"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

St. John 6:63

Miracle of the Bread and Fish
Giovanni Lanfranco (1620-1623)

"τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ ζῳοποιοῦν, ἡ σὰρξ οὐκ ὠφελεῖ οὐδέν: τὰ ῥήματα ἃ ἐγὼ λελάληκα ὑμῖν πνεῦμά ἐστιν καὶ ζωή ἐστιν."

"The Spirit is the one making alive, the flesh does not help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life."

Some people use John 6:63 to claim that Jesus did not really mean (in John 6:27-58) that we must actually eat His flesh and drink His blood. They say, "See, it is the Spirit that is important; the flesh doesn't help at all. Jesus doesn't think that we are saved by matter. What is important is that we have faith and believe in Him. He even says here that His words are Spirit and Life. That's what we should 'eat', His words. He doesn't mean that we need to eat His Body and drink His Blood in order to have eternal life, but simply to believe the words that He said, and believe in Him. This verse shows, they argue, that eating His Body and drinking His blood just means that we are to believe His words, by the work of His Spirit in our hearts. We are saved by faith alone, not by matter."

But this is a misunderstanding of John 6:63. In order to understand John 6:63 rightly, we have to keep 6:26 in mind. That verse says, "Jesus answered them and said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, because because you ate of the loaves, and were filled." The people were seeking Jesus because of the flesh, not the Spirit. That is, they wanted their bellies filled with more bread and fish. In John 6:63 Jesus is not saying that His flesh profits nothing. That would directly contradict everything He just said. He is saying that being led by our flesh [i.e. our bellies, the fleshly desires for the temporal things of this world] profits nothing. We cannot find true life that way. That is what Jesus had said in John 3:6 to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." True life comes by the work of the Holy Spirit, who opens our eyes and hearts to the things of the Spirit. The same sense of the term 'flesh' is used in John 8:15, where Jesus says, "You people judge according to the flesh."

We see this distinction [between what is of the flesh, and what is of the Spirit] even among the Twelve, in John 6:66-71, where John contrasts Peter and Judas. (Recall that Matthew tells us that Jesus said of Peter, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you" - Matthew 16:17.) We also see this same distinction in John 6:36-40, where Jesus is contrasting those who are given to Him by the Father with those who do not have faith. Those who do not have faith are still 'in the flesh'. We see this distinction again in John 6:44. Jesus is contrasting those who have faith, and believe in Him, with those who have the old covenant but do not have faith in Christ, who fulfills the old covenant.

So there are two distinct points being made here in this part of John 6. One is that if a person is merely in the flesh, and has not been given new life by the Spirit so as to believe in Christ, he cannot understand the things of the Spirit. The second point is that Christ Himself is the Bread of Life, such that if any man eats His flesh and drinks His blood, that man has eternal life. But that second point is only open [epistemically] to people who are not "in the flesh", that is, those who are not just following their carnal appetites, void of the Spirit. Unless a man is born again by the Spirit, what Christ says about Himself being the Bread of Life and people eating His flesh and drinking His blood becomes a stumbling block. (John 6:61) But if the Spirit quickens a man in his spirit, then he does not stumble over the "difficult statement" Jesus has given earlier in the chapter about "eating my flesh and drinking my blood".

In Romans 8:5 Paul writes,

"For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit."

And then in Romans 8:9 he writes, "So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."

In fact, the first part of Romans 8 is all about this distinction. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 2:14, Paul writes,

"But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised."

That is the idea that Jesus is communicating in the first part of John 6:63. He is not saying that His own flesh and blood does not give Life. He is saying that the Spirit opens a man to understand by faith how what Jesus has been saying about eating His flesh and drinking His blood is possible in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist. It makes no sense to the man without the Spirit, and is thus a cause of stumbling to those who do not see with the eyes of faith, given by the Spirit.

In John 6:62, He is saying, If you are already stumbling over my telling you that you have to eat my flesh and drink my blood, then how will you make sense of that when you see me ascend into heaven? His disciples, apparently, had been thinking that Jesus would cut Himself up into pieces, and give pieces of His body to them to eat. But they were still thinking carnally, not understanding that Jesus was not talking about cutting off pieces of His body, but rather about giving His body and blood to them sacramentally in the Eucharist, which He had yet to institute on the night in which He was betrayed.

In the second half of John 6:63, when Jesus says, "the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life", He is saying both that the meaning of His words is made known to us only by the Spirit, and that by abiding in His words (i.e. believing and obeying them, i.e. continuing in the Eucharist, and not separating ourselves from the Body of Christ) we remain in the Spirit and in the Life of Christ.