Thursday, April 5, 2012

Some thoughts for a Maundy Thursday...

Chief among the gifts of Christ to His Church has surely got to be His Supper.  Well, let me put that differently.  Among the chief gifts of Christ to His Church, His Supper surely stands very prominent.  I would not want to diminish baptism or confession.

As we head into the institution of this Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, we also run into a host of confusion about real presence, spiritual presence, what it is given and what is received, what to do with what remains and whether Christ's presence has a shelf life, and so on.  Lutherans have often been hesitant to employ John 6 in this discussion.  I have no clue why.  It seems to me only an idiot or someone with a theological viewpoint that precludes the possibility of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ has trouble seeing the Eucharist in John 6.  But, anyway, I have to pass on this wonderful post from Pr Tapani Simojoki.. it is sooo good and sooo appropriate on this day:

I wrote this post quite some time ago about my misgivings concerning the term ‘spiritual eating’ to refer to the reception of the promise of Christ in faith. The Formula of Concord, the last of the Lutheran confessions, make this a key distinction, possibly following Martin Chemnitz (my education is patchy!). Luther refers to this, but as far as I know, it wasn’t a key idea in his system.

My problem with this kind of language is this: it creates far too much room for receptionism (both of the Anglican and the Lutheran types), and poses the danger of diminishing the importance of the physical eating of the physical sacrament.

Of course, there is a biblical root for the idea of spiritual eating: John 6. Jesus appears to use the language of eating as a metaphor for faith in him. And in the Lutheran exegetical tradition, the whole of John 6 has been understood as referring to faith in Christ rather than the sacrament, for a number of reasons which I won’t rehearse here.

However, there is a problem: the language of Jesus. For part of John 6, Jesus speaks of eating using the generic term esthiō. However, when the argument between Jesus and the Jews gets heated, he switches verbs to trōgō, which means to ‘chew, munch, masticate’. It’s physical, concrete, bodily activity.
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat (esthiō) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on (trōgō) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live for ever.”
When things begin to fall apart and disciples begin to desert Him, Jesus has plenty of opportunities to correct the misunderstanding. “Hey, calm down, I was talking about spiritual eating.” But He doesn’t.

And the rule of thumb is: if Jesus says something, we should pay close attention. When the word is ‘munch’, teeth are involved.

(This is also why I have little time for the pious suggestion that it is irreverent to chew the host. Jesus didn’t seem to think so, and while I may be holier than thou, I don’t want to be holier than Him.)

Given that the notion of spiritual eating is a mainstay in classical Reformed teaching, and as such a method of writing out the spiritual benefit of the physical eating of the body and blood of the Lord, I really do think we do better to use more direct and unambiguous language.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters,

I don't understand the controversy with John 6 and would appreciate your help. In verse 4 it says, "the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh." Surely this verse gives the time frame of Jesus' words about his being the Bread of Life and it being needful to eat his body and drink his blood? I don't understand why people would misunderstand verse 4?

It also seems that early in John 6, Jesus gives the miracle of the loaves and fish to address the people's temporal need for food and then he addresses our eternal need for the food of his body and blood. Jesus also compares the temporal daily manna given to the Israelites to the gift of eternal life in him. The passage in John 6 also seems to be a prophetic allusion to his institution of his Supper. For better or worse, John 6 doesn't make sense to me unless it is about faith in him as the Bread of Life and this life being given in the gift of the Lord's Supper. Why is it so controversial? It seems so plain...


Pastor Peters said...

I would agree -- but there are those who have in the past and in the present interpreted these words of Jesus metaphorically - to a spiritual eating and drinking. Even in Lutheran history! I don't get it either.

Anonymous said...

May I ask who in Lutheran history (past/present) think the Lord's Supper is merely spiritual? This controversy sounds like Philip Cary's explanation of the Reformed placing their faith in their faith versus Lutherans placing their faith in what Jesus actually says... is this the foundation of the controversy?



Anonymous said...

Re.: Lutherans have often been hesitant to employ John 6 in this discussion. I have no clue why. It seems to me only an idiot or someone with a theological viewpoint that precludes the possibility of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ has trouble seeing the Eucharist in John 6.

Sorry to be the one with the bad news, but that “idiot” was called Dr. Martin Luther.

Peace and Joy nevertheless!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

No, Susan, not that the Supper was spiritual but that John 6 did not refer to Holy Communion but only spoke metaphorically about the spiritual communion of faith; this is what Pr Peters was addressing. Not the Supper but John 6 and whether or not it addressed the real eating and drinking of the body and blood of Holy Communion or was merely speaking descriptively of those who feed upon Christ in thine heart by faith.