Be honest. What are you most hoping to hear in this column for the fourth week in the Bread of Life discourse? What seems to be the obvious topic overlooked? Yes, that’s right. The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, whatever your tradition’s preferred designation. With the eating of flesh and the drinking of blood, it seems like an appropriate point for a connection to Jesus’ last supper. But this is not your ordinary sacrament at the table.
That is, perhaps, part of our problem — how ordinary the sacrament has become. By ordinary, I am not critiquing its practice or observance on a weekly basis. There are many justifiable reasons for the supper to be celebrated each and every Sunday that range from theological, to biblical, to ecclesial, to denominational.
By ordinary, I mean our sacramental imagination. For good reason, that reason being the “Words of Institution” said on the night Jesus was betrayed, the Lord’s Supper has been forever linked to Jesus’ death. There is nothing inherently wrong with this connection. But if we say that the feeding of the five thousand and the Bread of Life discourse is John’s Last Supper celebration, then you also have to dislodge the sacrament from Jesus’ death and locate it in the middle of Jesus life — and then ask yourself what difference it might make for how we understand the sacrament, how we practice the sacrament, how we “liturgize” the sacrament.
But first, you have to agree that there is no Lord’s Supper in John. There is, of course, a last supper that Jesus shares with his disciples, but it’s not a Passover meal, and it’s not the version that informs and imagines current practices and theologies of Holy Communion. Second, let’s give John some redactional credit, even some theological credit, and say yes, he likely knew of this tradition and moved it regardless. And then, ask why?
Third, at some point a preacher has to come to terms with the fact that not every passage that mentions bread is about Holy Communion and not every text that talks about water is about Baptism. Our penchant to reduce the possible interpretive potential of biblical passages to sacramentology is neither respectful of the author at hand nor of our parishioners who should expect more from their preacher than a sacramental default button.
This section of the Bread of Life discourse calls for two points of honesty from this week’s preacher: first, that if you do preach on this as John’s version of the Lord’s Supper, you preach John’s version. There may be more to the sacrament of Holy Communion than meets the eye when envisaged through John’s eyes. We might ask how John’s version shapes our contemporary imagination for the theological and practical understanding of the Lord’s Supper in our various ecclesial communities.
You may even want to adjust your communion liturgy accordingly. A Johannine version of the Words of Institution might be just what everyone needs to appreciate this commandment from Jesus all the more. You can do this. The only thing of which the liturgical police can accuse you is being biblical.
The second point of honesty? You take seriously that Jesus says he is the living bread — catch that? The key word here is living, not dying. “Living bread” is a present tense masculine nominative singular participle of zoe, “to live” and this same participle will be used to describe the Father later in this passage, “just as the living Father sent me” (6:57). What difference does this make? Jesus as the bread of life is connected to the living Jesus, not the dying Jesus. Rather than offering himself on the night he was betrayed, he offers his flesh to eat in the middle of his ministry. What difference does it make to imagine Holy Communion as a marking of Jesus’ life and not a memory of Jesus’ death?
So what are the exegetical details in this portion of the Bread of Life discourse that might change not only how we imagine the Lord’s Supper, but really and more importantly, how we interpret what Jesus is up to in this portion of the discourse? First, Jesus makes the boldest statement yet, clear and discomfortingly concise — “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus bypasses language about the bread as his body altogether and equates this eating of the bread of life with his flesh, the exact same word as found in the main theological argument of this Gospel, “And the Word became flesh,” (1:14). No wonder the Jewish leaders resist — wouldn’t you? When Jesus offers himself as the bread of life, his flesh, to eat it is not limited to the offering of his life on the cross. If there is any Eucharistic theology to be gleaned from the Gospel of John then it needs to be one that is a celebration of abundant life with God now and not a remembrance of Jesus’ life soon to pass away. Jesus’ response reiterates this all the more with the even more outrageous inclusion, drinking his blood. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” and in verse 57, all impediments, bread, flesh, blood are removed, “whoever eats me.”
Attention to all of these details should point to one central theological claim — life. And life according to John means that what you need for your life to be sustained God provides, that life is abundant (10:10), that eternal life is not something you can conveniently and conventionally postpone to your future but is your promise in the present, that any claim about life with Jesus, life with God, means an abiding, a unity, a reciprocity, and oneness. It means real relationship, here and now, life that is not a remembrance of Jesus’ past life or a hope for a future life but life lived in the moment as God’s grace upon grace (1:16).