Participation, Not Payment
I think that many of us in Western Christianity find it almost impossible to reflect on the Eucharist without importing some elements of Anselm’s theory of the Atonement, known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” (PSA).
A rough and ready summary of PSA goes something like this. Our original sin has created a “debt of honor” to God which we can never pay. Therefore, God sends God’s Son into the cosmos as the only One worthy to pay that debt. God turns the wrath intended for us upon God’s Son, and the debt is paid. We receive a “Paid in Full” receipt (at baptism, at conversion, or at some other moment), and we get to present that receipt to the Divine Judge on the Last Day.
And they all lived happily ever after.
This quick and dirty retelling requires numerous caveats. This isn’t really a fair rendering of what Anselm actually said. Even people who cling to this account with every fiber of their theological beings would quibble with the details and reject the negative assessment of PSA that comes with this retelling. Of course, this account of the Atonement is oddly bad news for Jesus. But, hey, that’s why he gets the big money, right?
And no, some would argue, this is not a commendation of Divine violence within the very heart of the Trinity – and therefore an opening for the myth of redemptive violence in our cosmos.
I would have to respond with a question at that point. Why not?
All that being said, some version of PSA creates the framework within which many Western Christians understand, receive, and experience the Eucharist. I grew up with a piety, understanding and experience of the Eucharist almost entirely focused on the gift of individual forgiveness which I would receive in the Lord’s Supper.
After all, my confirmation pastor noted, the “Words of Institution” say quite clearly that the body and blood of the Lord are “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” My one job (well, two really) was to be sufficiently sorry for my sins and sufficiently grateful for Christ’s sacrifice to adequately appreciate the gift I was about to receive. If I could not muster up those responses in my heart, I was taught, perhaps I should refrain from taking part in the Sacrament that day.
After all, one wouldn’t want to risk condemnation for receiving the body and blood of our Lord in an “unworthy” fashion. Since Holy Communion was offered infrequently, one didn’t have to muster up such responses all that often, thank God.
But, too bad for me, even those infrequent exercises seemed like a burden I was unwilling to bear. I couldn’t connect the dots between God’s grace and this transactional account of payment for services rendered. I wouldn’t have put it that way in my teen years, but that’s one of the many things that bothered me about the System.
If the Bread of Life Discourse is a meditation on the Eucharist, and I think it is, then PSA does not appear to be part of the background discussion. Of course, that’s not surprising, since the theory was not officially formulated until a thousand years later. However, the Gospel of John does not appear to depend on one of the base texts that later produced PSA, the final Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52-53.
One of the ways to reflect on this Discourse is to realize that it’s about participation, not payment.
I found Ashby’s little article helpful and provoking in this regard. He notes, without stimulating controversy, that the Discourse is set at the time of a Passover (see John 6:4). “As in most of the Fourth Gospel,” he writes, “attention is focused on Jesus and his fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. In this instance,” he continues, “the emphasis is upon the Exodus. God fed his people through the ministry of Moses. Jesus is,” he concludes, “both Moses and the life-giving manna” (page 57).
When Jesus claims to be the living bread which is coming down from heaven, Ashby argues, “he is claiming to be the embodiment of the God of Exodus and of the Torah, the God of Sinai, no other” (page 58). Then the good bishop gets my full attention. “He is claiming to be the sacrifice about to be offered” (ibid.).
Wait a minute! What’s this “sacrifice” language doing in an article about the Bread of Life discourse?
Here is where the assumptions of PSA will lead us astray. A sacrifice, in the Hebrew scriptures, is not about some sort of payment to God. It is rather a participation with God in a meal. This is particularly true of the Passover meal. “The eating of the Passover sacrificial meal,” Ashby notes, “made real to subsequent generations of Hebrews God’s act of liberating love revealed to them in the historical events of the Exodus” (page 59).
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as the true Passover Lamb, who was to be sacrificed for the life of the world. The Gospel account is not offering this picture in order to demonstrate how our debt is paid. “The primary aim,” Ashby writes, “is to record Jesus’ teaching that He is the life-giving sacrifice bringing liberation and life to all who accept him as such” (page 59).
In the Hebrew scriptures, people who made the sacrifice to God would typically eat the meat of the sacrifice (except often for some of the internal stuff that was reserved for God). This was a chance to dine with God, to participate in a meal with God, to partake of the very life of God and to be taken up into God’s life. Sacrifice was about reconciliation and renewal far more that it was about regret and repentance.
The language of participation makes much more sense in John 6 than does any sense of “payment.” The Son of Man will give to the hungry the food that endures for eternal life (6:27). The one who eats “this bread” will live forever. This bread is Jesus’ flesh which is given for the purpose that the cosmos will have life (6:51). The punch line is in 6:56 – “The one who munches on my flesh and drinks my blood continues to remain in me and I in that one” (my translation).
Eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Jesus, the Messiah, produces a mutual indwelling, a participation in the life of God which comes to us in and through the Son of Man come down from heaven. I wish I had heard more of this when I was a younger believer. And I dearly wish I had preached more of it when I was an older pastor.
This descriptive frame isn’t limited to the Gospel of John. Daise discusses Paul’s usage of the imagery in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. The context of this passage is fascinating but not to our current point. In verse 7, Paul refers to “Christ, our Passover, who was sacrificed” (my translation). Daisen discusses Karl Gerlach who demonstrates that Paul is referring to the major elements of the Passover observance in Exodus 12 as he deals with ethical and liturgical issues in Corinth.
While Daisen’s agenda has to do with the earliest liturgical calendars and observances in Paul’s understanding, his connection does remind me that “participation” is Paul’s primary understanding of whatever he experienced as the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, Paul notes that the spiritual food and drink consumed in the Exodus wilderness were Christ.
Then we come to what I think is significant for our purposes. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is this not a partnership in the blood of Christ?” he asks rhetorically in 1 Corinthians 10:16 (my translation). “The bread which we break, is it not a partnership in the body of Christ?”
The word I translated as “partnership” is koinonia. It can be translated as “sharing,” as “community,” and as “fellowship.” It can also be translated as “participation” or, literally, as “holding in common.” I think Paul is quite happy to allow all these meanings to wash into one another in this text. We participate in and with Christ in the supper, as Christ participates in and with us.
The clincher, I think, is in verse eighteen as Paul returns to sacrifice and the Exodus. “You see Israel according to the flesh,” he writes. The ones who are eating the sacrifice, are they not partners of the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:18, my translation). Here it all comes together. The sacrifice produces partnership – participation – in the life of God. Paul’s argument at the moment is that a similar participation happens if one is engaged in sacrifices to demons (not a matter of transaction, either). That’s a problem for the Corinthians who eat meat offered to idols.
Luther notes that in the Lord’s Supper, we receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. My experience and that of many western Christians has been focused solely on the first of those three benefits over the years. The Bread of Life Discourse moves us to focus more on the second and third benefits. We are called to be filled with the Abundant Life of Christ and to participate in (to be partners in!) salvation in the here and now.
Yes, it is a very good thing to be freed from the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, through the weekly working of the Eucharist. It is an even better thing to be filled with the very life of Christ for the sake of the world. As Jesus notes, his flesh is real food, and his blood is real drink. Filled with him, we are equipped and empowered to be the Body of Christ for the life of the world. We can be recipients of, participants in, and partners for sake of the salvation of the cosmos.
References and Resources
Ashby, G. (2002). BODY AND BLOOD IN JOHN 6:41-65. Neotestamentica, 36(1/2), 57-61. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049109
Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.
Daise, M. (2016). “Christ Our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:6–8): The Death of Jesus and the Quartodeciman Pascha. Neotestamentica, 50(2), 507-526. Retrieved August 4, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417647
Goppelt, TDNT VIII:236-237.
Harrill, J. A. (2008). Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6: 52-66). Journal of Biblical Literature.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Miller, Michael E. “Pizzagate’s Violent Legacy.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/02/16/pizzagate-qanon-capitol-attack/.
WAGEMAKERS, B. (2010). INCEST, INFANTICIDE, AND CANNIBALISM: ANTI-CHRISTIAN IMPUTATIONS IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Greece & Rome, 57(2), second series, 337-354. Retrieved August 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929483