The meal of the Eucharist is full communion with all God's creation
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
1 Kings 19:4-8
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
“Food that perishes,” and “food that endures for eternal life,” two kinds of eating, different in nature, but the interaction of which can work for the restoration of the creation: this is the hope to which our reading of the Scriptures for these last several Sundays has led us. The key issue, as Norman Wirzba frames it, is to what extent “what we eat and how we eat it reflect whether or not we think we need to abide with others at all.” Our reading of the Scriptures for the past two Sundays, we have found, shows that the question of “abiding” matters greatly, or ought to, for congregations gathered to hear the teaching of Jesus. In both details and thematic development of the narrative, the feeding story from the Gospel of John, along with the lessons that accompany it, enfolds the eating of “food that perishes” within an eating of “food that endures for eternal life,” in such a way that that it provides a basis for addressing the growing crisis of our relationship to the earth that sustains us (see our comments on the readings for the Ninth and Tenth Sundays after Pentecost).
The readings for the Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Sundays after Pentecost underscore how important the interaction between these two kinds of eating is for Christian faith and practice. The verses selected from the Bread of Life discourse for these three Sundays (6:35, 41-51; 6:51-58; 6:56-69) combine Jesus' marvelous promise of the “bread of life”—those who eat of it will “never be hungry”—with the equally astounding insistence that the bread that he gives “for the life of the world is my flesh,” and “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Because the gospel readings for these three Sunday's are continuous, our discussion will include all three of them together.
As Raymond Brown points out, proper interpretation of these Gospel readings from John 6 hinges on seeing the sudden shift in language between verses 35-50 and 51-59. Verses 35-50 represent “sapiential” reflection on “the bread of life” as “divine revelation given to people by and in Jesus,” with intertextual references to passages like Amos 8:11-13 (“I shall send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord”), Proverbs 9:5 (“Come, eat of my bread; drink of the wine I have mixed”), and the messianic banquet of Isaiah 55 (“As rain and snow come down from heaven . . . making the earth bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth”). Here the images of bread are clearly metaphorical; the meaning assigned to the feeding of the five thousand is obviously spiritual, having to do primarily with belief in Jesus (The Gospel According to John I-XII. New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 272).
With verses 51 and following, however, “the bread of life” is identified with the flesh of Jesus, and while “the verses in 51-58 are remarkably like those of 35-50, a new vocabulary runs through them: 'eat,' 'feed,' 'drink,' 'flesh,' blood.'” Here the eating is emphatically actual, rather than metaphorical. For Brown, this shift is clear evidence that in the latter verses the evangelist refers to the Eucharistic meal of the church. Indeed, these verses must pertain to the Eucharist, he argues, in order to rescue their meaning from association with texts such as Psalm 27:2 and Zechariah 11:9, in which “to eat someone's flesh” is a “metaphor for hostile action” and “drinking of blood “ refers to “brutal slaughter' (e.g. Jeremiah 46:10). Brown proposes, in fact, that John's usage here represents his version of the institution of the Eucharist; the words of 51-58, he insists, are “really out of place anywhere during the ministry except at the Last Supper” (Ibid., p. 286-87). Thus, while v. 51a, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” echoes the theme of the Incarnation;” v. 51b also “seems to look to the death of Jesus, a theme traditionally associated with the Eucharist; for Jesus is “to give his flesh for the life of he world” (Ibid., p. 291); and vs. 52-58, roll with the repetition: “eat the flesh . . . and drink his blood . . . eat my flesh and drink my blood . . . eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Without this eating, Jesus insists, “you have no life in you;” and with it, “you have eternal life;” those who eat it, “abide in me, and I in them.”
It is important to note, as Brown points out, that the juxtaposition of sapiential and sacramental themes here . . .
is as old as Christianity itself. The two forms of the Bread of Life Discourse represent a juxtaposition of Jesus' twofold presence to believers in the preached word and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This two-fold presence is the structural skeleton of the Easter Divine Liturgy, the Roman Mass, and all those Protestant liturgical services that have historically evolved from modification of the Roman Mass.
We are accordingly at the very core of the development of the liturgical and theological traditions of the Christian faith; whatever significance these texts have for orientation to and care of creation can be universally appropriated.
For Brown, the point of this juxtaposition of “the two forms of the discourse” is the religious teaching “that the gift of life comes through a believing reception of the sacrament” (Ibid, p. 292). In our view, Brown misses the additional significance of the juxtaposition of two very different kind of eating, of the “food that perishes,” and the “food that endures for eternal life.” Brown does makes note of John's “anti-docetic” intention here and calls attention to the fact that, “strangely enough, Jesus does not take any pains to explain away the Jewish repugnance at the cannibalistic thought of eating his flesh” but rather “emphasizes the reality of 'feeding' . . . on his flesh’ and adds the even more repugnant note of drinking his blood” (Ibid., p. 291-92). Nevertheless, Brown still takes the meaning of the metaphors of bread, water, and life from the first part of the Discourse to refer to “a reality which, when once possessed, makes a man see natural hunger, thirst, and death as insignificant” (Ibid., p. 274, emphasis added). Neil Elliot understands the juxtaposition better, we think, in remarking that, even in the first part of the discourse, the “Gospel seems less interested in quelling appetite than in arousing it.” John, he believes, “wanted to connect the language we associate with the Last Supper more closely with the frank satisfaction of hunger in the feeding miracle.” The Eucharist is important here, not so much as a religious ritual, but as means to the saving purposes of God. As Elliot puts it, “The promises made in John 6 are far greater than the words spoken over bread and a cup in the Upper Room. Jesus is 'the bread of life,' who has ''come down from heaven.' His flesh is 'bread given for the life of the world'” (“Ninth Sunday after Pentecost,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 2000, Minneapolis; Fortress Press, 2000, p. 136).
Accordingly, while there are two kinds of food, the eating of them occurs simultaneously, to the purpose of transforming “eating our fill” into an eating that serves the purposes of God. The story of the meal from 1 Kings 19, the first lesson for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, serves as a sort of prototype of this combination. Food was provided to Elijah for bodily nourishment: “Get up and eat,” the angel said to him, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” And then we learn that the journey reverberates with the experience of the Exodus from Egypt: “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” His eating also is of both kinds: that which sustains the body in life and also that which bears the meaning of Moses' leadership of the people into the wilderness; and it results in the preservation of “seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (Cf. Elliot, p. 139). The one eating enables the other, which in turns gives meaning and purpose to the first.
So it is in some measure with all eating that is done in faith, we are to understand. The recital of God's care for Israel that precedes their vow of loyalty in Joshua 24 (first lesson for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which unfortunately does not include this verse) reminds us how comprehensive God's gift of bread is: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant” (24:13). Leaving aside the deeply troubling observation that other people were driven out of the land as part of this gift, the validity of the assertion that they live in land that sustains them by that gift remains, and it is for this that they give thanks as in Psalm 34:
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (34:8-10)
And as we see here and in the other lessons for these Sundays, the dynamic relationship between the two kinds of eating can reach a high pitch of intensity. What Lady Wisdom calls her banqueters to come and eat is “the way of insight,” but the description of her preparation for the banquet reads like a manual for rural hospitality (“She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table”, 9:2). Similarly, as we have noted above, the Gospel calls us to eat “flesh and blood,” the whole person of Jesus, so that we might abide forever. John consistently emphasizes that this eating is real. The verb he uses (trogein) was “originally used of animals” and is reflected in translations like 'gnaw,' and 'munch.'” Jesus, this suggests, “is insisting on the genuine value of his flesh and blood as food and drink” (Brown, pp. 282-83).
The violent nature of this language requires that we consider the sacrificial element of Eucharistic eating. As Norman Wirzba comments, “As early Christian communities worked to come to terms with the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ they found the language and the grammar of sacrifice unavoidable. John's gospel (1:29) and Paul's letters (1 Cor. 5:7, Rom. 3:25) described Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” It is this theme, moreover, that delivers most benefit to the theology of care of creation (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 123).
Again Brown gathers up the important themes from our lections:
If vs. 51 echoes the theme of the Incarnation, it also seems to look to the death of Jesus, a theme traditionally associated with the Eucharist; for Jesus is to give his flesh for the life of the world . . . In vs. 32, we heard that it is the Father who gives the heavenly bread in the sense that the Son comes from the Father; but when the bread now becomes identified with the flesh of Jesus, he must give it himself. Jesus lays down his life of his own accord (x 18), and that voluntary death makes eucharistic participation in his flesh possible. At the beginning of the Gospel we heard Jesus acclaimed as the Passover Lamb who takes away the world's sin (I 29); now in the context of a discourse set at Passover time we hear that Jesus gives his flesh for the life of the world (Brown, p. 291).
Wirzba sets out the key significance of these themes for care of creation:
Christ is no mere scapegoat, nor is his death reducible to lessons people should learn about their implacable thirst for violence. Jesus' death speaks to God's way of being with the world and thus also to creation's inner meaning. On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life.
Legitimate concerns about the degradation and exploitation associated with the language of sacrifice, Wirzba suggests, cannot be allowed to obscure its theological significance for understanding creation. The “sacrificial logic of self-offering that is made evident on the cross was already at work at the foundation of the world” and so “characterizes all created life:”
Creation is an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest. Here, in the living and dying of creatures, in the seed that dies into the ground, we discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God's offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life. This power, however, is deeply paradoxical, “binding and bringing together what is broken and fragmented through a process which itself involves surrender and suffering . . . . Sacrifice is the supreme opus Dei, the working out of God's power to make holy and to make whole” (Wirzba, pp. 125-26; the quotation is from Ian C. Bradley, The Power of Sacrifice. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995).
Thus what takes place in the meal of the Eucharist is the restoration of creation. Eating of both kinds transforms the violence of the one into the self-giving sacrifice that restores life to the world.
Early church theologians appear to have grasped the significance of this transformation for our orientation to creation. Drawing insight from Aileen Guilding's thesis that the readings for the six weeks around Passover provide themes for the Bread of Life discourse, Brown notes interesting parallels between Genesis 3 and John 6:
Genesis iii 3 repeats God's warning from ii 17: “You shall not eat of the fruit of this tree . . . lest you die.” This may be contrasted with John vi: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven that a man may eat it and never die.”
Genesis iii 22 has God's decision to drive man out of the garden “ . . . lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat and live forever.' This may be contrasted with the invitation to eat the bread of life of which John vi 51 says, “If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever.”'
Gen ii 24 “So he drove man out.” in John vi; “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive out.”
The Church Fathers, Brown notes,
recognized this contrast between the bread of life and the forbidden fruit in Genesis; for example, Gregory of Nyssa (Great Catechism xxxvii; PG 456:93) presented the eucharistic bread as an antidote to the forbidden fruit. And if the bread of life in vss. 35-50 primarily represents the revelation and knowledge that Jesus brings from above, then it is not unlike the knowledge of good and evil that the first man hungered after (Brown, pp. 278-79).
These parallels lend substance to Brown's suggestion that a Passover sermon by Jesus may lie behind the Bread of Life Discourse. Our interest in them is the suggestion that the early theologians saw in Jesus' feeding of the crowds the antidote to the fall, which we understand to represent the refusal by human beings of the relationship intended by their creator to be servants in God's garden, in favor of mastery—which meant that they could “eat their fill” without limit (see our comments in this series on the readings for The First Sunday of Lent, Year A, and The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B). It is for the transformation of desire to live oriented entirely to self into a desire to abide with God, so that one might live in full communion with all God's creation, that Jesus gives the bread from heaven for “the life of the world.” To appropriate this “food” is to indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).