Last time we were trying to put the verse in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 6 verse 63, which is commonly used by many anti—sacramental believers to dispute the notion that the bread and wine of the cup of the Eucharist are indeed the real body and blood of Christ. We were looking at the chapter in its context which is really in the context of the feeding of the five-thousand. It involves a lengthy discussion between Jesus and the people who have come to seek him seeking after fleshly sustenance — genuine, real, earthly body—sustaining bread. Jesus attempts to raise their minds beyond and above their temporal concerns, their concerns about just feeding the body, to help them begin to understand their spiritual need and to understand that he is the spiritual food who comes down from God, who comes from heaven, comes into the world to bring true life to humankind.
Last time we left off around verse 41 of the chapter, where we heard the people complaining to Christ because he tells them that he is the bread which comes down from heaven. As I pointed out, as we were finishing last time, their initial complaint though is not about Jesus referring to himself as bread. They are first concerned about this notion that he came down from heaven. And they began to whisper among themselves (as we said last time), “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’?”
This was just to point out that apparently their minds are so locked and settled into this desire for temporal food that Jesus’ curious reference to himself as bread initially takes a second seat to his claim that he is from heaven.
So Jesus reinforces the truth then, that he is more than the son of Joseph. Beginning in verse 43 we read, “do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘and they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore, everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God – he has seen the Father. Most assuredly I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life.” (John 6:43-47)
“Believe I am from the Father in heaven. Believe that I am the giver of everlasting life,” the Christ exhorts them.
By these words, he seeks to shake the people out of their preoccupation with temporal, earthly concerns. Then, he begins to direct them as to how they may partake of that everlasting life. He says, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I shall give is my flesh which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:48-51)
When Jesus identifies the bread from heaven as his flesh, the crowd becomes agitated. As verse 52 tells us, “the Jews therefore quarreled among themselves saying, ‘how can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” These words utterly stupefied those gathered there. But let us recognize that the reason they caused them such consternation is that these Jews are still thinking about every day, sit—down at the table food. So how is the Christ going to serve himself up to them like he distributed the loaves and fishes the day before? And his flesh? No Jew would consent to cannibalism. So the crowd is dumbfounded. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He just takes the whole business deeper, further challenging their already taxed minds. He says, “most assuredly 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 eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven. Not as your fathers ate the manna and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)
What is the Lord doing here? He’s assaulting the Jews with concepts that leave them mentally reeling in order to shake them loose from their preoccupation with temporal sustenance and blessing, trying to raise their minds to spiritual truths.
First, he speaks of himself as coming down from the Father in heaven. Then, he speaks of himself in terms that make absolutely no sense from a purely earthbound perspective. What does he mean here? Unfortunately, many, including those among his disciples, were left so completely bewildered by Christ’s preaching that, as St. John writes in verse 66, “they went back and walked with him no more.”
“This is a hard saying,” they lamented, “who can understand it?” (John 6:60)
To those that will listen to him, Jesus explains what they have to grasp in their hearts in order to understand him. He says in verse 63, “it is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are Spirit and they are life.” This is the verse that we identified at the outset.
Many non—sacramental Christian believers use is to debunk the ancient apostolic teaching that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the literal body and blood of Christ. Again, they take Jesus to say here that there is no real importance to his flesh. It is his words alone, his teachings, that are spiritual and therefore life—giving. There are many problems with this interpretation however.
First of all, having gone now through the chapter and examined the verse’s context, I think it is imminently clear how we should understand it. When Jesus says that the flesh profits nothing, he is speaking clearly to that total preoccupation with temporal, earthly needs that the Jews who followed him to Capernaum demonstrated. These people were looking for breakfast. They saw Jesus as an everlasting meal ticket. One who could satisfy their physical needs. And everything he said to them about who he is and what he comes to offer, they heard in the context of those fleshly desires. The Lord had attempted to elevate their hearts by speaking of heavenly, spiritual things. Which is the second flaw in the interpretation of those who take this verse as debunking the Real Presence.
Verse sixty-three’s “spiritual, life—giving words that I speak” include all these words that Jesus just spoke about eating his body and drinking his blood. And in those spiritual words, Jesus certainly isn’t saying that his flesh profits nothing. He says it profits eternal life. Could we expect Jesus to ever say that his flesh is unprofitable? The most glorious truth in the universe is that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Believing that the Son of God has taken on human flesh is a test of faith for a Christian. As we read in 1 John 4:3, “and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is not of God.”
The only way that verse 63 can be used to contest the doctrine of the Real Presence is if one completely isolates it from the context of the chapter and applies a very platonic, dualistic interpretation to it. In that case, flesh is interpreted as “that which is material,” and spirit is defined as “rational.” In the platonized Christianity of the West, the material is ultimately meaningless. Only the rational is of value. But as we have seen, there is absolutely nothing in the context or the content of verse 63 (nor anything in the scriptures as a whole, I might add) to suggest this platonic slant on Jesus’ words. There is nothing to suggest that in the preceding verses Jesus is not inviting us to partake of his actual body and blood. Some platonic “but he just can’t mean that” is not enough to deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Now, of course, there’s also nothing in these verses that tells us specifically that they must be taken literally. As I pointed out in the beginning, the evidence for holding that they must is written in the historical experience of the Church. But, I believe it’s also written in the truth of the Incarnation.
I’m coming to think that the real resistance to the doctrine of the Real Presence is grounded in the rather impoverished view of the Incarnation widely embraced by western Christian churches. For the West, Christ comes in the flesh just to provide a body for the receiving of God’s wrath upon sinners. But the ancient Church in the Christian East knows that the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation is to join humanness to divinity. He comes to restore us to union with God on every level of our human existence: the physical as well as the spiritual.
At baptism, the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell within us. In the depths of our inward nature, Christ unites our spirits with his spirit by offering his body and blood to us, his literal body and blood to us in the Eucharist, Christ establishes the same intimate connection between the human flesh he now bears and our bodies.
Jesus Christ is not a rational philosophy. The living faith he brings to us is much more than spiritual principles we are to hear and apply to our lives. It is rather, the joining of our beings with his. This is the truth that fundamentally divides Christians who believe in the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and those who don’t. It is only their rational, platonic mindset which makes John 6:63 anti—Eucharistic verse in the minds of Western believers.
My prayer is that God would bring all to the living knowledge of Christ and an experience of the Communion cup that joins them, body and spirit, to the Incarnate Son of God.