian faith to the Roman Emperor, emphatically makes the point that the bread and wine of the Eucharist is not, as he says, “common bread and common drink, rather,” he continues to relate, “in like manner as Jesus Christ had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food, which is blessed by the prayer of his word and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” (The First Apology, chapter 66.)
As a philosopher, I appreciate how St. Justin goes out of his way here to make sure his readers understand him. He leaves no room for someone to assume that he means the Eucharist is Christ’s flesh and blood only in some figurative sense. No. He assures us it is the flesh and blood of the Christ who is flesh.
For most of my life I was an Evangelical Protestant who believed and taught that communion is spiritual symbolism. The bread and the wine serve as a memorial of Christ’s death and as a reminder of his second coming. There was no rational reason to believe that they become the actual body and blood of the Lord. But as the historical realities began to hit me, I became convinced of two things: first, I began to feel it was rather arrogant of me to believe that my understanding of the Christian faith was superior to that of first and second century Christians; secondly, it became clear to me that in maintaining the elements of Holy Communion to be just helpful symbols and not the Real Presence of Christ, I was solidly aligning myself with first century Gnostic heretics.
So I began to look at the scriptures from the perspective of the Christian East which has preserved the faith of the Early Church in its fullness for 2,000 years. That does not mean, however, that I simply chose a new and different interpretational scheme to lay over biblical texts. What I came to see is that an Orthodox understanding sets the scriptures free to say what they say. Orthodoxy feels no need to shape and mold scripture passages to prove a theological point. Because Orthodox faith is the life of the Early Church which received the scriptures, my Orthodox heart is quietly confident that any passage I read will make sense in the light of the ancient historical Church’s living experience with Christ.
So, what do we see when we put John 6:63 in context?
Christ’s discussion about the flesh, in the latter portion of this chapter, occurs against the background of the feeding of the five-thousand, as we read about in verses 1-14. After that miraculous meal, Jesus goes off alone into the mountains. The disciples set sail for Capernaum without him. They encounter a terrible storm and, in the midst of it, Jesus comes to his followers walking on the water. He steps into the boat and tells the distraught men, “Do not be afraid.” And immediately they find themselves in Capernaum. (John 6:15-20)
Well, the next day, back on the other shore, many who had partaken of the miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes got to looking for Jesus. They knew he hadn’t been in the boat with his disciples when they left. When they couldn’t find Christ, they got some boats and crossed to Capernaum themselves. Finding Jesus there, they inquired, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (John 6:20-25)
In these words there is an air of perplexity. The people seem to sense that something out of the ordinary has occurred here. But unfortunately their curiosity is just too small. It’s just a small spiritual inkling that carries no real weight in their hearts and pales before the true motive for their search for Christ. Jesus begins a lengthy interchange with them and his disciples (the remaining 45 verses of the chapter, actually) by exposing to them their true concern. Poignantly he declares, “Most assuredly I say to, you seek me not because you saw the signs but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (John 6:26)
So begins one of the longer dialogues in the gospels.
When I read this passage, my sense is that Jesus feels great hope for these folks and is thus willing to invest himself deeply in them seeking to open their eyes to the truth about him. They had seen one great miracle; finding Jesus mysteriously in Capernaum suggests another. But their minds need to be elevated from their stomachs. In other words, temporal and physical concerns need to become a distant second to what it is that Jesus truly offers them. And just what is that? Jesus advises them, “Do not labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to everlasting life which the Son of Man will give you because God the Father has set his seal on him.” (John 6:27)
The food which endures to everlasting life. What does Jesus mean by that? Well, he doesn’t say right off. But to avail themselves of that food, he tells the people they must “believe in him whom God has sent to them.” Of course, he is referring to himself.
We hear the people’s response in verses 30 and 31. We read:
Therefore they said to him, “What sign will you perform then that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert. As it is written, ‘he gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
These people had received physically sustaining bread at the hand of Jesus. Their ancestors had been preserved by life-nourishing manna from heaven. The bread on their minds is clearly that which sustains the flesh.
Just as a note, I find it interesting in light of our discussion here, how those who question Christ present him a proof text to justify their longing for temporal bread (“as it is written”). How easy and common it is to use scriptures to miss the point that Christ is trying to make in them.
What is that point? Jesus begins to enlighten them, “Most assuredly I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)
The people raise a hearty reply, “Lord, give us this bread always!” But it’s clear that they didn’t really hear the last bit where Jesus says, “The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven”. No, these folks are thinking bread bread. That is made obvious by Jesus’ very next words to them. He says:
I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I have said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me and the one who comes to me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.
It’s as if the Lord is saying, “No, no, we’re not talking manna here. The bread that comes down from heaven is me.”
Now St. John tells us that when the people heard this, they complained about him because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” (John 6:41)
Their first concern is the “came down from heaven” part. They whisper among themselves, “Is not this Jesus the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he says ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)
Apparently their minds are so locked and settled into visions of temporal food that Jesus’ curious reference to himself as bread initially takes a second seat to his claim that he is from heaven.
We’ll pick up the story next time as we continue on to look at the context of this passage and come to understand what verse 63 of John 6 actually is talking about.