John 6 and Real Presence

The following quotation is on John 6 and if Jesus’ discussion there sheds any light on the eucharist. Here is what it says (citations omitted):

There can be no doubt that Radbertus and Ratramnus had their differences over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Despite these differences, however, one striking similarity between them is their use of John 6. The use of this passage is striking because they both appeal to it, but for entirely different reasons. Radbertus appeals to John 6 as proof that his position is correct, while Ratramnus appeals to this passage in favor of his position. It seems prudent, therefore, to examine this passage since it is a portion of Scripture to which not only these theologians referred, but subsequent theologians have continued to refer even to our present day.

While many evangelicals and, more broadly, Protestants may be itching to correct Radbertus’s exegesis and to engage him in lively hermeneutical debate, it would behoove such to pause for a moment to consider an oft-neglected positive point that emerges from his writing. We observed earlier that Radbertus addressed the question of whether or not a Christian who did not believe in his theology of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist could still benefit from, let alone participate in, that Christ-appointed rite of the church. His answer was in the affirmative. How remarkable that a theological position that has divided Christians for centuries should be espoused and rigorously defended during the Middle Ages, but in such a way as to include rather than exclude those who disagree. Granted, there are many issues and concerns that must be addressed when approaching the question of who may be included in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, surely Radbertus gives the modern church something to ponder. Even when stridently disagreeing with his fellow monk Ratramnus, Radbertus does not deny him fellowship.

Radbertus opens his work with a citation of Jesus’ words in John 6:51 to support his real presence view. Jesus says there that His body is given for the life of the world. At first glance, this passage in John is an odd one. Jesus says quite plainly that He is the living bread from heaven, and anyone who eats this living bread, which is His flesh, will live forever. Could the Bible be any clearer? Surely, this is evidence enough to demonstrate that, in some mysterious though immutable way, the very body and blood of the incarnate Christ is ingested by His followers. How that might be expected to occur from the perspective of those listening in John 6 would have proven something of a puzzle, but one to which the answer is given by the end of the Gospel, with the Last Supper. Our desire here, however, is to stay close to the contours of John 6, so let us take stock of the content and context of this chapter alone in order to assist our appreciation and assessment of the credibility of Radbertus’s interpretation.

John 6 begins with an account of the feeding of the 5,000. The miraculous nature of what took place was not lost on the people, nor were their intentions missed by the Messiah. When the feeding had finished, Jesus withdrew to a mountain so that He might escape the crowd’s ambition to forcibly make Him their king. After a brief interlude in which Jesus walked on water to His disciples’ boat during the evening, the crowds became aware the next day that Jesus was not returning to the place where they were fed. Upon embarking in boats, they eventually found Him and began to inquire after His itinerary. It is as this point that Jesus turns the tables on the crowd.

Jesus informs the crowd that what matters most to them are their stomachs. Jesus fed them, and they wanted more food. Jesus warns the people not to work for the food that perishes, but to work for the food that endures into everlasting life. It is this food that the Son of Man provides. The obvious question here is what work is required to gain the food of everlasting life, to which Jesus replies that the work of God is to believe in the One God has sent. At this stage in the dialogue, the people clearly recognized that Jesus was speaking about Himself, and so they asked for a sign that He really is sent by God. Now, at first glance, such a request might sound ridiculous since Jesus had just fed them in a miraculous manner. What the people were requesting, however, is a sign that accords with the promise of eternal bread. In other words, they had already seen and accepted the sign that qualified Jesus as a prophet; now they wanted to see the sign that qualified Jesus to fulfill His promise that He was sent from God and had the very seal of the Father on Him. Moses gave our forefathers bread from heaven, what can you do?

Jesus seized on this reference immediately. First, He clarified for the people that it was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God. More important than that, however, is the point that while Moses’ bread was given some time ago (note the past tense in v. 32a), the true bread which the people need to eat is currently available (note the present tense in v. 32b). How is it that eternal bread is currently available to the people? It is available because the true bread of God, the true bread given from heaven, is Jesus who says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Jesus then states clearly in the succeeding verses that anyone who comes to Him and believes in Him will no longer be hungry or thirsty. In line with Ratramnus’s interpretation of this passage, what is taught here is that the desire to satisfy hunger is achieved by believing in Him.

Jesus’ deft use of the people’s reference to food from heaven has resulted in His appropriation of that reference into a metaphor. In spite of this, v. 51 raises a question that, to some, has been lurking in the depths if not simmering under the very surface of the text. With all of the language of eating and drinking the body or flesh of Christ, not to mention the focus on His blood that comes in the ensuing verses, surely Radbertus was right to see a reference here to the Eucharist. Are not the words of our Lord, “This is my body” echoed in Jesus’ final statement that “I will give my flesh . . . for the life of the world” (John 6:51)? Certainly, it may be argued that there are echoes here, but it is difficult to sustain the notion that there are more than echoes here. Consider, for example, that in all the accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the NT it is, particularly, the Lord’s body that is mentioned and not His flesh. Had John wanted to make a clear connection between this part of Jesus’ teaching and the Lord’s Supper, choosing different diction at a crucial juncture is not the way to go about it. But wait, we might hear Radbertus retort, what about the statements regarding the drinking of blood in addition to the eating of flesh in John 6:53–54?

Again, this is not the place to enter into an extended discussion, but several comments will suffice. First, it is worth remembering the context in which John 6 is taking place. There was no way for the original audience to conceive of Jesus’ words referring to what the church would later call the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. For them, the only way Jesus’ teaching could be understood against the backdrop of OT law forbidding cannibalism would be to understand that Jesus was using a metaphor. Were His disciples and the Jews at large not inclined to interpret Jesus’ words in this way, their response would not simply have been to walk away grumbling that this is difficult teaching. The only appropriate response would have been to usher Jesus into the courts and to try Him for inciting people to break the law. This is a perspective that Radbertus, along with like-minded theologians, appear to forget.

Second, the reader would do well to pay attention to the force of Jesus’ statement in v. 54. Jesus says there that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life and will be raised on the last day. Here is a startling promise that is given without reservation or condition. Can we believe that Jesus would have promised salvation to those who partake in the Lord’s Supper, as though it is the eating and drinking that bring salvation? This countermands the very foundation of Jesus’ gospel, not to mention the immediate context of these verses. As we have already seen, the idea of believing in the Son of God is paramount in this pericope. The work of God is to believe (v. 29). The desire of the people is to believe in Jesus on the basis of a sign (v. 30). The one who believes in Jesus will never thirst again (v. 35). The one who believes in the Son will have eternal life and be raised up on the last day (v. 40). He who believes has eternal life (v. 47). Most profoundly, at the end of the chapter, Peter tells Jesus that the disciples will not desert Him, for Jesus alone has the words of life and they believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God (v. 69). Everything in this chapter points toward Jesus’ words being understood metaphorically, the crowd grasping the great cost of the salvation that comes through the Son of Man, and the disciples becoming all the more aware of the necessity of believing in Jesus. Truly, the Holy One of God descended to take on flesh that He might give Himself, in His flesh, for the life of the world, and having done so to ascend to where He was before as a demonstration of what lies ahead for those who believe.

In sum, then, while John 6:51 may at first appear to lend support to Radbertus’s idea that the body, the very flesh of Jesus, is somehow present in the eucharistic elements, a careful consideration of the context of that passage does not lend itself to the same conclusion. This passage denies a real presence view and its later development in transubstantiation.

Schreiner, Thomas R.. The Lord’s Supper (New American Commentary Studies in Bible & Theology) (pp. 138-142). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So what do you think? I find it to be a pretty poor argument against a real presence view.

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Solomon, Wisdom, Fall

Solomon is heralded for being wise. After all, he made a great choice in 1 Kings 3 (ESV):

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. And you have kept for him this great and steadfast love and have given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

Yet Solomon falls. He chases after other gods. He becomes like Pharaoh. Solomon the wise king is split in two.

I wonder what this means about wisdom. After all, Proverbs heralds wisdom. There is this contrast between the wise and foolish person. Wisdom cries out for people on the streets. Wisdom is central to the book’s vision and the good life. Yet the wise man who is said to stand behind the book becomes an idolator and oppressor. Wisdom is being undone. In reading Proverbs, we might be tempted to think that we can find our refuge in wisdom. But in mentioning Solomon maybe the book subverts itself. Not even in wisdom can we have a secure foundation. It is like building our house on the sand. The only sure foundation is the rock of Christ.

What really matters in life?

A lot of us have big dreams. Dreams to change the world, make an impact, leave a footprint, affect others. In Deja Vu, J. Cole raps, “She [mess] with small town [dudes], I got bigger dreams.” I’ve always loved subverting that line. She messes with big town dudes, I got smaller dreams. Because I think what really matters isn’t really what we leave behind.

There’s something good and beautiful about the person who moves to a small town to pastor a small church that no one outside of a ten mile radius will ever hear of. How tempting it must be to leave that all and seek something bigger, a platform with influence. In The Pastor, Eugene Peterson talks about this group of pastors he would get together with. Among many other things, they were trying to fight against the consumerism and entrepreneurial spirit that had invaded the pastorate. Then one of the pastors gets a nicer gig. He can extend his influence. Isn’t that good, after all? He can reach more people and thus spread their vision. This is all for the spread of God’s kingdom and the glory of His name, right?

But Peterson isn’t so sure. Here’s the letter he writes which can be found in his memoir mentioned above (I fount it here):

Dear Phillip,

I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?

I certainly understand the appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specializes in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.

It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”

The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning, God meaning—apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.

But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me. We can escape upward or downward. Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward. A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.

So why are we pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence that they engender? Why are we so knowledgeable in the false transcendence of drink and sex and so unlearned in the false transcendence of crowds? There are many spiritual masters in our tradition who diagnose and warn, but they are little read today. I myself have never written what I really feel on this subject, maybe because I am not entirely sure of myself, there being so few pastors alive today who agree. Or maybe it is because I don’t want to risk wholesale repudiation by friends whom I genuinely like and respect. But I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

Your present congregation is close to ideal in size to employ your pastoral vocation for forming Christian maturity. You talked about “multiplying your influence.” My apprehension is that your anticipated move will diminish your vocation, not enhance it. Can we talk more about this? I would welcome a continuing conversation.

The peace of Christ,
Eugene.

The emphasis on vocation. That’s how I have been thinking about the Christian life for so long now. In a society mired in results, measurable statistics, and pragmatism, I have tried not to consider those things at all. We are only called to faithfulness. We called to be people conformed to the image of the Son, no matter if that means small churches where people forget about us in 30 years. There’s something so beautiful about that.

I don’t know that I would pull this off. I would be so tempted to go to the bigger church for the platform and influence. It would be easy to justify it as spreading a biblical vision to more people. It is incredibly easy to deceive oneself on these matters, to act like we do it because we care about God’s glory and not because we care about ours.

But we are so enslaved to our society in ways we don’t even know. We will wear our chains and declare ourselves free. If we are to be faithful at all, we must make a deliberate effort to fight against these pressures. Jesus didn’t think people would naturally deny themselves and take up their crosses: that’s why he commanded us to do so.

Who am I praying to?

For a long time I was not comfortable with praying in front of other people. The basic worry seems to be that I was not sure who my audience would be. Would I be praying to God or praying in front of these people? It’s a worry we all have. I’m sure many have felt a tinge to say something specific in a prayer because you knew someone was there and they would hear it. At that point you are praying so that they hear you, not praying to God.

Maybe the point can be put in terms of intent and hope. I intend to pray in a way that is to God, but I hope these words are heard by someone in attendance. If this person is not paying attention and thus does not hear, it is not that my intent is frustrated but that my hope is not fulfilled. As long as I am still praying to God, my intent is completed in action even though this person does not hear, but my hope is not consummated.

This might help us get the order right. I pray these words with the goal of speaking to God. If the goal is for someone to hear, then my audience is others, not God. But can the order work the other way? Can I hope someone hears certain words and thus intend to pray them to God? Again, I think our reasoning matters here. If we knew this person would not hear the words, would we pray them to God? If not, then it seems like our intent really is for the person to hear the words and so we miss the point of prayer again.

While all of this is abstract, I think it’s rather practical too. Maybe people have studied this, but I find it likely that our prayers change based on our audience. If we are praying at church, we might say certain words. But if you put me before Democrats or Republicans or the king of Saudi Arabia, my words will probably be different. A good test is the way we pray the gospel. We probably pray the gospel when we are in an audience of people who do not believe. This is a way of sharing the gospel with them. But if we aren’t praying the gospel in front of brothers and sisters in Christ, then it is probably unlikely that we are really praying to God.

So for a long time I would not pray in front of others. This weird thing would happen when I did where I would feel an incessant need to smile after, as if I did something good and worthy of praise. I think my audience was other people. I knew that about myself, so I avoided public prayer like the plague. Sometimes I still feel myself praying so that others will hear. But prayer that is not to God is no prayer at all. May our lives reflect that.

Unplugging

In college I broke my phone. I could not get a replacement for a couple weeks. So that meant no apps on my phone. It meant no web browsing on my phone. It even meant no calling or texting. If my parents needed to talk to me, they had to call one of my friends. Those weeks were absolutely wonderful.

Now I have a new cell phone where I essentially have no data. I have wifi at home and work, so I will have no problem getting on my phone a lot. But it’s still different. When walking into a grocery store I instinctively went to pull up a website on my phone. I couldn’t. So I had to simply be present.

Pascal said something like all of the world’s problems stem from the fact that we cannot be alone in a room with no distractions. I read a lot but even I feel weird when I don’t have my phone on me while reading. If it buzzes, I feel the incessant need to look at it. Sometimes it buzzes but I check and there was no notification. I imagined the buzzing.

We will all make jokes about our technology use. Yeah, I need a break from facebook. Or I’m totally on my phone too much. The tv is frying the kids’ brains. And so on. Yet we do nothing. And if you suggest that maybe we actually should take steps, like maybe it’s not good to joke about being enslaved while continuing in enslavement, then good luck being taken seriously. That’s what addiction is like, you lash out at those trying to liberate you. Isn’t that the story of the exodus and life of Jesus, after all?

So we stay plugged in. We began by using technology, but now it’s using us. We are slaves by choice.