Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 4); 12 Pentecost B 2021

A Lifetime, Not Just a Day

O’Day and Hylen include an excursus on “The Eucharist in John” in their commentary. They make a point which is worth some extended reflection. “To share in the eucharistic meal is not to remember or commemorate one particular event,” they suggest, “but is to share in all of Jesus’ life, including ultimately his death. Participation in the Eucharist,” they continue, “creates a relationship between Jesus and the believer (6:56) that contains within it the promise of new life (6:57)” (Kindle Location 1675, my emphasis).

As I was growing up, I was certain that Holy Communion was “special.” It was an infrequent event set apart from the normal run of Sunday worship services and clearly set off from everyday life. In those years, Holy Communion was offered once a quarter at Sunday worship in my home congregation and tradition. It was expected that communicants would “announce” their intended participation in the Sacrament on the preceding Thursday evening by signing a register outside the door of the pastor’s study (which was a room near the front door of the parsonage).

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I assume, although I don’t know for sure, that in theory the pastor was available for the rite of Individual Confession and Absolution in preparation for the Sacrament. I am quite sure that neither of my parents ever availed themselves of this opportunity when they announced for Communion. I’m not aware that anyone else did either. The transaction was brief enough that they could leave us in the car, even as relatively small children, and return to the car before we had committed irreparable mayhem.

Only those who had “announced” in this way in advance could, at least in theory, participate in the Sacrament the following Sunday. I don’t know if anyone transgressed this norm, but I do believe that my parents never risked such boundary-crashing. And for my dad, gleeful boundary-crasher that he was, this was saying something.

If, for some reason, one or both were unable to make it on Thursday evening, they were most likely simply to refrain from attending worship that day. A few times, they called in their announcement. But it was clear that this was both highly exceptional and modestly frowned-upon behavior.

When Holy Communion was included in the Sunday Service, attendance was often nearly double the weekly average. Since it was so infrequent, and since there was such a premium on the individual “forgiveness” aspect of the supper, worshippers didn’t want to take the chance that they might miss their opportunity and then die before the next chance came along. That sort of spiritual sloth would not look good when they met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, with his Book of Life open to their account.

I realize now that my childhood image of heaven was shaped by my fleeting glances at the Communion Register in my home congregation. That image merged with the attendance register that we signed on Sunday, on those odd days when we were actually in worship. If your name wasn’t in the book on Thursday, there would be no Bread of Life on Sunday. If your name wasn’t in the book when you died, then you were out of luck, as it were. All these books, in some weird way, merged in my imagination into the One Big Book.

When, in the early 1970’s, our theological tradition began to move toward more frequent communion, one of the chief arguments against that action was that it would make Holy Communion “less special.” If we had the Eucharist monthly or even (God forbid) weekly, people would begin to take it for granted. That was, I realize in hindsight, the local definition for communing in an unworthy manner – to take the Sacrament for granted, to regard Holy Communion as having anything thing to do with “ordinary” life.

We did move to once-a-month participation in Holy Communion in about 1972. And it was the case that the pronounced attendance spike produced by the quarterly model did not transfer to the monthly practice. It is true, I believe, to this day, however, that Holy Communion Sundays still outpace non-Communion Sundays in terms of attendance. And yes, that means that in many of our congregations, weekly Eucharist is still an aspirational reality.

I rehearse all of this because whether the Eucharist was shared quarterly, monthly, weekly, or daily in that setting, the radical disjunction between the Sacrament and daily life was and would have been sustained (and, as far as I can tell, still is). I believe that’s the case in most of our ELCA congregations, although I have no data to support that belief, just observations and experience.

That being said, the perspective that the Bread of Life Discourse brings to our Eucharistic piety becomes crucial. Hylen and O’Day argue that the Gospel of John moves the eucharistic reflection away from “the night in which he was betrayed” in order to integrate Eucharistic piety fully into the life of Jesus, into the daily life of the Christian assembly, and into the moment-by-moment life of the individual Jesus follower.

“The discourse in John 6 is the place where the institution of the Eucharist is lodged,” they suggest, “because for John, all of Jesus’ life ‘institutes’ the sacrament of the Eucharist, not one particular event at the end of Jesus’ life” (Kindle Location 1671). Participation in the Eucharist, therefore, does not happen in order to make a few days special. Rather, the Eucharist is the sign that every day is special in the Reign of God. The disjunction between the Sacrament and “normal” life does not exist for Jesus followers.

This fits, of course, with the Johannine emphasis on the Incarnation as the “event” of salvation. The Good News is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension – all together and of one piece – that makes up the Good News that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. What the Word brings is abundant life in the here and now. Thus, the verbs in the Gospel according to John tend to be in the present tense rather than past or future.

“By moving the theological presentation of the Eucharist into the story of the life of Jesus,” O’Day and Hylen write, “John suggests that participation in the flesh and blood, bread and wine, belongs to all the days of Christian life, not just ‘special’ days, because it embodies the possibilities of new life with Christ. The Eucharist is a meal of celebration,” they conclude, “of sharing in the abundant presence of God in the world” (Kindle Location 1679, my emphasis).

In his discussion of the Lord’s Supper in First Corinthians, Paul expects that the shape and practice of the Supper will have concrete impact on the daily life of the members of the Corinthian assembly. The realities of the Supper determine whether or not members of the assembly can eat the meat offered to idols in Imperial public ceremonies. The nature of the Supper should determine how they share their food with one another at their community meals.

The character of the Supper should produce a discerning of the Body, that is, a sense of mutuality and common love for one another. The meal should be the setting where the variety of spiritual gifts is discerned, and where it is clear that one type of gift is not more important than another. And the Supper is the place where we can see that the greatest gift of the Spirit is Love.

It would appear that the Corinthian Christians shared the Lord’s Supper (whatever that meant at that time and in that context) whenever they met. What made it “special” was not the infrequency of the sharing. Instead, what made it special was the content of the meal – the living presence of the Lord Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The product of that presence was partnership in the Gospel and a life lived consonant with that partnership.

So, it is in the Gospel of John. We dare not lose sight, this far into the Bread of Life Discourse, of the fact that we began with real human hunger and real human eating and drinking.

If participation in the Sacrament does not result in real feeding of those in need, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not produce a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, something is wrong. If participation in the Sacrament does not yield a passion for being One Body of Christ in the world, something is wrong.

Perhaps Jesus’ listeners begin to notice and think through the kinds of demands that would be placed upon them if they accept what they are seeing and hearing. We will spend the next section of the Discourse on the resistance to and rejection of what Jesus is saying. Even some of the disciples will fall away, leaving only a remnant of the faithful. What makes the Sacrament “not special” is not frequent observance but rather the unwillingness to allow the Sacrament to shape us for lives of authentic discipleship.

I have an estranged relative who, I think, understands all of this – in his own way. I surprise myself by speaking of him in anything approaching approval, but the truth is the truth. His past can be described, at best, as “colorful.” In his later years, he has come to attend worship with some regularity and to read his Bible daily. When Holy Communion is offered at worship, however, he leaves the sanctuary and heads home.

Some see his behavior as a kind of selective hypocrisy. I think, however, he knows the demands the Supper places on us as disciples if we seek to follow Jesus daily. I think he’s sure his past makes him “unworthy” to participate. And I’m also sure he’s not yet willing to allow the Sacrament to be a daily reality in his behavior. He may know what’s expected of the faithful participant in the Supper. But I don’t believe he’s ready to sign up for such a changed life.

“The one who eats this bread shall live forever,” Jesus promises. That’s not about the quantity of abundant life but rather the quality. Lord, give us this bread always, I think…

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/.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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

Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 3); 12 Pentecost B 2021

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.

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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

Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 2); 12 Pentecost B 2021

Munching Jesus

Jesus is still working out his interpretation of the gift of manna from heaven, now recapitulated and fulfilled in the Feeding of the Multitude. In John 6:49, Jesus reminds his interlocutors, “In the wilderness, your ancestors ate the manna and died” (my translation). Jesus doesn’t identify the forebears as “our” ancestors because he has repeatedly noted that his origin is from heaven. The bread he brings is more than manna. “This is the bread, which is coming down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and will not die” (John 6:50, my translation).

So far, this is a challenging but not necessarily offensive theological assertion. What Jesus says next, as we noted earlier, will be physically and spiritually gag-inducing for many who are listening. “I am the Living Bread which has come down from heaven,” he declares. “If one eats of this bread, that one will live forever.” That’s still somewhat indirect, so Jesus goes for the kill shot. “And the bread which I shall give is my flesh for the sake of the life of the world” (John 6:51).

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It should be clear by now that specific words in the Gospel of John make all the difference. Jesus does not talk about his “body” at this point. That would be the Greek word “soma.” Instead, Jesus uses the Greek word “sarx,” which means the literal flesh of a person.

Karoline Lewis notes that this vocabulary takes us back to John’s prologue where we heard that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). “That the bread of life is Jesus’ flesh, not his body, not only emphasizes the importance of the incarnation as the principal salvific premise for John,” she writes, “but also reiterates all that Jesus as the Word made flesh contributes to our interpretation of the promise of abundant life and eternal life, so very prominent in this discourse” (page 95).

Previously, Jesus’ debate partners had been “grumbling” about Jesus and his audacious, borderline heretical statements about the manna and his mission. Now, they begin “quarreling” over his words. Note that they are not quarreling with Jesus but rather with one another. This is an additional sign that part of the gospel writer’s concern has to do with the factional infighting that was leading to the rejection and expulsion of the Jesus people from the synagogue.

“How is this man able to give to us his flesh to eat?” they ask one another in John 6:52b (my translation). A major part of the debate is about Jesus’ identity and his authority to be able to do and say what he has done and said in this chapter. If this man is merely the son of Joseph and his mother (not named in this text), then certainly he is neither capable nor qualified to make the claims he has made.

“The offense,” Lewis observes “is that this mere man is making these radical claims about God” (page 95). She notes that this sense of the scandalous nature of the Eucharist is often missing in our worship rites, which have “a marked domesticity about them, as if we have forgotten the radicalness of what Jesus actually did and said” (page 95). Perhaps, as she suggests, we ought to be a bit more astonished about what we claim we are doing in the Sacrament. If we are not astonished, perhaps we might want to have a little think before we come to the table again.

As if the offense is not already enough, Jesus raises the stakes still further. “Therefore, Jesus said to them, ‘As a solemn vow I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves” (John 6:53, my translation). Cannibalism and vampirism – it’s no wonder that pagan commentators heard such words and concluded that Christians were lunatics engaged in savage orgies of blood and gore!

“Jesus’ insistence in John’s Gospel that Israelites eat his flesh and blood in order to have life that befits children of God,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is antilanguage at its most obvious” (page 135). This is not a prophetic symbolic action, they argue, as we would find in the synoptics and in Paul’s letters. Instead, this is “just straightforward antilanguage, which made good sense to the members of John’s antisociety” (page 135). The reason it may have made good sense was discussed in the previous post.

Jesus then makes it clear that he is talking about the most physical and concrete meanings of eating and drinking. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that one up on the last day” (John 6:54, my translation). Jesus uses a verb that was most often used to describe the way in which animals ate their food.

The verb, “trogo,” means to “gnaw,” “to bite,” or to “(audibly) chew.” It is the happy and satisfying sound our dogs make as they eat their breakfast and supper. At least I assume it is a happy and satisfying sound, based on the enthusiasm with which they eat.

Goppelt, in his TDNT entry, suggests that the move from “to eat” to “to munch” in John is the move from appropriating Jesus in the word by faith to receiving Jesus physically in the Eucharist (page 236). I’m not sure if the text bears up to that close of a reading, but there’s no question that the verb means the physical act of eating real food. But what can this actually mean? Or are we to be as flummoxed as Jesus’ interlocutors (and disciples) were?

Lewis argues that the point is found in verse 56. “The one who munches my flesh and drinks my blood continues to abide in me and I in that one” (my translation). “The larger theological presupposition behind the entirety of this discourse,” she argues, “is the Gospel’s central means by which to articulate a relationship with God and Jesus, that of abiding” (page 96). Jesus provides the Life that will last, both in the Bread from heaven and in his living presence in the life of the faith community.

We come to the crux of Jesus’ argument in this section of the Discourse. “The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself,” writes William Cavanaugh, “but is taken up into Christ” (Kindle Locations 60-601). “Being consumed” is, therefore, a mutual relationship and reality in the Eucharist, as presented in the Gospel according to John.

“In the Christian view,” Cavanaugh continues, “we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation – appropriating, consuming, and discarding. In the Eucharist we are absorbed into a larger body. The small individual self is de-centered,” he argues, “and put in the context of a much wider community of participation with others in the divine life” (Kindle Locations 605-607).

Consuming as a one-way transaction defines how we contemporary people view life, and how we regard other people. I have been both fascinated with and disgusted by the response on the part of many people to the withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from Olympic events for reasons of personal health. The outcry on the part of some has been, to my mind, inhuman. It is also our culturally typical response to any professional or college athletes who let us down. After all, they get rewarded handsomely. They ought to stop protesting and start producing, right?

Biles has been described and treated as a commodity to be consumed by a voracious and insatiable pack of sports fans. I have no problem using the imagery of predators here. The sense of entitlement espoused by these folks is astonishing. They communicate a sense of ownership over Biles’ body that sounds like equal parts plantation mentality and meat market. In their howling disappointment, many have verbally chewed Biles up and spit her out in their disgusted disappointment.

There is no mutuality here – only arrogance, avarice, and abuse. It shall not be so among us Christians, if we’re paying attention to the text in front of us. “In the body of Christ, your pain is my pain, and my stuff is available able to be communicated to you in your need,” Cavanaugh asserts, echoing Aquinas. “In the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist,” he declares, “Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Kindle Locations 622-624).

Jesus says in John 6:55 that his flesh is genuine comestibles, and his blood is authentic drink. That is not an invitation to engage in Reformation debates about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. That would be a distraction. His presence in the meal means that our mutual life is about real life, not about some academic theological debate. A conversation about Simone Biles as a human being rather than as a commercial commodity is more faithful to this text than the Reformation debate would be.

In his discussion of the text, Cavanaugh returns us to this real food and drink. Remember, the whole dialogue and discourse are anchored in the real hunger and real feeding of a multitude. When we loosen that anchor, as we too often do, then we start drifting toward abstract irrelevancy. If our textual reflections do not lead us to the real needs of real people, then we’re off course.

“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all,” Cavanaugh writes, “then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ,” he declares (Kindle Locations 620-621). And we thought that Jesus was crazy when he called us to be fine, Christian cannibals!

“The key question in every transaction,” Cavanaugh writes in his introduction, “is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God” (Kindle Locations 25-26). This is the crux of our text. How do we live as those who now abide in the One who abides in us?

References and Resources

Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.

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

Text Study for John 6:51-58 (Pt. 1); 12 Pentecost B 2021

Fine Christian Cannibals

“Therefore, Jesus said to them, ‘As a solemn vow I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” (John 6:53, my translation). Ok, now it gets really weird.

J. Albert Harrill addresses what he calls the elephant in the exegetical room, the language in this text regarding cannibalism. He is not suggesting that Jesus advocates cannibalism as a Christian practice as such. Instead, he examines the rhetorical role that the imagery of cannibalism played in ancient literary sources and contexts. “What specific connotations did the idiom of cannibalism have in the ancient Mediterranean world?” he asks. “Why did the Johannine author (or redactor) ascribe cannibalistic language to Jesus in a specific scene of factionalism?” (Page 133).

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He investigates whether this imagery was current in Greek and Hebrew literature as well as the Hebrew scriptures. He wonders how this image of eating Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) might carry “messages about community maintenance and regeneration.” And he asks, “What connection did anthropophagy have for ancient audiences to articulate community dissent, party division, or even civil war?” (Page 134).

I know Harrill’s work in connection with Greek and Roman slavery and the imperial enslavement system. He is a thorough, careful, and adventurous scholar who leaves no assumption or commonplace undisturbed. In the case of our text, he suggests that the ongoing and long-running “sacramental/non-sacramental” debate about the Bread of Life Discourse leaves some exegetical stones unturned – especially when it comes to the prospect of being fine, Christian, cannibals.

Harrill notes that the speech here in the latter part of the discourse was clearly bewildering to the audience. He suggests that this is a “virtual parody of a revelation discourse: what is revealed is Jesus’ utter incomprehensibility. Even Jesus’ own followers fail to understand what their prophet-messiah is requiring of them,” he observes, “which escalates the divisive fray” (page 134). This paragraph generates disgust among the listeners. Many simply leave the movement at this point. The religious authorities decide that Jesus has to die.

“This scene is one of factionalism,” Harrill writes. “In this context, the forms of speech that would normally provide warrants for a particular kind of instruction (midrash) serve solely to emphasize Jesus’ strangeness as the Other. This parody of a traditional epiphany belongs to the Fourth Gospel’s regular subversion and reinterpretation of familiar symbolism,” he argues. “Indeed, subversion of familiar symbolism,” Harrill notes, “is the principal strategy of the Fourth Gospel” (page 135).

Harrill argues that this language of cannibalism draws on the Greco-Roman polemics of factionalism. He examines a number of ancient literary sources in that context to make his case. He isn’t suggesting that the writer of John’s gospel directly quotes from or reacts to those literary sources. Instead, he suggests that the culture was informed by an ideology that used cannibalism language and imagery that “signaled for ancient audiences a recognizable Greek and Roman condemnation of domestic rebels and internal conspirators.”

In the Gospel of John, Harrill, argues, “anthropophagy proved especially useful to the author because it also celebrated the very cultural idiom of factionalism that defined John’s community. The Johannine author revaluated the cultural taboo of cannibalism in positive terms,” he concludes, “as a means of self-definition for his community, to throw outsiders off the scent and to weed out those insiders ‘who did not believe’” (page 136).

Before we dismiss this line of interpretation as either wildly speculative or completely irrelevant, let’s think about the role of cannibalistic imagery in our own discourse and ideologies. Indigenous peoples routinely have been accused of cannibalism and other “perversions” in order to render as Other, Savage, and Non-human. With that designation well in place, the actual cannibalistic and perverse behaviors of the colonizers could proceed apace.

One of the ways to Otherize Jews was to accuse them of cannibalism – especially drinking the blood of Christian children in secret rites and ceremonies. The combination of cannibalism and children was and is especially powerful as a way to symbolically render the Other as worthy of death and destruction. That story was then used to demonize Jews during the Nazi regime. In that case, the story led to the consuming, figuratively and literally, of the Jews in the Nazi death camps and in the larger society.

We don’t have to go that far afield, however, either geographically or historically. We need only remember “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory that proposed the Democrats, and especially Hillary Clinton, were engaged in a child-sex ring that was also rumored to include cannibalism and blood-drinking.

The headquarters of this “ring” was rumored to be located at Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in northwest Washington D. C. This led Edgar Maddison Welch to drive to the pizzeria with an assault rifle and to begin shooting. The Pizzagate conspiracy has resurfaced as part of the Q-Anon conspiracy lunacy. This time the headquarters was identified as the U. S. Capitol. And the attack took place on January 6, 2021.

Harrill examines Greco-Roman sources including the work of the historian Thucydides. The historian described a local civil war on the island of Corcyra during the Peloponnesian war. The rhetoric of cannibalism was used to describe the revolutionaries in the most graphic of terms. “Thucydides draws on Greek ethical theory that articulates immorality not in terms of mere decline or degeneration but rather by the figure of inversion,” Harrill notes. “The inversion of verbal ‘transvaluation’ belongs to a set of interrelated elements within the Thucydidean topos that includes tyranny, the subordination of justice to self-interest, rampant criminality, violent unrestraint, and bloodthirstiness” (page 138).

This matters for our purposes because the writer of John’s gospel turns this rhetoric upside down and inside out, according to Harrill. “Thucydides’ narrative of the dissension at Corcyra is important for our study of the Fourth Gospel,” he proposes, “because Jesus’ cannibalistic talk of John 6:52–56 presents a corresponding inversion of verbal evaluations in a similar episode of communal dissension and factionalism” (page 139).

The imagery appears as well in Plato’s Republic. Revolt against the established order leads to a breakdown of societal norms and produces moral, and actual, monsters, Plato argues. Cannibalism thus belongs to ancient polemics against rival forms of government and community self-definition,” Harrill concludes (page 140). The imagery is used to vilify and bestialize Mark Antony during that period of Roman disorder. “Anthropophagy emerges therefore,” Harrill argues, “as a fundamental trope in polemics against factionalism and tyranny” (page 140).

In Jewish rhetoric of the time, Harrill describes and analyzes the imagery of cannibalism in the Jewish Wars of Flavius Josephus. He notes that Josephus shares the Greco-Roman ideology that makes the language of cannibalism understandable to audiences. “The Greco-Roman polemics of factionalism, with its imagery of cannibalism,” he argues, “provides an overlooked ancient context in which to interpret both the presence and the function of the cannibalistic language in John 6:52–66” (page 148).

Harrill points to the factionalism that is a main them of the Gospel of John. It is a story of opponents, divisions, and exclusion of the heterodox. Therefore, he asserts, “Cannibalism was one of the prime images of factionalism in ancient Mediterranean culture and is the key image of John 6” (page 149).  Why, then, would the writer of this Gospel use such image here?

Cannibalism was a familiar way to characterize and otherize one’s opponents in the ancient context. Given the nature of the Christian sacrament of the Supper, the charge of cannibalism would have been and was a natural one. Wagemaker’s article goes into detail on the charges made against Christians by pagan writers and government authorities in the late first and early second centuries. It’s interesting that both cannibalism and infanticide were among the charges leveled.

Harrill agrees with the scholarly consensus of those “who understand the Fourth Gospel to function as a ‘two-level drama,’ in which the murderous hostility between Jesus and ‘the Jews’ refers not to the situation of the historical Jesus but to the late-first-century experience of the author’s community being expelled from one of the emerging synagogues” (page 150). The writer is addressing those on the knife edge between “enduring” (continuing to put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah) and “perishing.”

The expelled and rejected followers of Jesus used the rhetoric of cannibalism to identify themselves as the true faction, those who endured. If, as Harrill argues, the Fourth Gospel’s message focuses on this experience of alienation, then the devices of inversion, irony (and, I would add, humor) carry this message forward. “The narrative,” Harrill writes, “appropriates many motifs and symbols from their traditional meaning and revalues them in a way precisely to offend the Jewish interlocutors” (page 155).

“The semantics of cannibalism, therefore,” Harrill concludes, “reflect John’s characteristic use of private language…throughout the Gospel. Such sectarian discourse,” he continues, “gave legitimacy to the estrangement and degradation that the community experienced. A product of a ‘cognitive minority,’ the private language affirmed the community’s feelings of Otherness and alienation from the world… The anthropophagic saying of the Johannine Jesus functions in an antimissionary way, to steer outsiders away from the community and to encourage unworthy insiders to leave” (page 156-157).

That’s probably enough to chew on for now.

References and Resources

Harrill, J. A. (2008). Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6: 52-66). Journal of Biblical Literature.

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