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).
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