A good friend of mine recently described the transition she went through in the early 90s when she became a Roman Catholic.
An important part of her decision-making process was a particular, literal understanding of John chapter 6, where Jesus makes these stunning statements:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world… I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51, 53-56, NIV)
If we rule out the possibility that Jesus is speaking figuratively – and also take these verses in isolation – I can certainly see how a thoughtful person might get from here to the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine must literally and physically becomethe body and blood of Jesus.
However, as I tried to put the verses in context, I noticed something. There are several luminous parallels between Jesus’ dialogue with the Jewish crowd in John 6 and Jesus’ dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus in John 3. I believe these similarities shed significant light on whether or not we should understand the Lord’s words in John 6 figuratively or literally.
In both John 3 and John 6:
1. Jesus first states a spiritual truth in a physical way (“No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” – John 3:3 / “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh…” – John 6:51)
2. His audience then responds with incredulity, taking Jesus to be speaking in literal/physical terms, rather than figurative/spiritual ones (“How can a man be born when he is old?… Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” – John 3:4 / “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” – John 6:52 )
3. Jesus restates his original expression even more strongly (“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” – John 3:5 / “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” – John 6:53)
4. Jesus then expresses surprise that his hearers should be so offended. (“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” – John 3:7 / “Does this offend you?” – John 6:61)
No follower of Christ believes Jesus to be commanding a literal, physical rebirth in John 3. If, then, we understand Jesus to be speaking figuratively in John 3 – which my good friend and I both do – on what grounds do we reject a figurative reading of John 6, given the striking and surely intentional parallels between the two dialogues? (I think there are other good reasons for believing Jesus to be speaking figuratively here, but that’s for another post.)
Similarly, if we believe Jesus to be speaking in literal terms in John 6, why should we not adopt a similar understanding of John 3? If we insist that Jesus is advocating a literal eating and drinking of his physical body and blood, then on what grounds do we reject the idea that to be born again involves – excuse me for spelling this out so fulsomely – a literal re-entry into our mother’s birth canal (John 3:4)?
There is a final, telling similarity between the two chapters. During both, Jesus points out that spiritual life originates with the Holy Spirit, not with the flesh. In John 3:6, Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” And in John 6:63, Jesus says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.”
If the flesh cannot give us spiritual life, if it ”counts for nothing” as Jesus says, how can a literal ingestion of his flesh profit us anything?