So we’ve launched into the ‘Spring Semester’ at the Augustine Institute in Colorado where I’m doing a Masters in Theology by distance. Oh man, if any of you are toying with the idea of really engaging in academic study of the faith – GO FOR IT! Campion College, Good Shepherd College, or the plethora of distance options further abroad…seriously.
This week we’ve been walking through a ‘big picture’ of the Catholic faith. In five lectures, Dr Edward Sri managed to present the faith from Creation to the Last Days, with Covenant, Divine Sonship, the Cross, a bit of Christology, Soteriology (how we are saved), Ecclesiology (the Church), sacraments, papacy, Mary, the Saints and much more in between…including helpful charitable refutation of various Protestant positions such as Penal Substitution and Justification…
I wanted to share his discussion on the Eucharist because it floored me – and I like to think I’ve read reasonably well about the Eucharist. Like any good Catholic theological study, and like Benedict XVI has tried to do with the theological arena, the Augustine Institute really tries to give students and integrated experience of both systematic/dogmatic theology and biblical/scriptural theology…Scripture remains at the heart of everything, and many of the issues in theology today seem to come about because systematic theologians (of which Benedict is one) stray so far from Scripture. Much to the appreciation of our Protestant kinfolk, Dr Sri is constantly referring us back to scripture and demonstrating the unity and the evidence to be found in Scripture…
Anyhow, I digress (ha, what’s new?!)…
Let’s talk about the Eucharist. So, if you have a bible handy…turn to John 6:35.
If anyone ever tries to suggest that the Eucharist is just a symbol, not really Jesus Christ’s flesh and blood…walk them through this passage.
After Jesus has just fed the five thousand, arguably the greatest miracle he performs, providing bread, no less, we then have verse 35 …”Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.”
Ok, great, still, could easily be speaking in metaphor. But check it out…
Verse 41…the Jews start complaining, or as Dr Sri explained, the better translation would be that they ‘mumble under their breath’ in the same way as the Israelites rebelled against Moses. “Like, seriously? This guy is bonkers…we know him, we know his parents…weirdo….”
A reaction like that would make much less sense if he had spoken in metaphor – metaphors and euphemisms are much easier to digest (no pun intended).
How does Jesus respond to their whinging?
Verse 43 – “Stop your whinging…” Verse 47-48 – “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”
Using words like ‘very truly’ – Dr Sri talks of this as covenantal language – the sign of the strongest possible promise that he’s serious, he means this, he’s not just talking symbols.
And he goes on… verse 51 – “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
What happens next? The Jews get even more infuriated – disputing among themselves. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” If he doesn’t seriously mean his own flesh, now would be the time to cut the prank: “Ha, ah, sorry guys, just kidding…I mean, this bread is a symbol of me, here, nourishing you like any helpful teacher…”
No, instead, what does Jesus reply?
“Very truly I tell you, [there it is again! that covenantal language!] unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.” (verse 53). In other words “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye…I ain’t kidding around with you…I mean exactly what I say…!”
As if that wasn’t enough to make his point, and this is where translation does us a dis-service, Jesus changes the sort of ‘eat’ that he refers to. In the Greek translation of scripture, up until and including verse 53, when it says ‘eat’ in the English translation, it refers to the Greek word ‘fogate’ (sp?) which usually means to eat in a physical sense but could perhaps be used metaphorically in some contexts.
In verse 54-57 however, Jesus starts using the word ‘trogo’ (sp?) which doesn’t really mean ‘eat’ anymore…it means gnaw, chew, masticate…in other words, “Those who gnaw/chew/masticate my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me…”
He keeps going…about the ancestors who ate manna in the desert etc…but I mean, seriously…if he was wanting to talk in metaphor and symbols, why on earth would his language get more intense, more explicit, more unbelievable?!
And that’s the point at which the disciples starting looking at him funny too. Until that point they knew they’d hit on the Messiah and realized this guy was pretty special. But once he started talking like that, they were raising their eyebrows.
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?….Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (v60 and 66).
I don’t know about you but a metaphor or symbol is a heck of a lot easier to accept than something so darn real like the Eucharist. The former is a lot easier to present to the world, and requires a lot less faith (if any at all). Would any disciples have dropped out on the basis of metaphor or symbolism? Not likely.
And then comes this passage that I’ve always loved – and now love even more – when Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them “What about you guys? Are you going to split as well?”
And Peter, who I’ve now discovered thanks to Dr Sri, is clearly the leader of the pack and there’s overwhelming scriptural evidence for this, says “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter, like us all, probably felt a bit dumbfounded too. I can’t explain it at all…it is a mystery…but I know there’s no other way to the fullness of the Truth.