Connections 08.19.2018: Really Real

John 6:52-58; Psalm 111:1-5, 10

I can still see the beloved pastor of my growing up years standing behind the communion table, speaking words meant to prepare us for the Lord’s Supper. They went something like this:

“Now we know that the bread isn’t really the body of Jesus and the juice isn’t really the blood of Jesus. They’re just symbols.”

I kind of wondered why he didn’t go on to say, “Jesus said, ‘This is my body’—but he didn’t really mean it. He also said, ‘This is my blood’—but he didn’t really mean that either.”

We were Baptists, and I reckon it was important to our pastor to make sure we understood what the Supper isn’t. But I found myself wishing he’d say more about what it is.

Those who believe that the bread and wine of communion become the body and blood of Jesus can point to his words in John 6 to support their position: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53). He says this in the course of a discussion that centers on his being the bread of life (6:35). It’s a discussion after which his disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60).

And all God’s people said, “It sure is!”

I’m not saying that John wants us to believe that the body and blood of Jesus are literally present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. After all, Jesus isn’t even talking about the Lord’s Supper in these verses. In fact, John’s Gospel is the only Gospel that doesn’t present Jesus establishing the custom of Lord’s Supper observance (Jesus instead washes the disciples’ feet and tells them they should do the same). But it’s likely that Communion language stands behind what Jesus says about eating his body and drinking his blood. John was surely aware of the Lord’s Supper.

Still, Jesus did say we must eat his body and drink his blood, and that sounds to me like something awfully real. It’s symbolism, but it’s powerful symbolism. I think Jesus is stressing that we must enter into a really real relationship with him. He really does enter into our lives and we really do enter into his.

Our relationship with Jesus is real because of what he did in his body. John’s Gospel is the one that proclaims, “The Word became flesh and lived among us …” (1:14a). And in the verse right before this Sunday’s lesson text, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (5:51). Jesus gave his flesh “for the life of the world” when he died on the cross.

Our relationship with Jesus is real because we live it out in our bodies. As long as we are in this world, we practice our discipleship in and through our bodies. Our devotion is based in our spirits, in our innermost beings, but we live out our devotion physically.

Consider how vital physicality is in God’s bringing of salvation into the world through Jesus. Consider the incarnation: Jesus came in a body. Consider the crucifixion: Jesus’ body died on the cross. Consider the resurrection: Jesus’ body was raised from the tomb.

Consider how vital physicality is in our participation in God’s salvation. Consider our birth: we are born into this world as physical beings. Consider our conversion: when we are born again, we lay down our lives in sacrificial service. Consider our resurrection: when Jesus comes again, God will raise our bodies.

Folks, I think Jesus wants us to know just how real our relationship with him is right here in this life and in these bodies.

It’s as real as real can get. It’s really real.

Discussion

1. Why does Psalm 111:1-5, 10 say we should praise God?
2. Psalm 111:5 says of the Lord, “He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” How does John 6:52-58 help us think about what this means? How has God provided “food” for us through Jesus, who is the bread of life?
3. Imagine you’re participating in a debate. The proposition being debated is, “John 6:52-58 illustrates the importance of understanding the difference between the ‘literal’ and ‘real.’” Would you rather be on the “pro” or “con” side of the debate?
4. What does it mean to “abide in” (v. 56) Jesus?
5. How might studying John 6:52-58 affect your Lord’s Supper experience? How might it affect your following of Jesus?

Reference Shelf

In the narrative of the Last Supper in John 13–17, there is no account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper as in the Synoptics (Matt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20) and in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. The eucharistic language in the Fourth Gospel appears in John 6:53-58, in Galilee not Jerusalem, in the middle of Jesus’ public ministry not during the last week of his life. In John 6, vv. 53-58 are located in a context that is strongly Christological (vv. 35-48, 49-51). What is the significance of locating the eucharistic passage in John 6 and of placing it after an incarnational one? The answer to these questions gives one the Johannine understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

In the New Testament there are at least three views of the Supper: (a) a memorial of Jesus’ death as a covenant sacrifice (1 Cor 11:23-25; Mk 14:22- 25; Lk 22:14-20, in the long text; Matt 26:26-29, at least in part, in v. 28a); (b) a continuation of the mealtimes with Jesus during his lifetime and after his resurrection, which anticipates the messianic banquet (Luke-Acts); and (c) a cultic extension of the Incarnation in which the bread and wine function dramatically as the incarnate body and blood of Jesus. The Fourth Gospel belongs to the third type. If one’s understanding of the Supper is that of a memorial of Jesus’ death, what better place to locate the words of institution than in the last week of Jesus’ life? If one’s concept of the Supper is that of mealtime with the risen Lord, what better place to locate a breaking of bread than in a resurrection appearance, as in Luke 24:13-35? If one’s conception of the Supper is that of a cultic extension of the Incarnation, what better context for the eucharistic words than in the middle of Jesus’ public ministry immediately after a lengthy treatment of the nourishing dimensions of Christology? For John, Jesus’ death makes the cultic extension of the Incarnation possible. The cultic meal, however, is not a memorial of his death any more than an anticipation of his second coming, but rather an ingesting of his incarnate life (D. Mollat, “The Sixth Chapter of Saint John,” in The Eucharist in the New Testament [Baldmore: Helicon, 1964], esp. 146- 47, 152).

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 145–46.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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