John’s Gospel: Chapter 6 — A Note on Communion

Please forgive the following rant. But I’m just so tired of shallow commentaries that don’t listen to what Jesus is saying.

Jesus’ difficult statements in John 6 about eating his flesh and drinking his blood have normally been interpreted as though Jesus were speaking of communion, that is, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Most commentaries take this approach.

However, it’s impossible that his audience in the synagogue at Capernaum could have understood that message. Is it fair to imagine that Jesus was speaking to his disciples in terms that would be impossible for them to understand? He actually lost disciples because of what he said (John 6:66).

(It just goes to show our bias toward finding ecclesial rules.)

As suggested in the last few posts, Jesus was not speaking about communion. Rather, communion speaks about the same things that Jesus was speaking about. The lesson isn’t that Jesus’ disciples would one day take the Lord’s Supper. Not even close. The lesson is that Jesus’ disciples would be so in love with Jesus and his teachings that Jesus and his teachings and his spiritual presence would be food and drink for them.

This conclusion is anticipated by –

(John 4:34-35 ESV)  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

John ties these events together for the reader so that we’ll see that our attitude should be the same as Jesus’. Our food should be to do the will of the Father and to accomplish his work. We should be excited to see the harvest before us, ready to be reaped and brought into the barns — more excited than for our next meal.

To the modern American, “food” and “drink” don’t carry quite the same meaning as these terms did for Jesus’ First Century audience. We have food aplenty. Obesity is a serious health problem in this country, even among the poor.

But for the Jews in Galilee, food was hard to come by. Water was a precious commodity. They weren’t starving, but nearly all their working hours were expended on obtaining necessities. Meat might have been eaten only once a week.

To say that Jesus’ words are like food and drink is to say that they rank in highest priority, above all other “necessities” of life — that pursuing God’s will doesn’t come right after paying the grocer and the butcher but before. Following Jesus is worth skipping meals because following Jesus is real food for us, his disciples.

Indeed, the deeper allusion is to Deuteronomy 8:3 (“man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”). The children of Israel were literally starving in the desert, and God gave them no food until they were ready to accept that the only possible source of food was God. He fed them when they were ready to rely on him and him only.

Therefore, to eat the flesh of Jesus is to believe in Jesus as the only source of life — as everything that matters. To eat the flesh of Jesus is to be faithful to Jesus and to live by every word that comes from his mouth. It all ties together — and Jesus fully expected is listeners to get it.

He was not trying to run them off. He was asking them to put their faith at the top of their priorities. It would not be enough to follow Jesus to get the free meals. Rather, they should follow Jesus even when he doesn’t provide breakfast. To follow Jesus should be their food. They should eat Jesus in preference to food — because his words are better than food.

(Psa 119:103 ESV) 103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

This is a thought that flows throughout the Old Testament. Jesus was speaking in metaphor and imagery to a culture that routinely thought in terms of metaphor and imagery.

But to the modern American Christian, this is all about passing crackers and juice and remembering Jesus’ death until his comes. We gloss over the real meaning in order to talk about a ritual rather than a new reality and a better worldview.

You see, in Churches of Christ (and not just Churches of Christ) we often think of Christianity through the lens of ecclesiology, that is, through the forms and patterns of how to “do church.” We think Christianity is about a properly conducted baptism, a well-ordered communion service, an eldership with men having the right qualifications, a church treasury with funds only spent on proper uses. We’re all about form.

John 6 says nothing about form. In this passage, Jesus isn’t concerned with whether the grape juice is fermented or pasteurized, whether men or women pass the cups and trays, or whether the collection is “separate and apart” from the communion. He’s talking straight to us about our hearts.

And communion means nothing if it’s not all about our hearts. We can get all the “rules” right, satisfy the scruples of the most legalistic among us, conduct an impeccable service every single Sunday and only on Sundays — and if we aren’t eating the flesh of Jesus, we’re wasting our time; indeed, we’ll be sinning against the body of Christ.

You see, due to our focus on the form of the symbols, we spend almost no time at all reflecting on the meaning of the symbols. We have an extraordinarily shallow communion theology.

What does it mean to “proclaim the death” of Jesus until he comes (1 Cor 11:26)? To whom? How? Does it mean that we quietly read the passion narratives during the passing of the emblems? That we proclaim his death to ourselves?

Or, rather, is communion a time of re-commitment, to truly make Jesus more important than our next meal or next sip of water, to be sustained by his words more important and more filling — more sustaining – than three square meals? To spend at least as much time in the Word as we spend at the dinner table?

And, of course, the point is not to make us merely into great scholars. We learn the Word, not for the love of scholarship, but to be transformed into the image of Jesus. How do we become followers of Jesus if we don’t know where he is going?

How do we become like Jesus if we’ve never truly met him? If we’ve not poured ourselves into his teachings, not as a new Law of MosesJesus, but as a revelation of who he is and who we’re supposed to be.

So, yes, John 6 is all about the Lord’s Supper, but not the way we practice it. You see, we’re quite understandably afraid to share in the full meaning of the ritual — contenting ourselves with the outward form because the inward reality is too fearsome to contemplate.

We proclaim the death of Jesus until he comes by dying. When we eat the flesh of our crucified Savior, we take his death into us. We commit to be like Jesus by dying as he died — perhaps by becoming living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) or, should God so will, as martyrs. You eat the food of martyrdom to declare your willingness to share in his martyrdom.

This is the meaning of –

(Rev 2:10 ESV)  Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

The preposition is not “until” death but “unto” death — even to the point of sacrificing your own life for Jesus. The crown of life is given to those who’ve given up this life so that they’ll have a new life in heaven with God.

The disciples declared Jesus’ words as a “hard” saying (John 6:60) but also the “words of life.” Jesus criticized some, not for misunderstanding, but for not believing. There’s a difference. Indeed, I rather suspect that the reason so many left is that they understood the meaning of Jesus’ word all too well. (The Greek word for “hard” means “harsh,” “difficult” or even “impossible” more than “hard to understand.”)

When we interpret Jesus’ words to mean “take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday” we take a hard, hard saying and make it altogether too easy.

Yes, baptism, communion, and congregations and congregational leadership matter. A lot. But baptism, communion, church leaders, and our congregations must all be pointed in the direction of the object of our faith: Jesus. These forms matter because and only to the extent they point to Jesus. When we let them point to themselves, we entirely miss the point and turn them into idols.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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