Christ – The One and Only Sacrament (Part 5 of 5)

I have written on the previous three occasions of Markus Barth’s thoughts on the Lord’s Supper: its Jewish connection, its joyful fellowship centered on the sacrificial death of Christ, and its relevance to social ethics in the life of the church.  The final chapter of his Rediscovering the Lord’s Supper takes a look at perhaps the strongest biblical text for sacramentalism, John 6:26-58; sacramentalism being understood simply as a strong attribution of spiritual efficacy to the consumption of bread and wine.

John 6:26-34     Jesus’ discourse on working for food that does not perish

John 6:35-51a   Jesus’ affirmation of himself as the substance and the giver of the bread of life

John 6:51b-58   Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood

He begins by setting forth three areas where John appears to diverge from the perspective on the Lord’s Supper that the rest of the New Testament has:

  1. John is thought to most vividly emphasize the conflict between Jesus and the Jews.  While the Synoptics embrace Christ as the Jewish fulfillment (e.g. linkage of Lord’s Supper and Passover), Jesus attacks the Jews in the strongest language found in the Gospels , e.g. “You are of your father, the devil!”
  2. John is thought to create a different impression of the Lord’s Supper than 1 Corinthians 10-11.  For Paul, it’s a communal proclamation of the Lord’s death that should manifest a concern for the poor among the church. However, John 6 seems to indicate that individual consumption of bread and wine brings individual salvation.
  3. For John, the criterion of the faith in Christ that the rest of the New Testament announces seems to be faith in the sacramental meal.  One cannot have the former without embracing the latter.

To begin to assess John 6, Barth distinguishes four schools of thought on the chapter as it relates to the Lord’s Supper:

1. First school: John 6:27-51a should be interpreted spiritually (“true bread”, “bread of life”, “food that endures to eternal life”), while the sacrament is discussed in a materialistic fashion in vv.51b-58.

2. Second school: The entire John 6 passage speaks of the sacrament.  The eating and drinking is that of the sacrament.

3. Third school: verses 32-58 have spiritual as well as sacramental meaning.  All speak of faith in Christ and the miracle of the sacrament.

4. Fourth school: verses 32-58 is a depiction of the faith relationship to Christ alone.  Major adherents: Augustine, Zwingli, Adolf Schlatter. Note on Augustine: it is Barth’s contention that Augustine developed a high-sacramental theology from passages other than John 6.

Barth advocates the fourth view above and presents an alternative interpretation in this vein.  The Augustinian view of John 6 was held previously by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and later, by Zwingli and Luther’s Roman Catholic adversary Cajetan.  The sacramental perspective was advanced by Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Scholasticism, and much of the Protestant Reformation.  For Barth, from the second century onward, a strong sacramental theology of the Lord’s Supper was dominant in the church and Augustine non-sacramental understanding was a “voice in the wilderness”.  Augustine’s prominence is what kept a non-sacramental understanding of John 6 alive.  This led then Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin to “split the difference” between the two interpretations by advocating that the Eucharist had to be consumed in faith, for it to be effective.

So here’s Barth’s interpretation of John 6: there is ample biblical precedent for “dark speech” (parabolic, symbolic, figurative) and “plain talk” (literal).  Jesus calls himself “shepherd”, “light”, “vine” in John’s Gospel itself.  Interpreting John 6 as “plain talk” would mean that Jesus is either speaking of cannibalism or theophagy (the latter being “eating of a deity” present in some living creature, such as a bull).  Barth puts forward the idea that when Christ speaks of “flesh” and “blood” in a single context, this is a reference to his crucifixion.  So, then, the teaching here is that Jesus is the Bread of Life only by his death.  It is through his loss that we are fed spiritually.  This coheres well with the Good Shepherd giving his life for the flock, for the wheat bearing fruit by “dying” in the soil, etc.

So, if Jesus is metaphorically the “bread of life”, how are we to understand the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood?  According to Barth, the Bible contains two types of references where eating flesh and drinking blood play key roles:

  1. the sacrificial end-time meal where birds and animals are summoned by God to consume the enemies of Israel (Ezek 39:17-20); likewise, Revelation 16:6, 17:6, 16; 19:17-18, the victors over the believers eat the latter’s flesh and drink their blood.
  2. there is precedent of sacrificial meals in the Old Testament where the priest and offerers are given a share of the animal to consume.  Under all circumstances, the drinking of the blood is prohibited, life resides in the blood of the creature.  What we can conclude here is that this stands in opposition to the idea of the life of the animal being transferred to the worshiper, or the idea that life from God could be attained through a cultic action performed by a worshiper.  Barth’s conclusion is that we see figuratively that the life withheld during the time of OT sacrifices is now “available, given, and received” in Christ’s own sacrifice.

In summation, John 6:51-58 speaks of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice rather than the Lord’s Supper.  These verses give the believer a reason for thanksgiving (Greek, eucharisteo) for the actual sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

In Barth’s view, the most biblical use of “sacrament” is to see its fulfillment in Jesus Christ himself.  In other words, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper celebrate the one true sacrament who is Jesus Christ.  Luther is cited in his comment on Hebrews 2:3 and 10:19 that the term “sacrament” should be used exclusively for the death of Christ. Moreover, Luther wrote the following in 1520, “In the Holy Scriptures none of the seven sacraments is designated by the name ‘sacrament’.  The Holy Scriptures contain one sacrament only which is the Lord Jesus Christ himself”.  Barth admits that Luther departed from this stance in his later years.

I will conclude by offering a summary statement of Barth’s view of the Lord’s Supper: it is a holy meal for the people of God with both liturgical (bread and wine) and common elements (a full meal).  It is where communion with Christ can be enjoyed: in Barth’s words,

“the death of the one Jesus Christ concerns so fundamentally those sitting at the table that they accept that his death is their death; that his suffering makes them willing and capable of suffering with him; that his resurrection promises theirs; that their life is in him as he is in them – he is their life.”

And this meal serves as a proclamation of the crucified Christ, inviting and summoning all to faith in him.

I am strongly persuaded by Barth’s conclusions.

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