Monday, November 8, 2010

The Eucharist in the Gospel of John

Even though John’s Gospel provides an account of the Last Supper in chs. 13–14, it is somewhat surprising that there is no account of the actual institution of the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel, unlike the situation that is found in the Synoptics. This detail has led some scholars to speculate that John’s Gospel was written in part to de-emphasize a sacramental theology in the early church that had elevated the sacraments to a point where the reality of Christ behind the sacramental signs was in danger of being obscured.

It has also been argued that Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that he is the bread of life also functions to de-emphasize such an overly elevated view of the eucharist. It is argued from John 6:35 in particular that the language of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood is merely to be understood as a combined metaphor for coming to Jesus and believing in him. In addition to this, the teaching in John 6:63 that “it is the Spirit who gives life” and that “the flesh is of no avail” has been taken as a possible critique of the view which emphasizes the physical dimension of the eucharist to the detriment of the spiritual reality to which the physical signs are supposed to point.

Opposing this view of an anti-sacramental theology in John’s Gospel, the majority of modern day scholarship has seen a positive link between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper. Raymond Brown is of the opinion that there are “secondary, eucharistic undertones” in John 6:35–50, and an explicit allusion to the Lord’s Supper in vv. 51–58 (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII: Introduction, Translation, and Notes [AB 29; Wimbledon: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971], 274). Rudolf Bultmann commenting on John 6:27–59 says that the concepts of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood “refer without any doubt to the sacramental meal of the Eucharist” (Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1971], 218).

C. K. Barrett also sees an allusion to the eucharist in John 6:51–58. He takes the addition of the words “drink his blood” in John 6:53 as pointing “unmistakably … to the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 299). At the same time, however, he makes the point that an allusion to the eucharist “does not in itself determine what John’s eucharistic theology was” (ibid., 297). He disputes that John 6:51–58 presents “the bread and wine to be a kind of medicine, conferring immortality by quasi-magical means” (ibid.). The “removal of the eucharistic allusion from the last supper” to the narrative in John 6 shows that John’s “intention” was “to set the eucharist in the context of the work of Jesus as a whole and to give it a strictly personal interpretation” (ibid.). Somewhat similar to Barrett, Leon Morris prefers the view that takes the teaching of Jesus in John 6:27–58 as being “primarily ... about spiritual realities” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John [Rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 313). At the same time, however, he “does not deny that there may be a secondary reference to the sacrament” (ibid.).

In all of this discussion, we should keep in mind that the immediate significance of the metaphors of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood in the context of Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd is definitely related to the need to become united with Jesus through faith so as to participate in the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. That is, the metaphors used by Jesus at this point speak of the need for faith in Jesus as the condition for eternal life. This is also the primary significance of the teaching in John 6:25–59 for readers of John’s Gospel today. Nevertheless, given that the New Testament testifies that the early church regularly participated in the Lord’s Supper whenever they met together (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:33), and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is itself a pledge of personal faith in the context of a covenant renewal ceremony—participation in the Lord’s Supper is meant to be viewed as involving a public confession of faith confirming the confession of faith made at baptism—it is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ knew and intended that these provocative metaphors would allow links to be drawn in the minds of the early Christians between his teaching in John 6 with the familiar practice of the Lord’s Supper. If this is true, then John 6:25–58 also speaks in a secondary way of the significance of what we do when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. When we come to Jesus in the Lord’s Supper with faith in our hearts, we are assured that the power of his lifeblood is at work in us. Given the anti-Baptist and particularly anti-Judaistic orientation of John’s Gospel, it is also reasonable to assume that the function of John 6:25–58 in the polemical contect of the day would have implied an assertion of the efficacy and necessity of the Lord’s Supper (by which the gospel is formally sealed to believers) over against the rites of the communities with which the John’s Christian community was in competition (i.e., the followers of John the Baptist, and the orthodox Jewish community).

Attention has also been drawn to John 15:1–11 as being another allusion to the eucharist. Given that John 15:1–16:33 seems to record the teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples on the way to the Kidron Valley just after the conclusion of the Last Supper, we are obviously meant to understand Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 in the context of the Passover meal that had just been celebrated. Furthermore, given that this Passover meal provided the model for the Lord’s Supper, it seems that Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 also functions as a reflection on the deeper significance of the Lord’s Supper. As we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we renew our faith union with Jesus, and commit ourselves to his service to bear fruit for him, and to the bond of love which Jesus would have us maintain with our Christian brothers and sisters. It is quite possible that the tradition of calling the Lord’s Supper a “love feast” (Jude 12) stems from this teaching of the Lord. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is not only meant to be a communion in the death and life of the Lord Jesus, but also a communion of love of Christians with one another.

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