19 April 2017

Did Jesus Say His Flesh is Useless?

From Woman Receiving the Eucharist
by FĂ©lix-Joseph Barrias
Earlier this month I finished reading Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton at my local library. In one latter chapter I read about the Marburg Colloquy. An assembly of German and Swiss theologians were at a castle belonging to Philipp I of Hessen that overlooked the Lahn. Among the theologians were Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and Johannes Oekolampad. At the beginning of their discussion, Luther drew a circle upon a table using chalk and then he wrote inside of it, "This is my body." Oekolampad, not sharing Luther's eucharistic theology, stated those words of Jesus must be taken metaphorically rather than literally because Jesus' body is in Heaven and, "the flesh is useless." Zwingli also rejected a literal interpretation because he too believed, "the flesh is useless." According to them, Jesus doesn't give us His body to eat because it cannot benefit us being that it is flesh. Where did they get this idea from? Scripture, it seems!

In the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, we find a teaching from Jesus that was repugnant to apparently most of the original hearers in Capernaum:
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35, NRSV)
and:
Those who eat 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. (John 6:54–55, NRSV)
Many who were would-be disciples of Jesus quickly stopped following Him after they heard that teaching. They complained and said, "How can anyone accept it?" (John 6:60) In response, Jesus asked them if His teaching offended them and what would they think if they were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before. He could have "elucidated" His teaching to them, but He didn't.

He went on to say this:
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63, NRSV)
A Zwingli or Oekolampad might say, "Right there Jesus implied His teaching was metaphorical, for He said the spirit gives life and that the flesh is useless. Therefore, He does not give us His flesh to eat."

Personally I think Jesus' body is very far from useless. With His body He lived among people, preached to them, and performed miracles. With His body He was perfectly obedient to His Father, for us. With His body He made a sacrifice of atonement for our sins. With His body He conquered death and guaranteed our resurrection and glorification. When Jesus said, "The flesh is useless," He was obviously not talking about His own flesh but the nature of the natural person. That is what I for one gathered after reading the whole chapter!

Verse 63 concerns original sin rather than eucharistic theology. The would-be disciples did not accept Jesus' teaching on His body and blood because they like all natural people were inherently incapable of believing in Christ and accepting His words, and for that reason they did not receive life. Their flesh and ours is useless; the Father must send His Spirit to draw us to the Son!

You might ask, "What does it mean that Jesus' words that were spoken are spirit and life?" I would say they are spirit because they are the words of God rather than a natural person, and they are life because they produce life in those who gladly accept them. To believe in Him who is the bread of life is to have eternal life. Moreover, to worthily consume His body and blood in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is to be filled with eternal life.

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